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Ch. 8: Monastic Vow of Unconditional Obedience

Another vow which was universally assumed by the religious orders, was the vow of unconditional obedience. By the obligation of this vow the members of the convents were subjected to the absolute authority of the superiors; the superiors to the absolute authority of the generals; the generals to the absolute authority of the pope. The authority of these holy officials strongly resembled that of the oriental despot, who, on being informed by his general that it was impossible to build the bridge over the river, as he had ordered, replied: "I inquired not of thee whether it was impossible or not; I commanded thee to build it; if thou failest thou shalt be strangled." Accordingly, at the mandate of a superior a subordinate was obliged to go on any errand, for any purpose, criminal or not, to depart on any mission, to perform any work, to undertake any enterprise, or to occupy any station that he required of him. The superior's decision was final, and from it there was no appeal. The Jesuit's general was empowered to inflict and remit punishment at option, and to expel any member of the order without the form of charge or trial. It mattered not whether the task assigned the recluse exceeded, or not, his mental or physical capacity, he was bound to obey the order immediately, and fully; to hesitate, or seem to hesitate was a crime, and by the penal code of some of the monasteries punished by the infliction of one hundred lashes.

But to reduce a human being to such an absolute servitude was no easy task. To transform an active being into a spiritless automaton; a sensitive being into a senseless machine; a rational being into an irrational brute, was not the work of a moment, but of years and discipline. In order to subdue and habituate the will to implicit and mechanical obedience, recourse had to be had to penance, to trials, to all that could stifle doubt and inquiry, debilitate the power of resistance, and degrade conscious dignity in the dust. The most menial services, the most loathsome, disgusting, and absurd offices were consequently assigned to the probationists. They were required to suck the putrid sores of invalids, to remove enormous rocks, to walk unflinchingly into fiery furnaces, to cast their infants into ponds of water, to plant staffs in the ground and to water them until they should grow. They were never allowed to be alone, two were always to be together; the one a constant and conscious spy on the emotions of the other. The faithful son who could harden himself into a cold, cruel, and remorseless statue, was commended for his attainments in piety; but the unfaithful son who could not but betray some emotion, or remaining consciousness of the independence of his nature, in defiance of his circumspection, was doomed to suffer the torments of an excruciating penance.

The vow of solitude had stifled the social instincts; the vow of silence had paralyzed the powers of speech, and sealed up the lips of wisdom, knowledge and eloquence; the vow of contemplation had subjugated the intellectual faculties to the domination of fancy, and the bewilderments of ignorance; the vow of poverty had shackled the faculties of improvement and enterprise; the vow of celibacy had extinguished connubial and parental affection; and now the vow of unconditional obedience, by subjugating reason, conscience, and the executive powers to the absolute control of a superior, had completed the monk's slavery in the ruin of every noble and valuable attribute of his nature. Atrocious as were the other vows, the last exceeded the combined atrocity of them all. It consummated the destruction of his nature. It was the grave of his manhood; the tomb in which he buried himself alive. After its assumption his reason was not to guide him; his knowledge was not to direct him; his conscience was not to admonish him; but in defiance of them all, and even at the risk of his life, he was to tremble, and obey a spiritual despot. His perceptive faculties, his conscious independence, his love of liberty and justice, his sense of obligation and accountability, all the mental, moral, and physical powers which constitute his being, were by this vow, basely surrendered to an absolute lord, to whom he became a slave in mind and body,—and forever.

The blind obedience which the pope demands to his despotic will, is antagonistical to the Jewish religion, to the Christian religion, and to Natural religion. It is a nullification of all religion; an abrogation of the authority of the deity; a usurpation of the throne of Heaven. The Jewish and the Christian religion require unconditional obedience to God alone. In their sacred books, the pope is nowhere mentioned, nor is any power referred to analagous to what he claims. Natural religion prescribes reason and conscience as the supreme guide of man; and reason and conscience reject the papal authority as absurd and unjust. In the Hierophant of the Elysian mysteries, in the Apostolic Successor of Buddha, in the Grand Lama, in the Egyptian and Persian High Priest we may find something analagous to the claims of the Pope of Rome, but nowhere else.

The unconditional obedience required by the pope is inconsistent with all ideas of merit and demerit in human conduct. If man acts not from the independent suggestion of his reason and conscience, but from the secret orders of another, he is no more deserving of commendation for useful acts, than a locomotive is for its obedience to the will of an engineer.

The unconditional obedience demanded by the pope is inconsistent with human accountability. It is an abrogation of all obligation, and all law. It assumes that the pope is above all authority; accountable to none; and that he is capable of nullifying all obligations between man and man, between government and subjects, between mankind and their creator. It obtrudes between man and his reason, and forbids him to listen to its voice. It obtrudes between man and his conscience, and forbids him to obey its dictates. It obtrudes between man and his civil obligations, and forbids him to obey the laws of his country. It leaves no sense of duty or obligation existing in the constitution of man. According to it, man is not accountable to reason, nor conscience, nor society, nor God, but to the pope alone. The pope is therefore "more than God," as one of his titles asserts; and God is no God or an inferior one to him.

The unconditional obedience enforced by the pope is subversive of the rights of the world. For one man, however good or great, to require the united intelligence of the human family to submit to his arbitrary dictation, is to deny their right to an independent will, reason, conscience, or principle of action, or the privilege of exercising the powers which they have inherited with their being. It is to declare that all men are abject slaves to the pope. It is to deny that any has a right above a brute that is bridled, harnessed, or yoked, to be driven by the spurs and whips of its owner. In short, it is to crush all liberty and the rights of human nature.

A claim of absolute authority is always absurd; but the papal claim of absolute dominion over human conscience and reason, surpasses all absurdity recorded in the annals of tyranny and arrogance. Even were superiors, generals, and popes as wise and virtuous as humanity permitted, yet such a degree of power entrusted to them would be detrimental to the interests of society. Parents whose welfare and honor are so intimately interwoven with the welfare and honor of their children, often regret over the mistakes which they have committed in giving counsel. For a spiritual despot, whose nature has been religiously pruned of human sensibilities, whose mind has been contracted within the bigoted circle of spiritual ideas, whose interest is antagonistical to those of his subjects, and who owns no accountability for the proper exercise of his functions, for such an inhuman monster to be entrusted with exclusive control over the reason, conscience, and interests of another, would as inevitably complete his arrogance and tyranny as it would the misery and slavery of his subordinate. Less than such a result could not be expected from the best of superiors, generals, or monks. But when the past history of these holy men has shown that they have invariably labored for their self-aggrandizement, and that as a class, they have been ignorant, immoral, cruel and intriguing, such power, in the hands of such men, would not only extinguish all virtue in the breast of the governed, but render them instruments of the most flagitious purposes. When by means of an ecclesiastical despotism, learning was governed by ignorance, wisdom by folly, virtue by vice, can we wonder that monks, superiors, generals and popes were the basest and most licentious of men; that the convents were rife with prostitution and murder; that the papal court was the most profligate in the world; and that the most prosperous period of Catholicism was the darkest age of mankind.

But the papal claim of absolute control over reason and conscience refutes itself. It suggests a strong presumption that he is conscious that he can make no successful appeal to either reason or conscience. Had it been otherwise would he have denied their authority? Were he confident that his pretensions are founded in truth, would he have prohibited investigation'? Is not reason the clearest guide to truth, conscience its most powerful advocate, investigation its most formidable ally? And had these noble principles been available in supporting the pretension of the pope, would he have had the stupidity to denounce them?

If it is consistent with religion to make automata of human beings, slaves of men, a machine of the world; to harness mankind in the gears of an ecclesiastical despot, that they may be driven under his lash whithersoever his pleasure or interest may require; to obliterate the faculties that distinguish men from brutes; to deny the existence of a God by abrogating his attributes, and blaspheme Omnipotence by the ridicule of assuming his prerogatives; then the absolute, implicit, and unhesitating obedience enjoined on the religious orders by the Catholic Church is in accordance with its spirit and design. But if religion is morality in its highest development, humanity in its purest character, and reason in its freest exercise, then is the papal despotism not only subversive of religion, but destructive of the rights of man, of the obligations of virtue, and dangerous to the liberty and interests of the world.