If a brother is given a difficult or impossible command, let him nevertheless receive the order with all meekness and obedience. If, however, he sees that the burden of the command is entirely beyond his strength, let him quietly (and at the appropriate time) submit the reasons for his inability to his Superior—without pride, protest, or dissent. If, however, after hearing the brother’s explanation, the Superior still insists on his command, the monk should trust that his superior knows what is best for him and obey out of love, relying on God’s help.
Note that the default attitude for a monk is unhesitating obedience—even when he is told to do something impossible, he must obey. This is a particularly hard concept for the modern mind to grasp. It smacks of “radicalism” and “blind faith.” We start thinking of cult leaders and Nazis and we begin to ask ourselves questions like: “If the pope said black was white, would I believe it? What if my bishop told me to kill someone? What if the Church taught something that I didn’t agree with?” But here we must make a crucial distinction between unhesitating obedience and unquestioning obedience.
Benedict expects his monks to do what they’re told, but he expects them to question their superior. So it must be with anyone who is put in authority over us, whether that’s a parent, a bishop, a teacher or a pope. We are expected to question and analyze…even to challenge them when we think they’re wrong. But defiance and rebellion are out of the question, and skepticism shouldn’t be the norm. It may help to think of the Church as an army. You want a soldier to challenge his superior if he is given a truly immoral or impossible command. It may even be his moral duty to disobey if that command is truly heinous—like executing civilians or torturing prisoners. However, you can’t have the troops questioning every order. In fact, you may legitimately expect a soldier to obey an order even when he disagrees with it. When the captain shouts “Charge!” he can’t then sit down with every grunt and explain his rationale.
So for the Catholic, at any rate, it all boils down to this: you have to decide ahead of time whether you trust Her. If you think she’s right about, say, transubstantiation and the Trinity, then, unless there is a deep violation of your conscience, you’ve got to trust Her on the other stuff too. What’s more, it may be the case that this is not so much a violation of your conscience as a case of having two consciences—one that says, “I’m a Catholic” and one that says, “I think such-and-such.” Distinguishing between these two consciences can be a grueling exercise, but my senior Theology students came up with a way to make that process easier. Consider the following:
No matter how much time you spend thinking about it, the sum total of your wisdom will not add up to more than the sum total of the Church’s wisdom. You aren’t holier than Mother Theresa. You aren’t smarter than Thomas Aquinas. You aren’t wiser than Saint Francis. And you aren’t older than the Church. But now you say that you are right, and the entire Catholic Church—all its saints, theologians, and bishops are wrong? Sure, a particular cleric or parent may be in error, but the whole Church? If it’s a matter of doctrine, the odds are not in your favor.
Here again, Saint Benedict is talking about humility. Are you willing to admit that you are not the ultimate authority?