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A most dangerous virtue

History tells us that blind obedience is not a credible defense

  • Fr William Grimm, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • July 26, 2012
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Monsignor William Lynn, former secretary for clergy in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in the United States, has been sentenced to prison for covering up sex abuse by priests under his supervision.

Though he knew that certain priests were a danger to children, he did not report them to the authorities, nor did he warn parishes to which those priests were assigned. As a result, children who otherwise would have been safe were sodomized.

The monsignor’s defense in court was that he was following the orders of his bishop, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who recently died, probably avoiding a criminal trial himself.

That defense brought to mind my high school days.

In 1960, Israeli agents kidnapped Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, where he had been living in hiding since the end of World War II, aided in his escape by a Franciscan friar and a bishop. Eichmann was the man in charge of logistics for what the Nazi authorities called Die Endlösung der Judenfrage, or the Final Solution of the Jewish Question. In other words, the solution to the existence of Jews.

Eichmann’s job was to organize the killing of every Jewish man, woman and child. He nearly succeeded.

At his trial in Jerusalem, Eichmann’s defense was that he was obeying the orders of his superiors and that absolved him of
responsibility.

Just months after that trial, I was a student in a school where many of my classmates’ parents had survived Eichmann’s efforts. One friend told me, "I know I should try to forgive, but whenever I see the number tattooed on my mother’s arm I know I never will."

The Nazi extermination program was largely staffed by good Protestant Christians who had been taught that St. Paul says civil authority is instituted by God and must be obeyed, and by good Catholic Christians who had been taught that the voice of a superior is the voice of God for us and must be obeyed.

I was taught that in a Catholic school before I went to that high school. I am ashamed to think that I even spouted such horrible irresponsibility to some of my friends. Yes, we were taught that we should not obey orders that were sinful, but the "default" was obedience because our superiors would supposedly know more than we and defying them put us in
danger of the sin of pride, the worst of all sins.

So, European Christians killed millions of Christ’s own people because they were virtuously obeying their superiors. And Msgr. Lynn facilitated the abuse of children because he was virtuously obeying his superior.

Msgr. Lynn is three years younger than I, and perhaps he was too young at the time to be aware of Eichmann’s trial or did not live in a situation where it was a topic of interest. So, perhaps he did not realize that his own defense was the same as the Nazi’s. Even so, it is reprehensible.

We cannot and must not abdicate moral responsibility for our actions or inactions by saying we were being virtuously obedient.

It is time that we Christians took a look at our attitude that obedience is a virtue, one so important as to be a hallmark of vowed Religious life.

Whatever it may have been in the past, in this day and age obedience is not a virtue. It is a dangerous abdication of our responsibility to serve God and others with our whole mind and heart.

Those in authority have the responsibility to offer guidance, but the rest of us have the responsibility to evaluate that guidance and make an intentional decision to follow it or not. Sometimes, we must even defy it. Anything less is to sell our souls to the one who in tempting Jesus claimed that all authority "has been given over to me."

Fr William Grimm MM, based in Tokyo, is the publisher of ucanews.com
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