Decree 17: “Life of Obedience,” General Congregation 31 (1966)

Obedience was one of the seven topics in the “religious life” of the Society of Jesus that the delegates of the 31st General Congregation addressed with a decree. In the following document, the delegates note they are “conscious of the social change in our day which gives rise to a new awareness of the brotherhood of men and a keener sense of liberty and personal responsibility.” Obedience, though, remained a “distinctive grace conferred by God on the Society through its founder, whereby we may be united the more surely and constantly with God’s salvific will, and at the same time be made one in Christ among ourselves.” In other words, a Jesuit’s obedience is apostolic. Being obedient does not oppose “the dignity of the human person who obeys, nor to his maturity and liberty.” Instead, being obedient “strengthens such liberty and admirably fosters the progress of the human person by purification of heart and assimilation to Christ and His mother.”

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I. Introduction

1.     The General Congregation, solicitous to take into account the signs of the times according to the mind of the Church, and conscious of the social change in our day which gives rise to a new awareness of the brotherhood of men and a keener sense of liberty and personal responsibility, along with an excessively critical attitude and an overly naturalistic view of the world, has thought it necessary to express its mind on obedience, which is a hallmark of the Society and her principle of vitality. The Congregation considers this new situation “not in the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of prudence” as a fitting occasion and challenge for the Society’s renewal in the spirit and practice of obedience. It is convinced, moreover, that the way to the grace of our vocation will be opened not by natural means alone, whether philosophical, psychological, or sociological, but ultimately under the light of faith alone, “with the eyes of the mind enlightened.”


II. Obedience in the Society: Apostolic by Nature

2.     Impelled by love of Christ, we embrace obedience as a distinctive grace conferred by God on the Society through its founder, whereby we may be united the more surely and constantly with God’s salvific will, and at the same time be made one in Christ among ourselves. For the Society of Jesus is a group of men who seek close union with Christ and a share in the saving mission which He realized through obedience unto death. Christ invited us to take part in such a mission when, bearing His cross, He told St. Ignatius at La Storta, “I will that you serve Us.” Through obedience, then, strengthened by vow, we follow “Jesus Christ still carrying His cross in the Church militant, to whom the eternal Father gave us as servants and friends, that we may follow Him with our cross” and be made His companions in glory. We render service to Christ as He lives and works in the Church. Nor could our Society be sealed with the name of Jesus were it not fully committed to the service of the Church, which is the society of the Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord. Now through the vow of obedience our Society becomes a more fit instrument of Christ in His Church, unto the assistance of souls for God’s greater glory. Hence, neither our religious life nor our apostolic action can survive or be renewed unless we hold firmly to sincere obedience.


III. The Superior as Representing Christ

3.     The first Fathers of the Society held the unshaken conviction that “they had no other head than Christ Jesus, whom alone they hoped to serve,” and they solemnly sanctioned this fact in the Formula of the Institute, affirming that they wanted “to serve the Lord alone.” In the same Formula, however, they already expressly declared that “they are serving the Lord alone and the Church His spouse, under the Roman Pontiff,” understanding that they offer obedience to Christ Himself when they obey the visible head of the Church. Moreover, in the deliberations of the first Fathers, all decided unanimously that they should obey not only the Vicar of Christ, but also the superior chosen from among them, “so that we can more sincerely and with greater praise and merit fulfill through all things the will of God.” St. Ignatius repeatedly states this, that every superior is to be obeyed “in the place of Christ and for the love of Christ.” For Christ, as head and shepherd of the Church, is truly present in lawful superiors. The Church is the sacrament of salvation and unity, i.e., the visible sign of His invisible presence and power. Therefore He is present in him who as Vicar of Christ “presides over the universal Church,” and by whose ministry “the whole multitude of believers…is maintained in unity.” He is likewise present in a special way in religious superiors, who under the Roman Pontiff lawfully govern the community of their brethren, and by whose ministry “the community is gathered as a true family in the name of the Lord.” For them also, then, the promise of the Lord holds good: “He who hears you, hears me,” so that in faith we can hear in their commands the voice of Christ commanding. Rightly, therefore, are we said to serve the Lord alone when we obey superiors in the Church.


IV. Authority to Be Exercised in the Spirit of Service and of Discerning Love

4.     After the example of Christ, whose place he holds, the superior should exercise his authority in a spirit of service, desiring not to be ministered unto, but to serve; he should be the servant of all, set over a family of fellow servants, in order to serve by his governing. Resplendent in his ruling should be the kindness, meekness, and charity of Christ, who, bearing the likeness and authority of the Father, became the brother and companion of us all to live among us and labor with us. While he maintains sincere interior reverence, he should exercise simplicity in his way of speaking, so that the friendly concord of Christ with His apostles may come to view. And yet superiors should learn how to blend necessary rectitude and strictness with kindness and meekness, desiring more to serve their brethren than to please them. Hence government in the Society should always be spiritual, conscious before God of personal responsibility and of the obligation to rule one’s subjects as sons of God and with regard for the human personality, strong where it needs to be, open and sincere. Superiors should reckon their direction of Jesuits, both as a community and as individuals, more important than any other tasks to be done. Superiors should be appointed who, as far as possible, are gifted with true personal authority, so that they can stir subjects to voluntary obedience, and so that the subjects may willingly agree to be guided by them.

5.     In the exercise of authority, however, the gift of discretion or of discerning love is most desirable. To acquire this virtue, so necessary for good government, the superior should first of all be free from ill-ordered affections and be closely united and familiar with God, so that he will be docile to the will of Christ, which he should seek out with his subjects and authoritatively make manifest to them. Besides, he ought to know thoroughly our ways of acting, according to our Institute. Keeping in view, then, our end, which is none other than the greater service of God and the good of those who engage in this course of life, he should command the things which he believes will contribute towards attaining the end proposed by God and the Society, maintaining withal due respect for persons, places, times, and other circumstances.

6.     But in order that he may more easily discover the will of God, the superior should have at hand able advisers and should often consult them. He should also use the services of experts in reaching decisions on complex matters. This will the more easily enable members of the Society to be convinced that their superior knows how, wants, and is able, to govern them well in the Lord. Besides, since all who work together in God’s service are under the influence of the Holy Spirit and His grace, it will be well in the Lord to use their ideas and advice so as to understand God’s will better. Superiors in the Society should readily and often ask for and listen to the counsel of their brethren, of a few or of many, or even of all gathered together, according to the importance and nature of the matter. Superiors should gratefully welcome suggestions which their fellow Jesuits offer spontaneously, with a single desire of greater spiritual good and the better service of God, but the duty of the superior himself to decide and enjoin what ought to be done remains intact.

7.     It is also advantageous to the Society that the superior leave much in his orders to the prudence of his confreres, making liberal use of the principle of subsidiarity. To the extent that they make the spirit of the Society their own, especially if they are men long proven in humility and self-denial, individuals are to be allowed suitable freedom in the Lord. And finally, the universal good itself will sometimes demand that, in the manner of urging what has been commanded, account be taken also of human frailty.

8.     This truly spiritual government, whereby Jesuits are directed by superiors with discerning love rather than through external laws, supposes communication between the two which is as far as possible plain and open. The superior should endeavor to make his mind clearly known to his confreres and understood by them; and he should take care that they, according to the nature and importance of the matter and as their own talents and duties require, share more fully in his knowledge and concern both for the personal and community life of Jesuits and for their apostolic labors. The religious, for his part, should try to make himself known, with his gifts and limitations, his desires, difficulties, and ideas, through a confiding, familiar and candid colloquy, about which the superior is held to strict secrecy. In this way an account of conscience is obtained which is sincere and open in form, and not reduced to a formal, periodic inquiry about actions already performed. That kind of friendly and confidential conversation, one that is frankly spiritual and aims at promoting the apostolic objective of our vocation and the religious sanctification of the apostle, will constitute the dialogue that is fundamental and essential for the wholesome progress of our Society. Hence it is the mind of the Congregation that the account of conscience in its proper sense should remain and be strengthened as a general practice. But it is charity which should inspire it, as St. Ignatius wished, with any obligation under pain of sin always precluded.


V. Obedience to Be Offered with complete Availability in a Personal, Responsible Way

9.     The Society’s members, as the Constitutions provide, should show respect and inward reverence for their superiors, and in the Lord should love them from the heart. To them they should leave the full and completely free disposal of themselves, desiring to be guided not by their own judgment and will, but by that indication of the divine will which is offered to us through obedience. Jesuits, mindful that they are part of a Society which is wholly dedicated to Christ and His Church, should for their part primarily direct their labors under the guidance of the Holy Spirit for the service of the whole Church and Society.

Obedience is to be offered by all promptly, cheerfully, and in a supernatural spirit, as to Christ. In this spirit, all should make their own the superior’s command in a personal, responsible way, and with all diligence “bring to the execution of commands and the discharge of assignments entrusted to them the resources of their minds and wills, and their gifts of nature and grace,” “realizing that they are giving service to the upbuilding of Christ’s body according to God’s design.” Hence, not just any sort of obedience is expected of us, but an obedience full and generous, of the intellect, too, insofar as possible, rendered in a spirit of faith, humility, and modesty.

10.     Our holy Father St. Ignatius desired that we should all excel in the virtue of obedience. Accordingly, with all our force and energy we should strive to obey, first, the Sovereign Pontiff, and then the superiors of the Society, “not only in matters of obligation, but also in others, even at the mere hint of the superior’s will, apart from any express command.” We are to respond with perfect obedience in all things where there is not manifestly any sin. Nor may a subject refuse to obey because he thinks it would be better to do other things, or because he believes he is led along lines by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

It happens more often nowadays that a member of the Society will sincerely consider that by a dictate of conscience he is forbidden to follow the superior’s will, for he thinks that in a given case he is morally obliged to the contrary. Now it is true that no one may act against the certain dictates of his conscience. Still, conscience itself requires that in its formation attention be paid to all the factors which merit consideration in judging the morality of a decision, such as the universal good of the Church and the Society, which may be at stake, as well as the rights of others and the special obligations and values of religious life, which were freely assumed. Only a consideration of the whole reality can bring about a well-formed conscience. A member of the Society, therefore, should sincerely ponder the matter before the Lord, and present his reasons to his immediate or higher superior. It will then be the duty of the superior to weigh these reasons with an open mind, to review the case, and finally urge or withdraw the command. But if the subject cannot be induced in this way to accept with a good conscience the decision of the superior, he may request that the whole question be referred to the judgment of certain persons, even non-Jesuits, to be chosen by common consent. If after such a decision, however, no solution is reached which the Jesuit thinks he can follow without sinning, the superior, having consulted higher superiors as the case may merit, should provide for the course of action which seems more advisable in view of both the good of the whole Society and the good of the individual Jesuit’s conscience. But a man who, time after time, is unable to obey with a good conscience, should take thought regarding some other path of life in which he can serve God with greater tranquility.

11.     Obedience is the ordinary means by which God’s will is made clear to the members of the Society. However, it does not take away, but rather by its very nature and perfection supposes in the subject the obligation of personal responsibility and the spirit of ever seeking what is better. Consequently the subject can, and sometimes should, set forth his own reasons and proposals to the superior. Such a way of acting is not opposed to perfect obedience, but is reasonably required by it, in order that by an effort common to both superior and subject the divine will may more easily and surely be found. For obedience of judgment does not mean that our intellect is bereft of its proper role, and that one should assent to the superior’s will against reason, rejecting the evidence of truth. For the Jesuit, employing his own intelligence, confirmed by the unction of the Holy Spirit, makes his own the will and judgment of superiors, and with his intellect endeavors to see their orders as more conformed to the will of God. He diverts his attention from a fretful consideration of the opposite reasons, and directs it solely to positive reasons intrinsic to the matter or to motives which transcend this order, namely, values of faith and charity. For practical matters are at issue, in which almost always there remains some doubt as to what is most fitting and more pleasing to God. Theoretical certitude or very high probability about the objective superiority of a given solution is not to be awaited before a superior can authoritatively impose it; nor are the reasons for a course of action always and everywhere to be given the subject that he may devote himself wholeheartedly to the goals and works assigned to him. For the final reason for religious obedience is the authority of the superior. Trust is to be placed in Christ, who by means of obedience wishes to lead the Church and the Society to the ends He proposes.

12.     Thus understood, obedience is not opposed to the dignity of the human person who obeys, nor to his maturity and liberty, but rather strengthens such liberty and admirably fosters the progress of the human person by purification of heart and assimilation to Christ and His mother. For sons of the Society in the light of faith find the foundation of obedience in the example of Christ. Just as the Son of God “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men”; just as He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross,” so also do members of the Society from love for Christ and to gain souls, “offer the full dedication of their own will as a sacrifice of self to God.” Thus they bind themselves entirely to God, beloved above all, and by a new and special title dedicate and consecrate themselves to His service and honor, bearing witness to the new freedom whereby Christ has made us free.


VI. Obedience as a Bond of Union

13.     The Society “can neither be preserved nor governed, and so it cannot attain the end to which it aspires for God’s glory, unless its members be united to each other and with their head.” This will be affected mainly by “the bond of obedience, which unites individuals with their superiors, and these among themselves and with the provincials, and all with Father General.” But union and obedience are founded on charity, for “if the superior and his subjects are strongly united with God’s sovereign goodness, they will easily be united with one another.”

Impelled by the same charity, all “should show reverence and render obedience in accord with Church law to bishops because of their pastoral authority in the particular churches and for the union and harmony necessary in apostolic labor.” In this way Jesuits are proven to be true sons of the Church and contribute to the building up of the Body of Christ.


Original Source (English translation):

Jesuit Life & Mission Today: The Decrees & Accompanying Documents of the 31st35th General Congregations of the Society of Jesus, ed. John W. Padberg. St. Louis, Mo.: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2009, General Congregation 31, Decree 17, “Life of Obedience,” pg. 115–122 [268–282].

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