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St. Ignatius' Letter on Obedience: 1553-1953

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

St. Ignatius' Letter on Obedience which he wrote to the Jesuits in Portugal on March 26, 1553, is justly regarded as "the most admirable of all the letters which came from his pen." [1] In the four centuries since its composition, the letter has been translated into all the major languages in use in modern times. Its teaching is not only "the backbone of the Society of Jesus," but it has become the classic exposition of perfect obedience for most of the religious orders and congregations that have arisen in the Church in the past four hundred years. However, as much as the ideals which it presents have been praised by the Church and admired by unprejudiced historians, there is perhaps no other piece of Jesuit writing that has been more frequently misunderstood or bitterly attacked than the Epistola de virtute obedientiae.

Background and Analysis of the Letter on Obedience

The Letter on Obedience was called forth by the gravest internal disturbances which St. Ignatius had to face in the government of his nascent order. The difficulties were caused by the conduct of certain Portuguese religious whose lack of proper training brought them into conflict with superiors. They presumed to pass judgment on the orders of obedience, and showed by their words and actions such disrespect for authority that the very existence of the Society in Portugal was seriously threatened. The situation became so critical that before it was finally settled, one hundred and thirty members in various grades had left the order in that country or were dismissed. One of the main factors which contributed to solving this problem was St. Ignatius' Letter on Obedience.

The full text of the Letter is approximately 4000 words in length in the original Spanish. St. Ignatius' autograph has no paragraph or number divisions, but the official text used is divided into twenty-one paragraphs of unequal length; the whole Letter possessing a remarkable organic unity and logical sequence, as indicated in the following summary of contents:

I. Value and Dignity of Obedience.
    1. Highly praised in the Old and New Testaments.
    2. Obedience is the source and protection of all other virtues.
    3. Obedience is the distinctive mark of the Society of Jesus.
II. Motives for the Practice of Obedience.
    1. From reason: God's supreme dominion over all creation. Consequently the superior is in the place of God.
    2. From revelation: Christ established a hierarchy in His Church. Consequently the superior is in the place of Christ.
III. Three Degrees of Obedience.
  A. First Degree: External execution of the command.
  B. Second Degree: Internal conformity of will with superior.
    1. Includes everything, also sacred things like penances, etc.
    2. Means sacrifice of our will to God.
    3. Allows of no intrusion of self-will.
  C. Third Degree: Internal conformity of mind with superior.
    1. Possible because the will can command the intellect.
    2. Necessary to receive supernatural influence from superior.
    3. Necessary to keep the intellect from going astray.
    4. Necessary to assure the first two degrees of obedience.
    5. Necessary to maintain unity in every society.
    6. Pleasing to God since both will and intellect consecrated to Him.
IV. Method of Acquiring Perfect Obedience.
  A. In General: Deep humility and meekness of soul.
  B. In Particular:
    1. See Jesus Christ in every superior.
    2. Defend in your mind whatever the superior commands.
    3. Accept the superior's orders with the same unquestioning, hence blind, obedience which is given to God Himself.
V. Practical Recommendations.
    1. Humble representation to superior is not contrary to obedience.
    2. Perfect obedience applies to subjects and superiors, hierarchically terminating in the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ.
    3. The ultimate motive for this virtue is the love of Christ, the great Teacher and Model of perfect obedience.

The Tribute of the Saints

The highest tribute to St. Ignatius' Letter on Obedience has been paid by the saints who generously put into literal practice the principles which it enjoins. The first outstanding example is St. Francis Borgia, former Duke of Gandia and great-grandson of Pope Alexander VI. As General of the Society of Jesus, in 1565 he exhorted his subjects throughout the world to the practice of perfect obedience, but declined to expand further on the subject in deference to the famous epistle of his predecessor. "I refer you," he told them, “to the excellent and admirable letter which our Father Ignatius has written on that virtue. He has said all, and left nothing more to be said. ‘Hoc fac et vives.’” [2]

Little did he suspect that three years later he would himself be called upon to put the prescriptions of that letter into heroic practice-as events proved, at the cost of his life.

In 1571, St. Pius V ordered Francis to go to Spain in the interests of the Crusade which the Pope was organizing against the Turks. Francis' brethren pleaded with the Holy Father to spare their General the journey from Rome to Madrid. "It seems impossible," his secretary told the Pope, "that Father Francis with his weak and broken health will ever survive it." But the Pope felt that the greater good of the Church required this sacrifice. Francis accepted the assignment cheerfully. To those who ventured to express their admiration of his obedience he replied, “I have always found that God has been mercifully pleased to make easy for me the most difficult and painful things, when I have undertaken them in the true spirit of obedience. However much suffering this journey may cost me, the consciousness that I am fulfilling the will of God and of His Vicar on earth, will cause me far greater joy.” [3] Francis Borgia successfully performed his mission to Spain. But he was brought back to Italy a dying man; living only two days after his return to Rome, a martyr of obedience, as the Church herself recognizes in the Breviary lesson for his feast. [4]

St. Alphonsus Rodriguez was a lay brother at the College of Majorca, off the coast of Spain, faithful to his post of doorkeeper for thirty-seven years. Gifted with the highest mystical graces, his outstanding virtue was obedience, that was sometimes so literal it had to be defended in the process of canonization as an extraordinary grace of God.

Under orders from superiors, Alphonsus wrote a number of treatises on the spiritual life, among which is a commentary on the Letter on Obedience. He recognized two degrees of obedience within the third degree of St. Ignatius:

The second degree of this lofty obedience of the understanding is that the soul perceives in the commands of obedience not only the voice of God, but it goes farther, because it lives wholly on fire with the love of God whom it obeys. [5]

What this meant for Alphonsus may be seen from the holy extravagances to which his love of obedience led him. He would remain seated for hours without moving, because told to sit down; told to say a word or two to a guest, he said, "Deo Gratias" and left; told to eat "a mouthful" for breakfast, he took exactly one mouthful and no more; told to eat the whole dish of soup given him, he ate the soup and then began scraping the dish itself to eat it. By nature a man of great prudence, he owned that these "follies of obedience" may not be followed except under the special inspiration of God, who thus tries and humbles His servants.

St. John Berchmans, the heavenly patron of altar boys and "the saint of religious observance," is known to have read and studied the Letter on Obedience even before entering religion. According to his biographers, it was especially the inspiration which he derived from this treatise that led him to the heights of sanctity. In the novitiate he drew up a series of maxims for himself, concentrating on the practice of obedience. "Obey even in the smallest things," he wrote. "Obedience in these is a preparation for what will be required in important affairs later on." Eager to imitate his saintly brethren, Stanislaus and Aloysius, he added, “If Blessed Aloysius and Stanislaus were obedient to the very letter, it was not for fear of being guilty of a fault by acting otherwise, but out of pure love of virtue.” [6]

One sentence in the Brief of Beatification summarizes the perfection of John's obedience: "He observed and guarded with the greatest care the slightest rules of religious discipline." Moreover, with penetrating insight he had distinguished what was most imitable in Aloysius and Stanislaus-their obedience, with the result that “John brought the virtues of the other two saints more within the reach of everyone's imitation. Without doing anything extraordinary, as far as eye could see, he reached the highest perfection.” [7]

Vindication of the Letter on Obedience

Within thirty-five years of its composition, the Letter on Obedience precipitated a crisis that for a time threatened the distinctive character and almost the very existence of the Society of Jesus.

A certain Father Julian Vincent, restless and eccentric professor at the College of Bordeaux, had some misunderstanding with superiors, which caused them to impose on him the salutary penance of a pilgrimage to St. James of Compostela in Spain. Vincent made the pilgrimage, but then instead of returning to France, and without a word to superiors, set out for Rome. In Rome he was sent to the Novitiate of San Andrea, where he used his leisure time to write a lengthy denunciation of the Society to the Holy Office, centering his attacks on the Letter on Obedience. He drew up a list of twelve indictments of the "blind obedience" counselled by St. Ignatius, and reached the bizarre conclusion that by such obedience to his religious superiors, a subject necessarily attributed to them personal infallibility, thus derogating from a prerogative which belonged only to the Pope.

Pope Sixtus V promptly took a hand in the matter. He had the Jesuit General Aquaviva cross-examined before a commission, which returned an unfavorable verdict, and all indications pointed to a condemnation of the blind obedience as taught by St. Ignatius and as interpreted by his disciples.

At this critical moment, Robert Bellarmine was appointed to write a defense of St. Ignatius' Letter, which he did in such masterly fashion that it remains to this day a "theological epitome of religious obedience." Since the center of attack was on blind obedience, Bellarmine limited himself to this concept, proving in a series of five chapters that obedientia caeca is as old as Christianity and perfectly consonant with the Catholic Faith. Several points in the apologia are specially worth noting: the clear definition of "blind obedience," the Patristic evidence in its defense, and Bellarmine's favorite “argument from analogy.”

At the outset, St. Robert explains that “the name ‘blind obedience’ means nothing else than obedience which is pure, perfect, and simple, with no discussion of what is commanded or why, but remaining satisfied that a command had been given.” [8]

In Patristic support of this virtue, Bellarmine traces the exact places where St. Ignatius found his arguments, illustrations and examples. The term "blind obedience" was explicitly used by at least two great leaders of Christian monasticism, John Climacus and St. Bernard. Climacus says that, "The Lord gives His light to the blindly obedient, to see the virtue of their superior, and mercifully hides from them his faults." [9] And St. Bernard describes perfect obedience as “a blessed blindness, by which the eyes of those who once were sinners, are now happily shielded from the dazzling glare of sin.” [10]

But even without using the expression caeca obedientia, the Fathers of monasticism from the earliest centuries described its equivalent whenever they spoke of the perfection of this virtue. Thus St. Augustine:

For religious obedience to be pleasing to God, it must be prompt without delay, faithful without servility, willing without complaint, simple without discussion, constant without cessation, orderly with no deviation, joyous without perturbance, strenuous without scrupulosity, and universal with no exception. For in the measure that we listen to our superiors, God will also listen to our prayers. [11]

Bellarmine concludes in typical controversial style by answering the most serious objection which even Catholics sometimes make to the blind obedience of religious. "It is dangerous," the argument runs, "for religious to trust their superiors so blindly, because the latter as fallible men are often mistaken, and therefore what began as obedience may end as a widely propagated error, or even as heresy."

The St. Robert answers the objections with a parallel situation that exists in the Church as a whole:

If the danger in question is to be measured by the obedience of religious, much more should it be measured by the obedience of the simple people, who listen to their pastors or bishops preaching publicly and with all the adjuncta of authority. For although the people take no vow of obedience to their pastors or bishops, they are still bound to obey them according to the teaching of St. Paul. So that, willing or not, they have to render them blind obedience and credence in those things which are not obvious to them already. Of course it can happen that a bishop or priest may be a secret heretic, trying to seduce the people and propagate his heresy. But God Himself and the vigilance of other pastors of souls will not permit this to go on for very long before it is properly referred to the judgment of the Holy See. Moreover, even though somewhere, by God's permission, a credulous people should be easily seduced by their pastor, no Catholic would dare say that therefore the people should be discouraged from obeying their prelates, or should themselves become judges of their pastors, and decide on the doctrine that is being preached to them. We know from present experience among the Lutherans that the danger of heresy is far greater by making this kind of concession to human liberty, than it will ever be from the simple obedience of the people. . . . Consequently, if the ordinary faithful must simply trust their pastors in the things which appertain to God, and render them corresponding obedience and respect, much more should religious obey and be subject to their superiors, perfectly and simply, and in that sense blindly, in whatever does not manifestly contravene the law of God. [12]

It should be added that Bellarmine’s defense of Ignatius’ obedience had the desired effect. The Holy See dismissed the charges against the Society and ignored the fulminations of Père Vincent, who was himself hailed before the Inquisition and died shortly after, in prison, giving unmistakable signs of insanity.

Modern Critics of the Letter on Obedience

An instructive catalog could be made of the critical opinions which modern historians and psychologists have expressed regarding the Letter on Obedience. At one extreme is a polemic like The Jesuits in Great Britain, which runs through 358 pages of scurrilous abuse of the Society of Jesus. Treating of "Blind Obedience, Crime and Folly," the author comments on the Letter of 1553:

What if the superior be a wicked man? Is it not probable, in this case, that he will, from time to time, relying on the Blind Obedience of his subject, order him to commit that which is sinful? In this case, how can his subject see anything wrong in the command, when he is required to obey it "without examining anything, without seeing anything"? The fact is that Blind Obedience would justify, and even make a merit of, doing any crime which a superior may command.
Blind Obedience facilitates not only crime and tyranny, but also folly, sometimes of the most ridiculous kind. It would be easy to multiply instances in proof of this. The case of Alonzo Rodriguez may suffice. It is recorded of him that he was so perfect in Blind Obedience that he used to obey "without reasoning." Here is another instance which shows into what folly such obedience may lead. [13]

And then follows the story of St. Alphonsus and the dish alluded to above. The author concludes with the suggestion that, “This Blind Obedience should never be given to any man, or body of men.” [14]

On the other hand, William James, in the lectures which he gave at the University of Edinburgh and later published as Varieties of Religious Experience, is not so much critical of the Letter on Obedience as simply mystified by it.

First several pages on the "morbid melancholy and fear" of the saints, "and the sacrifices made to purge out sin and to buy safety." Then a disquisition on obedience, the most important of the "three minor branches of mortification [considered] as indispensable pathways to perfection."

In treating of obedience, James concentrates on the letters of St. Ignatius on the subject. "One should read," he says, “the letters in which St. Ignatius Loyola recommends obedience…if one would gain insight into the full spirit of its cult.” [15] He is puzzled by the idea of perfect obedience, but at least he tries to understand it. And in the attempt, he comes very close to a correct appraisal of the modern attitude on this virtue:

The secular life of our twentieth century opens with this virtue held in no high esteem. The duty of the individual to determine his own conduct and profit or suffer by the consequences seems, on the contrary, to be one of our best rooted contemporary social ideals. So much so that it is difficult even imaginatively to comprehend how men possessed of an inner life of their own, could ever have come to think the subjection of its will to that of other finite creatures recommendable. I confess that to myself it seems something of a mystery. Yet it evidently corresponds to a profound interior need of many persons, and we must do our best to understand it. [16]

After a careful analysis of this strange phenomenon of "blind obedience," he suggests that:

Obedience may spring from the general religious phenomenon of inner softening and self surrender and throwing one's self on higher powers. So saving are these attitudes felt to be that in themselves, apart from utility, they become ideally consecrated; and in obeying a man whose fallibility we see through thoroughly, we, nevertheless, may feel much as we do when we resign our will to that of infinite wisdom. [17]

If James had believed in a personal Deity for whose sake man is obeyed, religious obedience might still have remained "something of a mystery" to him psychologically; but at least he would not have concluded that the practice of this virtue in a high degree is a pathological phenomenon, technically called "ascetic sacrifice," which is a compound of “fatigued nerves … self despair and the passion of self crucifixion.” [18]

Apparently more objective but equally hostile was the treatment given the Letter in the Encyclopedia Britannica up to its eleventh edition, under the title "Jesuits." A curious mixture of truth and exaggeration, it was one of the main reasons why the article was finally (1936) removed from the Britannica:

In this letter, Ignatius clothes the general with the powers of a commander-in-chief in time of war, giving him the absolute disposal of all members of the Society in every place and for every purpose…. This Letter on Obedience was written for the guidance and formation of Ignatius' own followers; it was an entirely domestic affair. But when it became known outside the Society, the teaching met with great opposition, especially from members of other orders whose institutes represented the normal days of peace rather than war. The Letter was condemned by the Inquisitions of Spain and Portugal; and it tasked all the skill and learning of Bellarmine as its apologist, together with the whole influence of the Society to avert what seemed to be a probable condemnation at Rome. [19]

The Britannica article adds a number of other details on the Letter on Obedience. But even in the pericope quoted, there are at least three mis-statements of fact. There was no question of Ignatius clothing "the general with the powers of a commander-in-chief in time of war." The obedience which he required of his subjects was to be spontaneous and motivated by love, the very opposite of the martial subjection fabricated by the Encyclopedia. Also there is no evidence that the opposition to the Society of Jesus, such as it was, came from "other orders whose institutes represented the normal days of peace rather than war." Finally, to say that the Letter was condemned by the Inquisitions of Spain and Portugal is a literary expansion on the story of Père Vincent, as described in the previous section.

Pope Pius XI and Ignatian Obedience

In marked contrast to this hostility and misinterpretation, Catholic and non-Catholic biographers and historians have been generally friendly and even lavish in their praise of St. Ignatius' concept of obedience as embodied in the Letter of 1553. Writes a French historian:

On reading this Letter from beginning to end, examining it as a whole, weighing its firm and solemn tone, the mastery of its thought, the pertinence of its arguments, the rigorous sequence, the sober splendor of the reasoning, one gets the impression that here, if anywhere, is the definitive code of religious obedience. [20]

But more valuable than any private opinion on the subject is the declaration of Pope Pius XI that “this was the special gift of God to Ignatius: to lead men back to the practice of the virtue of obedience.” [21] Viewed against this authoritative statement, the Letter on Obedience takes on an entirely new significance. No longer just a private document for one religious family or only for the cloister, it becomes a supernatural weapon to overcome the forces of evil that would destroy the Church in our own day, as in the time of St. Ignatius.

On the one hand, says the Holy Father, "It is well known into what kind of world it was the lot of St. Ignatius to be cast. It is no less evident that the principal cause of all the evils by which the Church was afflicted, was in great part the refusal of men to serve and obey Almighty God" in submission to the Church which Christ had founded. [22]

On the other hand, “if We seek for the origin of the evils from which the human race is suffering today, We must admit that they undoubtedly sprang from the revolt against the divine authority of the Church started by the Reformers.” [23]

The remedy offered by the Church in the sixteenth century was the practice of humble obedience. The remedy recommended by the Church today is again obedience, heroic if need be, by those chosen souls, lay and clerical, who would give the good example and make reparation to Almighty God for the crimes of disobedience. And among the best teachers of obedience that we may follow, as the Vicar of Christ suggests, is St. Ignatius, whose Letter of 1553 is a perfect synthesis of his doctrine on this virtue.

John A. Hardon, S.J.

West Baden College
West Baden Springs, Ind

[1] Antonio Astrain, Historia de la Compania de Jesus en la asistencia de Espana, I (Madrid, 1912), 611.

[2] Monumenta historica S.J., Franciscus Borgia, V (Madrid, 1912), 80.

[3] A. M. Clarke, St. Francis Borgia (London, 1913), p. 398.

[4] “Cardinali Alexandrino, ad conjungendos contra Turcas christianos principes, legato comes additus a beato Pio quinto, arduum iter, fractis jam pene viribus, suscepit ex obedientia; in qua et vitae cursum Romae, ut optarat, feliciter consummavit.” Lect. VI, Noct. II, Oct. 10.

[5] Obras spirituales, edit. Nonell, III (Barcelona, 1885), 390.

[6] Francis Goldie, St. John Berchmans (London, 1873), p. 76.

[7] Bulla canonizationis, ASS, XX, 356.

[8] Tractatus de obedientia,” in Auctarium Bellarminianum, ed. Le Bachelet (Paris, 1913), p. 377.

[9] Ibid., p. 380. The text occurs in the treatise, Scala Paradisi, of St. John Climacus (MPG, 88, 715).

[10] Ibid., p. 381. The text occurs in the treatise, De Praecepto et Dispensatione, which St. Bernard wrote to a certain Abbot Columban who asked for advice with regard to the practice of religious obedience (MPL, 182, 871).

[11] Ibid., p. 380. The text is quoted by Bellarmine as a citation from St. Bonaventure. It occurs in the latter’s Collationes Octo, cap. III, Opera, XIV (Paris, 1868), 643. Bonaventure attributes the text to St. Augustine but without giving the exact source.

[12] Ibid., p. 385.

[13] Walter Walsh, The Jesuit in Great Britain, “An Historical Inquiry into their Political Influence” (London, 1903), pp. 298-99.

[14] Ibid.

[15] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York, 1936), p. 307. It should be noted that St. Ignatius wrote at least three other letters on the subject of obedience: to the College of Gandia in Spain, July 29, 1547; to the Society in Portugal, Jan. 14, 1548; and to the Rector of Gandia, March 27, 1548. However, the letter of 1553 remains as the most authoritative. Its public reading to the community every month is prescribed by Jesuit rule. Cf. Espinosa Polit, Perfect Obedience (Westminster, Md., 1947), pp. 17-18.

[16] Ibid., p. 305.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., XV, 338.

[20] Gaetan De Bernoville, The Jesuits (English transl., London, 1937), p. 84.

[21] “Qui rem penitus perscrutetur, facile reperiet insignem in Ignatio fuisse obedientiae spiritum, eique tamquam proprium munus assignatum a Deo, ut ad hanc ipsam virtutem maiore studio colendam homines adduceret.” Epistola Apostolica, Third Cent. of the Canonization of St. Ignatius, Dec. 3, 1923, AAS, XIV, 628.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., pp. 630-31.

American Ecclesiastical Review
Vol. 128, May 1953, pp. 335-346

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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