Religious vow of obedience needs to be redefined, theologian says

Elise Ann Allen
|Senior Correspondent

ROME – Earlier this week Pope Francis released a new prayer video in which he told religious and consecrated women to push back when they are mistreated, including by the Church, in reference to the rising awareness of the abuse that nuns have often faced in their lives of service.

In the video, released Feb. 1, the pope urged religious and consecrated women “to fight when, in some cases, they are treated unfairly, even within the church; when they serve so much that they are reduced to servitude, at times, by men of the church.”

“Let us pray for religious sisters and consecrated women, thanking them for their mission and their courage; may they continue to find new responses to the challenges of our times,” he said.

For Peruvian theologian Rocio Figueroa, the challenges that women religious face are not only inflicted by male clerics who treat them as servants, but there are also glaring internal challenges inside religious communities that need to be addressed.

One of these, in Figueroa’s belief, is the Church’s concept of the vow of obedience.

When priests, consecrated persons or religious enter their communities, they adhere to the three traditional “evangelical counsels,” which are the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

While poverty and chastity are more straightforward, Figueroa said she believes the vow obedience, while necessary, is ill-defined and because of this has allowed the abuse and mistreatment of religious women for decades.

Speaking to Crux, Figueroa said that to understand the trouble with the vow, it’s necessary to look at “how obedience has been understood in religious life.”

“At the beginning, the vow of obedience began with the monks: the obedience to their abbot. The superior with whom obedience to God was lived represented God, so by obeying your superior, you were obeying God.”

“I think this kind of obedience, this definition of obedience, is problematic, and this kind of obedience has continued until today,” she said.

A lecturer in Systematic Theology at the Catholic Theological College in Auckland, New Zealand, and an External Researcher at the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at Otago University, Figueroa is a former member of the Marian Community of Reconciliation (MCR), which is one of two women’s branches of the Peru-based Soldalitium Christianae Vitae (SCV).

In 2017, the SCV’s founder, Peruvian layman Luis Fernando Figari, was sanctioned by the Vatican after accusations went public that he had sexually abused several minors and had physically and psychologically abused members of his community.

Similar complaints of psychological and spiritual abuse and abuse of authority have been made by former members of the MCR, and in recent months, scandals have come out of the second women’s branch of the SCV, the Servants of the Plan of God, called by their Spanish name, the Siervas.

Former members of the Siervas have told horror stories of a toxic and militant internal culture where authority was blindly obeyed and members were routinely criticized, humiliated, and pushed to their physical and mental limits to meet the challenges of “spreading the Gospel.”

RELATED: Peruvian ex-nuns report abuses of power, conscience inside order

And the Siervas are not alone. Many members of religious orders have endured similar abuse, all in conformity with their vow of obedience.

Many women, when they enter religious life, are taught, “if I want to be a nun, I have to obey God, so I have to obey my superior. My superior is commanding me, is humiliating me, but they are doing it because it’s the will of God, the plan of God, and I am not to question,” Figueroa said.

Fundamentally, Figueroa said her concerns with the vow of obedience as it is currently understood is that “it’s not just the problem of an abusive leader, it’s a problem of how the system really enables abuse, in a way.”

Going to the roots

Figueroa said the vow of obedience ought to be modeled on Jesus’s own example of it in Gospels, in which Jesus consistently said he was obeying his Father’s will.

“The obedience in the Gospel is an act of trust, an act of following God’s commandments, and following his love, so it’s an obedience full of love and trust in a relationship between Jesus and God the Father,” Figueroa said.

“That’s the core of obedience,” she said, adding, “the obedience of Jesus was always towards the Father, and the obedience that we are asked is an obedience to God, not to human beings.”

Where things started to become problematic, she said, is in the early monastic practice of obedience.

“The monks wanted to go to the desert to live a very rugged life, so they considered that annulling their own will or desires was a way to be holy,” giving rise, she said, to a spirituality influenced by Neo-Platonism “in which your own faculties are seen as dangerous in following God.”

This concept of obedience was further reinforced by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, who was soldier prior to his religious life, and who outlined “a blind obedience” in which, as a member of the community, “you had to obey no matter what you were thinking, no matter whether you were willing.”

Despite Saint Ignatius’s deep spirituality, “It was a very militaristic way of defining obedience,” and it is also hierarchal, Figueroa said. “It’s a definition in which I command, and you obey, it’s a very vertical type of relationship.”

There is also a patriarchal element, she said, noting that all of the people who have contributed to the Catholic Church’s concept of religious obedience “have been men.”

Even the use of the word “superior” in religious life is troubling, she said, saying the term implies that “the authority is ‘superior’ to the ones who are not in authority.”

While there are “perverts” and “narcissists” who abuse intentionally, the poor definition of obedience has also caused problems and has opened the door to various, perhaps unintentional abuses to occur, she said.

“We have filled the value of obedience with a lot of contents that I consider to be very unhealthy, that do not belong to the Gospel,” but which are part of a tradition rooted in a patriarchal culture in which a hierarchal and authoritarian obedience was the norm, Figueroa said.

Redefining obedience

For Figueroa, the heart of the problem “is the sacralization of obedience, of authority…it can be unhealthy.”

The reason for this, she said, is that while superiors are said to represent God, not all of them do, because “If you have an abusive superior, they aren’t representing God. Authorities do not represent God, they represent God if they are good ones.”

“Why do we not say every parent represents God? Because it depends on what parents you have. It’s the same thing as the authority, not every authority represents God,” she said, insisting that this is why “the vow of obedience has to be to God, not to a superior.”

While authorities and leaders are needed in communities, and while members ought to adhere to the charisma of their order and comply with the rules, the vow of obedience should always be to God, she said.

“I’m not saying we don’t need an authority who coordinates community life, of course we need someone to coordinate, but it’s not that I am obeying her or him thinking that it’s because they represent God. It’s just because it’s necessary. In a job, you have to obey your boss not because you think his or her decision comes from God, you have to obey for the organization and the wellbeing of a group,” she said.

Obedience, in Figueroa’s view, ought to have a more cooperative connotation, where members should feel free to voice concern if they have questions about an instruction they receive.

“It will perhaps be messier, there will be more discussions, but it’s human society, it’s a family. You talk things through,” she said.

One thing that has to be clarified, she said, is that obedience “cannot be the submission of your will and thought.”

“For me, any comment that you have to give up your thoughts, your critical thinking, and your will is unhealthy,” Figueroa said, voicing her belief that this is one of the problems contributing to the current crisis in religious life.

“What young woman will say, I have to annul myself? The path of religious life must be a path of fulfillment, of plentitude, of richness in which you feel empowered in your personality,” she said.

The voice of women

Given that the vast majority of religious and consecrated persons are women, and that priests, while vowing obedience to their bishop, don’t have to live with a superior 24/7, that means the ones most impacted by problems with the vows of obedience are women, Figueroa said.

For her, it’s troubling that women represent the bulk of consecrated life in the Church and yet have had little to do with the theological and spiritual reflections leading to the modern definitions of the vows they take.

“The majority of religious are women,” so the ones who have to find a new definition for obedience “are women,” she said. “The problem is that the ones who write the documents are always men.”

Obedience and the Church’s fundamental understanding of it “won’t change until women have a voice in the definitions, in the teachings of the Church,” she said.

This is why, Figueroa said, what is needed is more than just a change in policy, but a systemic change, because “the ones who define power or obedience are the ones that have the power: male, and who do it in a male way.”

“It would be important to have more women, to exercise authority in a woman’s way, because the problem now is that we have a lot of women who are exercising authority in a patriarchal way,” and that has caused problems, she said.

“Until we have another way of exercising authority, it will be very difficult,” she said. “We have to create a new model for exercising authority.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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