Earlier this week, I was asked once again asked whether or not the laity are to be obedient to their parish priest. And, once again, I told the person no, the laity doesn’t owe their parish priest obedience. Priests who expect obedience, much less those who require it, are dangerously misguided and frankly should be avoided.
At least as it pertains to the overall life of the parish, I do think the priest should be afforded deference. What I mean by this is that–absence evidence to the contrary–the parish should follow the pastor’s lead.
My reasoning here is purely practical. Given two or more equally valid options, the priest is one most likely to have a better overview of the life of the parish. And if things go wrong, it is likely the priest’s phone that will ring. While negative outcomes affect the whole community, as a practical matter it is the priest who likely has to deal with the fallout.
The personal life of the laity, however, this is a different matter altogether.
While the priest can credibly claim to have a better grasp of the whole parish, he can make no such claim to the daily life of his parishioner. Added to this is that most of the clergy have no specialized training in spiritual formation, pastoral counseling or psychotherapy.
This lack of expert knowledge doesn’t mean that the priest’s advice is untrustworthy; it isn’t at least not usually. But it does mean that the priest doesn’t necessarily bring any special insight to bear on the person’s life.
Like our friends or co-workers, the priest can–and often is–a good sounding board for our problems. And most priests are willing and able to help us think through our concerns. Older, more experienced priests especially often have gained a fair amount of hard-earned wisdom that we should respect.
None of this, however, requires that we be obedient to our parish priest.
Unfortunately, there are priests who either out of pride or (more likely) immaturity expect and may even demand obedience. Even when they aren’t directly challenged, they will be offended when th the laity don’t follow their advice.
These clergy are often short-tempered. Frankly, they can be mean when they don’t get the respect they think they are due (but which they haven’t earned). Like I said above, these are clergy that we should avoid if we at all can.
The standard I use for my own life–and which I give to the people who come to speak to me–is simple. Imagine for a moment I wasn’t your priest and you weren’t my parishioner. Would you actually listen to me?
“Because I’m the priest and I said so” is something I should avoid saying at all costs. Saying this, or even thinking this, poisons my relationship with my parishioner. Such appeals to power degrade both the priest and his parishioner.
So, to go back to the original question, no, the laity doesn’t owe obedience to the priest.