It doesn’t mean what he thinks it means…

What is the ‘True Obedience’ Demanded by the First Vatican Council? An Answer for Kennedy Hall

The papal keys bind all — including Kennedy Hall

On Feb. 9, 2024, the Canadian writer and YouTuber Kennedy Hall wrote on the web site of Crisis Magazine:

It is all the rage as of late to discuss the “False Spirit of Vatican I” as a way of understanding the cult-like mentality that so many Catholics have imbibed regarding the limits of papal power. Granted, we can admit of a false spirit of Vatican I because there is a true spirit of Vatican I. As problematic as some extensions of papal infallibility and power may be, if we read the documents of Vatican I we find that the doctrines in question are clearly defined, as the Council speaks of “true obedience” to papal authority, which clearly shows us that there is a false obedience. Therefore, we can justly say there is a false spirit because the true spirit is defined without ambiguity.

(Kennedy Hall, “The Never-Ending Debate Over Vatican II”, Crisis Magazine, Feb. 9, 2024; italics given.)

The text of the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) to which Hall is referring is the following:

Furthermore We teach and declare that the Roman Church, by the disposition of the Lord, holds the sovereignty of ordinary power over all others, and that this power of jurisdiction on the part of the Roman Pontiff, which is truly episcopal, is immediate; and with respect to this the pastors and the faithful of whatever rite and dignity, both as separate individuals and all together, are bound by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, not only in things which pertain to faith and morals, but also in those which pertain to the discipline and government of the Church spread over the whole world, so that the Church of Christ, protected not only by the Roman Pontiff, but by the unity of communion as well as of the profession of the same faith is one flock under the one highest shepherd. This is the doctrine of Catholic truth from which no one can deviate and keep his faith and salvation.

(Vatican I, Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, Chapter 3; Denz. 1827; underlining added.)

It is Hall’s contention that the “true obedience” demanded by the council is to be contrasted with “false obedience” that accepts and submits to even such things as are contrary to God’s Law or the Deposit of Faith.

But is that so? Let’s investigate.

True Obedience contrasted with False Obedience

The phrase “true obedience” has become a favorite for semi-traditionalists like Hall, that is, for those who espouse the popular ‘recognize-and-resist’ position (as in: recognizing the Vatican II ‘popes’ as valid while resisting their false teachings). Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, one of the main semi-trad thought leaders whom we have refuted over and over again on this blog, even published a book entitled, True Obedience in the Church (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2021).

The term “true obedience” as used by these writers basically means a readiness to obey our lawful superiors in all things but sin. This is certainly a legitimate use of the term “true obedience”; for to obey someone who orders us to sin would clearly be a false obedience, since divine law trumps any human command, and “we ought to obey God, rather than men” (Acts 5:29). All authority ultimately derives from God and therefore could never legitimately be used to command what offends God. Consequently, to disobey a sinful human command is an act of obedience to God.

In his famous Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas treats of the virtue of obedience in Question 104 of the Second Part of the Second Part. Article 5 is of particular relevance for us, as it concerns itself with the question whether we must obey our human superiors in all things:

Since he is but a man, even a legitimate Pope could issue a sinful command to someone. For example, he could tell a Vatican employee to steal, lie, or commit murder. Obviously, in such a case the janitor would have to disobey the Pope:

What the Pope could not do, however (because God would not allow it), is to establish a law requiring or permitting all Catholics to commit sin, or to publish an encyclical teaching the entire Church that fraud, adultery, or murder are not sins, are not contrary to God’s commandments:

Certainly the loving Mother [the Church] is spotless in the Sacraments, by which she gives birth to and nourishes her children; in the faith which she has always preserved inviolate; in her sacred laws imposed on all; in the evangelical counsels which she recommends; in those heavenly gifts and extraordinary graces through which, with inexhaustible fecundity, she generates hosts of martyrs, virgins and confessors.

(Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Mystici Corporis, n. 66)

…as if the Church which is ruled by the Spirit of God could have established discipline which is not only useless and burdensome for Christian liberty to endure, but which is even dangerous and harmful and leading to superstition and materialism.

(Pope Pius VI, Bull Auctorem Fidei, n. 78; Denz. 1578)

…[T]he discipline sanctioned by the Church must never be rejected or be branded as contrary to certain principles of natural law. It must never be called crippled, or imperfect or subject to civil authority. In this discipline the administration of sacred rites, standards of morality, and the reckoning of the rights of the Church and her ministers are embraced.

(Pope Gregory XVI, Encyclical Mirari Vos, n. 9)

This divine assistance to the Papacy we find not only taught in her official magisterium, however; we also see it borne out in Church history, quite independent of the malice, weakness, or simple unworthiness of the man who happens to hold the office at any given point in time.

Consider, for example, the case of Pope Benedict IX (r. 1032-1048):

The dignity of the supreme power [=Papacy] did not alter the morals of the newly elected Pope [Benedict IX]. In his private life the pursuit of pleasures and the love of wealth remained his great passions; in his public life he became the willing tool of his family’s greed and the Emperor’s despotism. But, as in the case of John XII, we should observe that Benedict IX never tried to give doctrinal approval to his conduct. His official teaching was the condemnation of his life. God, to make conspicuously clear that sinister consequences follow when the civil power interferes in the choice of His pontiffs, allowed corruption to reach even to the throne of St. Peter in the person of an unworthy pope. But He did not permit that a single line of such a pope’s bullarium should bring the least discredit upon the Church.

(Fr. Fernand Mourret, A History of the Catholic Church, vol. IV [St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1947], pp. 122-123; underlining added.)

Thus Pope Leo XIII taught beautifully:

…the Church has received from on high a promise which guarantees her against every human weakness. What does it matter that the helm of the symbolic barque has been entrusted to feeble hands, when the Divine Pilot stands on the bridge, where, though invisible, He is watching and ruling? Blessed be the strength of his arm and the multitude of his mercies!

(Pope Leo XIII, Allocution to Cardinals, March 20, 1900; excerpted in Papal Teachings: The Church, p. 349.)

Likewise, Pope Pius XII proclaimed:

The Pope has the divine promises; even in his human weaknesses, he is invincible and unshakable; he is the messenger of truth and justice, the principle of the unity of the Church; his voice denounces errors, idolatries, superstitions; he condemns iniquities; he makes charity and virtue loved.

(Address Ancora Una Volta, Feb. 20, 1949)

More details on the issue of even gravely immoral Popes being nevertheless orthodox in their magisterium, please see the following articles on this web site:

We can thus conclude from the evidence given that although Popes can issue sinful commands to their inferiors, God will never allow it to happen that they should sully with false teachings, evil laws, false canonizations, etc. the official exercise of their exalted office — whether in matters of doctrine, law, or worship.

Were it otherwise, it would create an impossible situation that would completely undermine the Papacy and therefore the Church — as demonstrated by St. Robert Bellarmine, the ‘Doctor of the Papacy’ the fathers of Vatican I relied upon heavily:

…the Pontiff is the shepherd and teacher of the whole Church; therefore, the whole Church is bound to hear him and to follow him; therefore, if he errs, the whole Church will err. They [our adversaries] will respond that the Church must hear him, if he teaches rightly, otherwise God should be listened to more than men.

But I object to that; for, who will judge whether the Pontiff is teaching correctly or not? For it is not the part of the sheep to judge whether the shepherd errs or not; especially in matters truly doubtful. And Christian sheep do not have another major judge or teacher to whom they can appeal. For, as we showed above in book 2, chapters 13 and 14, from the whole Church one can appeal to the Pontiff, but there is no appeal from him. Necessarily, therefore, the whole Church will err, if the Pontiff errs.

(St. Robert Bellarmine, De Romano Pontifice, Book IV, Chapter 3; Fr. Kenneth Baker translation, p. 963. Alternate translation by Ryan Grant. [#CommissionLinks])

In other words, the submission Catholics owe to the Roman Pontiff is of such a kind that if he were to teach false doctrines, the entire Church would necessarily be misled, for the faithful would certainly imbibe them, to the grave danger of their souls.

Notice that St. Robert does not bring up the ‘solution’ of the semi-trads: Just disobey and resist the errors, follow Tradition, and attach yourself to a cleric you trust! No, a lower authority cannot overrule the higher; and there is no higher authority on earth than the Pope. Not even the much-touted appeal to ‘Tradition’ can trump the Sovereign Pontiff!

True Obedience contrasted with Pretended Obedience

Having seen one reasonable sense in which the term “true obedience” can be understood, it is clear that this cannot be the sense employed by Vatican I, for it would blasphemously imply and insinuate that the Catholic Church, which is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15), could impose doctrines, laws, or sacramental rites that are heretical or pernicious to souls in some other way, and from which the faithful would have the duty to protect themselves.

This, as we saw, is ruled out by Catholic doctrine:

In the Catholic Church Christianity is incarnate. It identifies itself with that perfect, spiritual, and, in its own order, sovereign society, which is the mystical body of Jesus Christ and which has for its visible head the Roman Pontiff, successor of the Prince of the Apostles. It is the continuation of the mission of the Saviour, the daughter and the heiress of His redemption. It has preached the Gospel, and has defended it at the price of its blood, and strong in the Divine assistance, and of that immortality which have been promised it, it makes no terms with error, but remains faithful to the commands which it has received to carry the doctrine of Jesus Christ to the uttermost limits of the world and to the end of time and to protect it in its inviolable integrity.

(Pope Leo XIII, Apostolic Letter Annum Ingressi; underlining added)

As a 19th-century dogmatic theology professor at the Catholic University of America notes in the following excerpt, true obedience is owed to the very ecclesiastical authority which provides for doctrinal security — and that can hardly mean “true obedience” in the recognize-and-resist sense:

Finally, the Catholic theologian will not confound … an infallible decision of the Church with a doctrinal precept, which, though emanating from the supreme authority, being, for example, a decree of the Holy Sce, does not exact an act of faith, but only what theologians call the “assensus religiosus” [religious assent]. For, on the one hand this precept comes, in the case supposed, from that authority which provides for the security of a doctrine — an authority to which the Catholic owes true obedience; — and, on the other hand, the Church does not exercise her power in all its intensity, i.e., by an infallible judgment.

(Mgr. Joseph Schroeder, “Theological Minimizing and Its Latest Defender”, American Ecclesiastical Review vol. 4, n. 1 [Jan., 1891], p. 117; italics given; underlining added.)

The question we must ask, therefore, is what is meant by “true obedience” as it appears in the conciliar dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus, according to which, as we saw above, “the pastors and the faithful of whatever rite and dignity, both as separate individuals and all together, are bound by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience, not only in things which pertain to faith and morals, but also in those which pertain to the discipline and government of the Church spread over the whole world….”

Perusing the papal magisterium, we find that the submission owed to the Pope is repeatedly described as sincere, internal, filial, and complete/perfect/absolute.

For example, we find Pope Pius VI explaining that obedience to the Pope must be sincere:

Must we call fanatic so many solemn decrees, so often renewed, of Popes and Councils, where are to be found the condemnation of those who deny that in blessed Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, the Roman Pontiff, his successor, has been appointed by God, the visible Head of the Church and the Vicar of Jesus Christ; that plenary power has been given to him to govern the Church; that all those who bear the name of Christian owe him a sincere obedience; and that such is the virtue of that primacy which he possesses by divine right that he is above all other bishops, not only by reason of the honor of his rank, but also by reason of the extent of his supreme power?

(Pope Pius VI, Bull Super Soliditate against Febronianism; underlining added.)

Pope Clement XI notes that the obedience demanded by Catholic orthodoxy is interior and therefore is not satisfied by merely remaining silent, that is, by not contradicting the Church outwardly:

In order that, for the future, every occasion of error may be prevented, and that all sons of the Catholic Church may learn to listen to the Church herself, not in silence only (for, “even the wicked are silent in darkness” [1 Samuel 2:9]), but with an interior obedience, which is the true obedience of an orthodox man, let it be known that by this constitution of ours, to be valid forever, the obedience which is due to the aforesaid apostolic constitutions is not satisfied by any obsequious silence….

(Pope Clement XI, Apostolic Constitution Vineam Domini Sabaoth; Denz. 1350; underlining added.)

Nor is true obedience given when one chooses to give assent externally by words but nevertheless withholds it inwardly. In his Apostolic Letter Est Sane Molestum, Pope Leo XIII makes clear: “The true and sincere virtue of obedience is not satisfied with words; it consists above all in submission of mind and heart.” We might add that Pope St. Pius X himself endorsed this letter by quoting it in his encyclical Tribus Circiter.

Pope Leo contrasts true submission also with a pseudo-obedience that prefers to obey the Popes of the past at the expense of the reigning Pope:

Similarly, it is to give proof of a submission which is far from sincere to set up some kind of opposition between one Pontiff and another. Those who, faced with two differing directives, reject the present one to hold to the past, are not giving proof of obedience to the authority which has the right and duty to guide them; and in some ways they resemble those who, on receiving a condemnation, would wish to appeal to a future council, or to a Pope who is better informed.

(Pope Leo XIII, Apostolic Letter Epistola Tua)

To the prelates of France, Pope Pius IX speaks of obedience as having to be filial and complete:

Therefore, because of your special faith in the Church and special piety toward the same Chair of Peter, We exhort you to direct your constant efforts so that the faithful people of France may avoid the crafty deceptions and errors of these plotters and develop a more filial affection and obedience to this Apostolic See. Be vigilant in act and word, so that the faithful may grow in love for this Holy See, venerate it, and accept it with complete obedience; they should execute whatever the See itself teaches, determines, and decrees.

(Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Inter Multiplices, n. 7; underlining added.)

Likewise, Pope Pius XII instructs the Catholics of China that they must be completely subject to the Pope:

In fact, even then, as you well know, it will be entirely necessary for your Christian community, if it wishes to be part of the society divinely founded by our Redeemer, to be completely subject to the Supreme Pontiff, Vicar of Jesus Christ on earth, and be strictly united with him in regard to religious faith and morals. With these words — and it is well to note them — is embraced the whole life and work of the Church, and also its constitution, its government, its discipline. All of these things depend certainly on the will of Jesus Christ, Founder of the Church.

(Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Ad Sinarum Gentem, n. 11; underlining added.)

Pope Leo XIII calls this complete obedience perfect and emphasizes that it is not restricted merely to dogmatic pronouncements or doctrinal matters but encompasses everything the Apostolic See prescribes:

Union of minds, therefore, requires, together with a perfect accord in the one faith, complete submission and obedience of will to the Church and to the Roman Pontiff, as to God Himself. This obedience should, however, be perfect, because it is enjoined by faith itself, and has this in common with faith, that it cannot be given in shreds; nay, were it not absolute and perfect in every particular, it might wear the name of obedience, but its essence would disappear….

In defining the limits of the obedience owed to the pastors of souls, but most of all to the authority of the Roman Pontiff, it must not be supposed that it is only to be yielded in relation to dogmas of which the obstinate denial cannot be disjoined from the crime of heresy. Nay, further, it is not enough sincerely and firmly to assent to doctrines which, though not defined by any solemn pronouncement of the Church, are by her proposed to belief, as divinely revealed, in her common and universal teaching, and which the [First] Vatican Council declared are to be believed “with Catholic and divine faith.” But this likewise must be reckoned amongst the duties of Christians, that they allow themselves to be ruled and directed by the authority and leadership of bishops, and, above all, of the Apostolic See.

(Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Sapientiae Christianae, nn. 22, 24)

For further evidence, we can cite the same Pope Leo, who prescribes an “absolute devotion and obedience” not only to the Papacy in the abstract, but to the reigning Roman Pontiff quite concretely, as a requirement for all Catholics:

As to the Catholic people, before everything else it is necessary that they should be instructed as to the true state of things in Italy with regard to religion, the essentially religious character of the conflict in Italy against the Pontiff, and the real object constantly aimed at, so that they may see by the evidence of facts the many ways in which their religion is conspired against, and may be convinced of the risk they run of being robbed and spoiled of the inestimable treasure of the faith. — With this conviction in their minds, and having at the same time a certainty that without faith it is impossible to please God and to be saved, they will understand that what is now at stake is the greatest, not to say the only interest, which every one on earth is bound before all things, at the cost of any sacrifice, to put out of danger, under penalty of everlasting misery. They will, moreover, easily understand that, in this time of open and raging conflict, it would be disgraceful for them to desert the field and hide themselves. Their duty is to remain at their post, and openly to show themselves to be true Catholics by their belief and by actions in conformity with their faith. This they must do for the honor of their faith, and the glory of the Sovereign Leader whose banner they follow; and that they may escape that great misfortune of being disowned at the last day, and of not being recognized as His by the Supreme Judge who has declared that whosoever is not with Him is against Him. — Without ostentation or timidity, let them give proof of that true courage which arises from the consciousness of fulfilling a sacred duty before God and men. To this frank profession of faith Catholics must unite a perfect docility and filial love towards the Church, a sincere respect for their Bishops, and an absolute devotion and obedience to the Roman Pontiff.

(Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Dall’Alto Dell’Apostolico Seggio, n. 9; underlining added.)

Considering the vast Catholic teaching on the Papacy and the divine assistance God has promised it, all these calls for sincere obedience make perfect sense, for the Vicar of Christ is the visible representative of the Good Shepherd who feeds His flock in this way and watches over it. “He that heareth you, heareth me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth me; and he that despiseth me, despiseth him that sent me” (Lk 10:16), says the Lord to those He sent, and He has sent no one more than the Pope.

Therefore, it is not surprising to see this true obedience imposed in the Church’s Profession of Faith:

I acknowledge the holy Catholic and apostolic Roman Church as the mother and teacher of all churches; and to the Roman Pontiff, the successor of the blessed Peter, chief of the Apostles and vicar of Jesus Christ, I promise and swear true obedience.

(Professio Fidei; in Pope Pius IV, Bull Iniunctum Nobis [Denz. 999] and repeated at Vatican I.)

Concerning the nature and extent of this devoted obedience, Pope St. Pius X summed it all up in the following heartfelt words (which Dr. Kwasniewski has haughtily called a “historical embarrassment”):

And this is why, when we love the Pope, we do not dispute whether he commands or requires a thing, or seek to know where the strict obligation of obedience lies, or in what matter we must obey; when we love the Pope we do not say that he has not yet spoken clearly — as if he were required to speak his will in every man’s ear, and to utter it not only by word of mouth but in letters and other public documents as well. Nor do we cast doubt on his orders, alleging the pretext which comes easily to the man who does not want to obey, that it is not the Pope who is commanding, but someone in his entourage. We do not limit the field in which he can and ought to exercise his authority; we do not oppose to the Pope’s authority that of other persons — no matter how learned — who differ from the Pope. For whatever may be their learning, they are not holy, for where there is holiness there cannot be disagreement with the Pope.

(Pope Pius X, Address to the Priests of the Apostolic Union, Nov. 18, 1912; in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 4 [1912], p. 695; excerpted in Papal Teachings: The Church, n. 752 [#CommissionLink].)

In short, the true obedience demanded with regard to the Pope and the Church is simply a sincere obedience — one that is not pretended, nor reduced merely to external compliance; but one that consists in a genuinely willing, internal assent, a true submission of mind and heart, not as a slave gives to his master or an employee to his employer, but as a good child willingly gives to his loving father.

Final Remarks

Such sincere, internal, filial, devoted, and complete obedience which a Catholic must render to the Vicar of Christ is precisely what the recognize-and-resisters refuse to give to the person they insist is that Vicar today — not only with regard to sinful commands (where this would be lawful and necessary), but with regard to the official exercise of his purported Papacy: his magisterium, his general laws, his directives concerning worship and the sacraments, even his canonizations of saints.

By acting in this way, the semi-traditionalists reduce the Papacy to practical meaninglessness. What is left of it? The Pope, in their view, is in essence nothing more than a Protestant pastor who sometimes gets it right and sometimes gets it wrong and has the potential to cause immense damage to souls by teaching and legislating what is heretical, blasphemous, impious, or otherwise detrimental to souls.

“Follow him when he’s right; assent when he speaks the truth” — is that the Catholic attitude towards the Pope? Clearly not, for it is something one could say even of Billy Graham, the Dalai Lama, or Mick Jagger. It hardly reflects complete, sincere, and filial submission to the authority our Blessed Lord bestowed upon the Papacy when he promised to St. Peter: “And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven” (Mt 16:19).

Our Lord Jesus Christ instituted the Papacy to protect souls, not to mislead them. He established it in such a way that obedience to the Apostolic See is the ultimate criterion safeguarding Catholic unity and doctrinal orthodoxy:

There has never been an enemy of the Christian religion who was not simultaneously at wicked war with the See of Peter, since while this See remained strong the survival of the Christian religion was assured.

(Pope Pius VII, Encyclical Diu Satis, n. 6)

We congratulate you, therefore, on the fact that although you suffer, doubtless, at the defection of your brothers, separated from you by the breath of perfidious teaching, you are not troubled for all that, and are even being stimulated by their error to receive with greater willingness and to follow with more zeal not only the orders, but even all the directives of the Apostolic See; and by so doing you are certain that you cannot be deceived or betrayed.

(Pope Pius IX, Apostolic Letter Didicimus Non Sine; excerpted in Papal Teachings: The Church, n. 439.)

They [the Modernists] will learn many excellent things from such a great teacher [as Cardinal John Henry Newman]: in the first place, to regard the Magisterium of the Church as sacred, to defend the doctrine handed down inviolately by the Fathers and, what is of highest importance to the safeguarding of Catholic truth, to follow and obey the Successor of St. Peter with the greatest faith.

(Pope St. Pius X, Apostolic Letter Tuum Illud)

…[T]he first and greatest criterion of the faith, the ultimate and unassailable test of orthodoxy is obedience to the teaching authority of the Church, which is ever living and infallible, since she was established by Christ to be the columna et firmamentum veritatis, “the pillar and support of truth” (1 Tim 3:15).

(Pope St. Pius X, Address Con Vera Soddisfazione)

The correct understanding of Vatican I’s doctrine that Catholics “are bound by the duty of hierarchical subordination and true obedience”, therefore, is not that the council acknowledges the need to protect oneself from potentially false or dangerous teachings by the Church or the Pope.

Rather, the council was solemnly inculcating in Catholics the need to render to the Church a genuine submission of mind and will — “not only in things which pertain to faith and morals, but also in those which pertain to the discipline and government of the Church spread over the whole world….” — one that is sincere, internal, filial, and complete.

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