Tag Archive | "orthodoxy"

Bound by Belief: Are Catholics Obliged to Obey?

And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

– Matthew 16:19

A reader of my post on primacy of conscience had an issue with my use of the word “bound” when I implicitly concluded that Catholics are bound to obey the Church. His main objection was that together with my use of “prison” in the title, “bound” implied that the Church took away the freedom of Catholics to make up their own minds. He concluded that because a Catholic can refuse to obey the Church on certain things, he is not bound.

I’ll explain here that my usage of the term is accurate and the objection is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of obligations.

Bound by Duty

One of the synonyms of “obligated” or “obliged” is “duty bound.” Also, “bound” has several dictionary definitions, but I used (and use) the following one in bold:

bound 3 (bound)


Past tense and past participle of bind.


1. Confined by bonds; tied: bound and gagged hostages.

2. Being under legal or moral obligation: bound by my promise.

The reader’s objection is probably due to his thinking that I meant “bound” in the first sense: confined and tied like gagged hostages. This is not what I meant, but I am aware of this connotation, which is an added bonus. But even without this there are several valid reasons to use “bound” instead of the alternatives.

Bound by Church Law

First, the Church itself is fond of using this term, and in the way that I meant it (obligation). Here are two examples taken from my post on primacy alone:

The Church’s Magisterium also teaches the faithful specific particular precepts and requires that they consider them in conscience as morally binding.

– Pope John Paul II

Above the pope as an expression of the binding claim of church authority, stands one’s own conscience, which has to be obeyed first of all, if need be against the demands of church authority.

– Pope Benedict XVI

And don’t forget the bible verse I quoted to start this post, one of the pillars of Church authority. The expressions “bind” and “loose” were common in Jewish legal lexicon:

The phrase “to bind” and “to loose” was often used by the Jews. It meant to prohibit and to permit. To bind a thing was to forbid it; to loose it, to allow it to be done… When Jesus gave this power to the apostles, he meant that whatsoever they forbade in the church should have divine authority; whatever they permitted, or commanded, should also have divine authority – that is, should be bound or loosed in heaven, or meet the approbation of God.

The Catholic Church, which has “what is claimed to be the oldest continuously functioning internal legal system in Western Europe”, sees this as Jesus giving them the authority to enforce God’s laws, laws written in the Code of Canon Law.

Bound by Civil Law

To this day the term is still used not only in Church law but in civil law as well, although in a different sense. Instead of forbidding, “binding” implies obligations [emphasis mine]:

What then are legal obligations? They are legal requirements with which law’s subjects are bound to conform. An obligatory act or omission is something the law renders non-optional. Since people plainly can violate their legal obligations, “non-optional” does not mean that they are physically compelled to perform, nor even that law leaves them without any eligible alternative. On the contrary, people often calculate whether or not to perform their legal duties.

This shows us that although binding obligations are non-optional, it does not mean physical coercion or absence of alternatives is necessary. The reader’s objection to my usage of bound is based on the misunderstanding that binding necessitates removal of all alternatives. On the contrary, a person can be bound and still have alternatives.

Bound by Belief

Consider theft. A buyer is bound by legal obligation to pay the seller the right amount. This obligation is binding; it’s non-optional. This does not mean the buyer is not free to ignore the obligation. He can try to pay less, pay more, pay with something else, or not pay at all, which leads to certain sanctions. But there are sanctions precisely because there is a prior binding obligation to pay.

In the same way, Catholics are bound to believe the Church. Again, being bound does not mean the Catholic is not free to ignore the obligation: he is free to dissent. But like theft, doing so involves sanctions — heresy, exclusion from communion, etc. — precisely because there is a binding obligation.

So being bound to believe (or obey) does not necessarily mean a Catholic cannot dissent (or disobey). Catholics are free to disobey, but they are not free to disobey without consequences. It is in this sense that they are bound. Thus, my original usage of the term is valid. But so is the connotation of the word: being tied and gagged like hostages.

When hostages are physically prevented from escape, their freedom is obviously limited. But what if the hostages are not physically tied? What if the kidnapper threatens the hostage with something else (killing the hostage, killing a loved one, torture, blackmail, etc.)? The hostage may not be physically prevented from trying to escape (in the sense that he can attempt it) but the effect is just the same.

Now consider clerical child abuse. A child who is raped by a priest is not physically prevented from telling the authorities. Nor is the child’s family. But through Crimen Solicitationis, which details a Church policy to silence victims and coverup abuses, threats of excommunication and eternal damnation were used to silence the victims and their families. They were gagged into silence because they were bound to believe.

Because to many believers, eternal damnation is the worst possible fate — far worse than kidnapping or torture or death. I brought this up because the sanctions for doubting dogmatic teachings are similar to those used to silence the victims of clerical child abuse.

The problem with such sanctions when it comes to religious belief is it puts the believer’s motivation into question. Surely, it is possible that a believer obeys the Church completely out of their own volition. But when threats of eternal damnation and rewards of eternal life are at stake, can you really say that a believer is not bound to believe?

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