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The Question of Obedience
by Father Paul L. Kramer


Perhaps the most common objection leveled against Father Gruner by his detractors is this: Father Gruner is "disobedient." Father Gruner should "obey" his bishop and "obey" the Holy Father—or words to that effect.
The simple answer to this objection is that Father Gruner has never disobeyed any legitimate command from any legitimate authority in the Church. In fact, his priestly life has been a life precisely of obedience—obedience to the Faith and obedience to his vows as a priest.
This objection to Father Gruner and his apostolate is founded on confusion about the nature of obedience. What is obedience? This is what one must understand before accusing anyone, including Father Gruner, of being "disobedient."
As Saint Thomas teaches, obedience is a special virtue consisting in one's readiness to follow the lawful command of one's lawful superior, when the superior is acting within the sphere of his authority. (Summa Theologica, II-II, 104.)
Despite what some people in the Church today suppose, obedience is not a theological virtue. Unlike faith, hope and charity, obedience does not have God as its object, but rather the command of one's human superior. Accordingly, it is nonsense to say, as some do, that one is not a Catholic if one does not "obey." One may indeed sin through disobedience to a human superior, but in committing that sin one remains a Catholic, as do Catholics who commit other sins which do not involve the loss of Faith. The matter involved in the precise sin of disobedience is failing to give a human superior what is due to him in justice. This is to be distinguished from sinning against faith (by heresy), sinning against hope (despairing of one's own salvation) or sinning against charity (by unkindness toward another).
So, three things must be present in order to establish a duty of obedience to one's human superior: (1) a lawful command, (2) by a lawful superior, (3) acting within the proper sphere of his authority. As Saint Thomas puts it most succinctly: "a subject is not bound to obey his superior if the latter command him to do something wherein he is not subject to him." To these three criteria must be added a fourth, from the basic moral law: the subject has a duty to obey the command of his superior unless he has a legitimate excuse from obedience, such as illness, impossibility or truly grave inconvenience.
Regarding the first criterion — that the command be lawful — the Church has always taught that one may not obey any command which is contrary to the law of God. As Saint Thomas says: "if the emperor commands one thing and God another, you must disregard the former and obey God." Likewise, Saint Peter teaches that "God must be obeyed rather than men."
All of this is really a matter of simple common sense. Let us consider some examples.
Example #1: A Bishop orders one of his priests to offer Mass every day — but in the cathedral of another Bishop. The command to offer Mass is lawful, and is given by a lawful superior, but it exceeds the Bishop's authority because he has no right to usurp another Bishop's cathedral.
Example #2: The Bishop of Diocese A orders a priest of Diocese B to say Mass every day in the cathedral of Diocese A. Here we have a lawful command — to say Mass every day — but the Bishop of Diocese A is not the lawful superior of the priest of Diocese B and, therefore, is acting outside the sphere of his authority.
Example #3: The Bishop of Diocese A orders a priest of Diocese B to use apple juice instead of wine for Mass. Here all of the first three criteria are violated: the command is unlawful (being contrary to the ordinance of God Himself), since no one has authority to substitute apple juice for the wine Our Lord Himself prescribed for the Sacrament of Holy Communion; the Bishop is not the lawful superior of the priest; and the Bishop is acting outside the sphere of his diocese.
Example #4: A Bishop orders his priest to celebrate Mass in some distant location in the diocese on a given Sunday, but the priest refuses to go because he has pneumonia and cannot even stand on his feet. Under the fourth criterion, the priest has a valid excuse from the duty of obedience based on illness. (He would also have an excuse based on impossibility.)
Example #5: A Bishop says to one of his priests, "It might be a good idea if you were to resign your post as pastor of a parish and be a chaplain at the cemetery." The priest does not go to the cemetery because, in this case, there is simply no command which requires obedience in the first place.
In none of these five hypothetical cases could the priest justly be accused of "disobedience." Either the superior exceeded the scope of his authority, or the superior was not a lawful superior, or the command itself was unlawful, or the priest had a valid excuse, or there was simply no command given. There can be different combinations of these factors in each case presenting a question of due obedience.
So, the question of "obedience" is not so simple as: a superior has spoken, therefore one must obey. Of course, in the common-sense experience of our own lives we know that obedience is never that simple. Yet in the case of Father Gruner, his detractors demand blind, unquestioning obedience without regard to facts or circumstances.
Now, let us apply these considerations to Father Gruner's particular case. According to his detractors, Father Gruner has "disobeyed" two alleged commands: First, the alleged command that he "return" to the Diocese of Avellino and abandon his apostolate after 23 years. Second, the alleged command of "the Holy Father" that no one must seek any longer the Consecration of Russia, since allegedly this has already been accomplished.
Concerning the first alleged command — that Father Gruner "return" to Avellino — an examination of the facts shows that no duty to obey this alleged command can possibly exist.

  • First, Father Gruner was incardinated in the Archdiocese of Hyderabad on November 4, 1995. The Archbishop of Hyderabad, whose decree of incardination declares that Father Gruner is doing "God's work" (including the support of an orphanage in the Archdiocese), affirmed the incardination in a March 1999 decree which states as follows:
    After due discernment, I am convinced that I am acting correctly though I was partly misled by influential people. I strongly feel that the good work he [Father Gruner] is doing in spreading devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary should not be hampered for the present, especially through undue canonical or juridical pressures. May Jesus Christ be praised!
    The Archbishop is here referring to the completely illicit and unprecedented efforts of certain elements of the Vatican Secretariat of State to use the Congregation for the Clergy to block Father Gruner's incardination by a whole series of benevolent bishops who wished to foster his apostolic work. Rightly resisting this interference in his prerogatives, the Archbishop proceeded to incardinate Father Gruner, so that the Bishop of Avellino no longer has jurisdiction over Father Gruner.
    Second, the ostensible basis for demanding that Father Gruner "return" to Avellino is the claim of Cardinal Castrillón Hoyos and his predecessors at the Congregation for the Clergy that Father Gruner's conduct of an apostolate in Canada while being incardinated elsewhere is an "irregular condition" which must be "corrected." But the alleged offense of having an "irregular condition" does not exist under Church Law. Thousands of priests engage in apostolates or other full-time activities outside the dioceses of their incardination, and not one of them is accused of having an "irregular condition." The Code of Canon Law says nothing about "irregular condition." On the contrary, the Code says diocesan priests like Father Gruner have a God-given right to join or establish private associations of the faithful. (Canons 278, 299)
    The offense of having an "irregular condition" is, therefore, a pure invention. It makes no more sense than citing a motorist for "irregular driving" when there is no violation of any specific provision of the motor vehicle code. In short, there is simply no basis for punishing Father Gruner by ordering him to "return" to Avellino — even if the Bishop of Avellino had jurisdiction over Father Gruner, which he does not.
    Third, even if the Bishop of Avellino had jurisdiction, and even if there were such a thing as an "irregular condition" warranting Father Gruner's "return" to Avellino, the command to "return" is patently illegal. Father Gruner cannot simply take up permanent residence in Italy. He is a Canadian citizen who would be arrested and deported at the Italian border if he entered the country in order to reside there without a proper permanent resident visa. The only way he could gain entry into Italy without a proper visa is to lie and say he was entering only as a tourist for a brief visit.
    Over the past 23 years the Bishop of Avellino has taken no steps whatsoever to obtain a visa for Father Gruner, which would require (among other things) the Bishop's written guarantee of financial support, medical coverage and old age pension for Father Gruner. The Bishop of Avellino has provided not one penny of support to Father Gruner over the past 23 years and shows no signs of guaranteeing such support now or doing anything else to obtain a visa for Father Gruner's "return" to Avellino. Why? Because the Bishop clearly has no interest in Father Gruner's "return," which is being engineered entirely by the Vatican Secretariat of State through its instrument, the Congregation for the Clergy. It is impossible to cover the details of this scheme in this document. Please consult the 77-page apologia for Father Gruner, which contains citations to the documents and other evidence proving the activities of the Vatican Secretariat of State in this regard. Call the Fatima Center for your free copy.
    The Church binds herself to observe applicable civil law, including Italian law on immigration. (See Canon 22, 1983 Code of Canon Law.) Thus, the order to "return" to Avellino violates both civil and Church law. The order is legally impossible to obey.
    Fourth, the Church in her mercy recognizes that "no one can be punished for the commission of an external violation of a law or precept [i.e., particular command] unless it is gravely imputable by reason of malice or culpability." (Can. 1321, §1) Since the precept that Father "return" to Avellino is based upon a concocted offense which does not exist in the law of the Church — the so-called "irregular condition" — and since the precept is manifestly void because it violates Italian law and thus Church law (per Canon 22), there can be no valid punishment of Father Gruner. Neither malice nor culpability is "gravely imputable" to him under Canon 1321 since the command to "return" to Avellino is based on nothing, and is in any event legally impossible to obey.
    Fifth, even if there were some legitimate basis for ordering Father Gruner to return to Avellino, and even if this command were not legally impossible to obey, Father Gruner would nonetheless be excused from obedience. While Father Gruner's persecutors in the Vatican Secretariat of State may show no mercy, the law of Holy Mother Church does. Thus, the Code of Canon Law provides that no one may be punished for violating a precept if "necessity or grave inconvenience" prevents compliance. (Can. 1323, §2) A commonplace example from your own experience as laymen is that you are excused from the law of the Church requiring attendance at Mass on Sunday if illness or some other reason makes it necessary not to go to Mass, or at least gravely inconvenient to do so.
    Of necessity, Father Gruner cannot "obey" a precept which would require him to violate Italian immigration law. Also, the precept would manifestly cause "grave inconvenience" in that it would require Father Gruner to destroy his entire life's work, abandon the apostolate and its 150 employees (along with the orphanage in India), leave behind his home and personal affairs, and take up residence as an illegal alien in a foreign diocese which has made no provision for his support, medical care and old age, and where he would be a virtual prisoner for life without any canonical mission. (The very reason Father Gruner was given permission to live in Canada back in 1978 is that he cannot speak the obscure dialect of Avellino and could never be a parish priest there. The Bishop of Avellino was quite willing to have Father Gruner go elsewhere.)
    Sixth, standing above all these considerations, as compelling as they are, is the most important of all: the salvation of souls, which is the highest law of the Church. Father Gruner cannot in conscience "obey" a dishonestly contrived, patently illegal and shockingly unjust order which would not only work his personal ruination but would threaten the existence of a legitimate apostolate that preaches the Gospel, promotes Catholic devotions and sacramental helps, has benefitted countless thousands of souls, and defends the integral Message of Fatima, which, as Our Lady Herself said, was given to men as an aid to the salvation of souls in our time. Moreover, this is not just Father Gruner's judgment but the judgment of no fewer than three benevolent bishops who wished to incardinate him with permission to continue his work. These include the Archbishop of Hyderabad, who rightly declares that "undue canonical or juridical pressures" by the Vatican bureaucracy should not be allowed to interfere with a valid, important and totally permissible apostolic work.

Returning to our four criteria for the existence of a duty to obey a given command, we can see that, in view of these facts, there is no duty to obey the alleged command to "return" to Avellino —
  • The command is not lawful. It violates civil law, Church law and the highest law of all: the salvation of souls. In essence, there is no command at all because the command is void. Moreover, the pretext for the command is a concocted offense — "irregular condition" — which does not even exist in Church law. The alleged offense has no more validity than the aforementioned citation for "irregular driving" when no motor vehicle law has been violated.
  • The command was not given by Father Gruner's lawful superior, who is the Archbishop of Hyderabad — not the Bishop of Avellino.
  • The command is thus outside the sphere of the Bishop of Avellino's authority.
  • Even if there were a valid command, Father Guner would be excused from obedience because the command is morally and legally impossible to obey, or at the very least "gravely inconvenient" as envisioned in can. 1323.

In sum, Father Gruner cannot be punished for "disobeying" a void order, issued as punishment for an offense which does not exist; nor for "failing" to do what is illegal, impossible, or even gravely inconvenient. The baseless precept to "return" to Avellino is all of these. Under the law of the Church itself, therefore, Father Gruner has no duty to obey the command to "return" to Avellino, and any penalty imposed for "disobedience" would be of no effect before God and the Church.
What is more, when a superior commands something that is contrary to justice and the common good of the Church, Catholic theology teaches that a subject may licitly resist the unjust and harmful command. Here too we are dealing with a matter of common sense: a ruler, even in the Church, may be opposed when he abuses his authority and seeks to cause harm. As just one of many examples of this teaching, the eminent theologian Francisco de Suarez, praised by Saint Pius V as a "pious doctor" of the Church, rightly observed that even if the Pope "tries to do something manifestly opposed to justice and to the common good, it would be licit to resist him." All the more so a local bishop, or a member of a Vatican congregation, who is abusing his authority. Granted, the question of resistance to a superior's command is a matter of conscience and personal judgment in which one can err. But the moral principle of this licit resistance is undeniable, and the evidence is clear that Father Gruner has good grounds for resistance and has not erred in following his conscience here. At any rate, this is between him and God, not him and his self-appointed judges in the Catholic press.
Now we turn to the second of the alleged commands that Father Gruner is accused of "disobeying" — the alleged command of "the Holy Father" that one must no longer ask for the Consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary because allegedly this has already been done.
Quite simply, there is no such command and thus no duty of obedience. The Holy Father has never "commanded" nor even said in any binding public pronouncement to the Church that the Consecration was accomplished in 1984, 1982, or at any other time. Quite the contrary, both during and after the 1984 consecration ceremony the Pope spontaneously added to the prepared text a phrase clearly indicating that he himself considered that the specific consecration of Russia has yet to be accomplished. Before 200,000 people in Saint Peter's Square, after he had pronounced the words of the consecration formula, the Pope declared to the Virgin Mary Herself: "Enlighten especially the people whose consecration and entrusting You are awaiting from us."(1) Three hours later, before 10,000 witnesses inside Saint Peter's Basilica, His Holiness referred again to "those peoples for whom You Yourself are awaiting our act of consecration and entrusting."(2)
Why would the Pope say that the Virgin was still awaiting the consecration of Russia if the consecration had just been done? We now have important evidence which confirms what Father Gruner and many others have long suspected: the Pope spoke as he did because his advisors have counseled him not to consecrate Russia by name. A recent article in Inside the Vatican magazine reveals that a Cardinal described as "one of the Pope's closest advisors" advised His Holiness not to make mention of Russia in any consecration ceremony because this would offend the Russian Orthodox.3 It seems clear, then, that in 1984 the Pope was trying to signal to the world that the Consecration had been deferred, based upon this (extremely bad) advice to him. What else could the Holy Father's spontaneous comments possibly mean?
Therefore, "the Holy Father" has commanded absolutely nothing concerning whether the Consecration has been done or whether the faithful, including Father Gruner, may continue to request it. This charge of "disobedience" against Father Gruner is specious and dishonest.
We ought to consider here a related accusation against Father Gruner: that in continuing to petition for the Consecration of Russia he is being "disrespectful" and "disloyal" to the Holy Father, because the Holy Father (so the accusers say) believes that he has done the consecration. A simple analogy suffices to demonstrate the folly of those who make this accusation.
Let us suppose there is a large ocean liner, which we shall call the Titanic. A lowly deckhand realizes that the captain of the Titanic has been given inaccurate information by his ship's officers about the location of icebergs in the sea lane the Titanic is traversing. In fact, the deckhand discovers that the most recent dispatch on the location of icebergs has been tossed in the garbage and forgotten. The deckhand tries to call the captain's attention to the discarded dispatch and to warn him of the danger of the icebergs; the ship's officers upbraid the deckhand for his insolence. They accuse him of being disrespectful and disloyal to the captain and undermining their own authority and prestige by questioning the safety of the Titanic's course. The ship's officers refuse to convey the deckhand's urgent pleas to the captain and threaten to throw the deckhand in the brig if he persists in his attempts to speak to the captain. Soon the Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks, and the lives of many passengers are lost.
Which member of the crew was truly loyal to the captain? Obviously, the lowly deckhand who tried to get the correct information into the captain's hands and warn him of the danger if the information were disregarded. As for the ship's officers, their professed loyalty to the captain was a false loyalty, and in fact a form of pride.
If Father Gruner and the millions of Catholics who share his convictions are right, then true loyalty and respect for the Holy Father require that they continue to petition him for the consecration of Russia, by name, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. For if the Virgin spoke the truth — and She cannot lie to us — then the failure to heed Her message at Fatima poses a danger infinitely greater than the iceberg which sank the Titanic. Nor can we be expected to ignore that danger out of a false human respect for the prestige and authority of Vatican advisors who tell the Pope that the Bark of Peter has clear sailing ahead.
Those who continue to pursue the Consecration of Russia, including Father Gruner, are acting reasonably upon the basis of empirical evidence which looms as large as any iceberg in the sea. As Saint Thomas teaches, contra factum non argumentum est — against a fact there is no argument. And the facts are that in the 17 years which have elapsed since the alleged "consecration" of 1984 there has not only been no conversion of Russia, but a continued dramatic decline in her spiritual, moral and material condition. It is the height of absurdity to contend that we must "obey" the suggestion that a nation which aborts 3.5 million children each year, whose population is dwindling at an alarming rate, and whose laws prohibit the Catholic Church from seeking converts, establishing dioceses, or even having permanent resident priests and bishops (unless they marry Russian women!) is a nation where the Immaculate Heart of Mary is triumphant. This is not only absurd, but blasphemous. And no argument from authority by Vatican bureaucrats, no matter how high their offices, can negate the facts before our very eyes.
Finally, it is worth noting that those who profess such indignation over the "disobedience" of Father Gruner tend to show very little, if any, concern about the priests and even bishops who promote or tolerate heresy or commit unspeakable scandal in dioceses throughout the world. This is not even to mention the vast majority of laity who call themselves Catholic but follow only those Catholic teachings with which they happen to agree. The Pope himself has decried this situation in his recent letter to the German Cardinals. The same situation obtains throughout the Catholic world.
With the Church in the throes of what can only be called a growing apostasy, why are Father Gruner's detractors spending so much time deriding a Marian priest who has kept the Faith and kept his vows, a priest who does what the Archbishop of Hyderabad rightly describes as "God's work"? If Father Gruner's critics were really concerned about the problem of obedience in the Church today, they would be turning their attention to the many clerics who really are disobedient, and who at this very moment are inflicting innumerable wounds upon the Mystical Body. As it is, their obsession with Father Gruner bespeaks a different agenda — one that has nothing to do with the common good of the Church and the salvation of souls.

Footnotes

1. L'Osservatore Romano, March 27, 1984, pp. 1, 6.
2. Avvenire, March 27, 1984, p. 11.
3. Inside the Vatican, Nov. 30, 2000.

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