St. Thomas Aquinas on True Obedience vs. False Obedience

What Is Obedience?

Obedience is traditionally defined as “promptness of will to do the will of one’s superior.” It is classified as a special moral virtue that is a part of the cardinal virtue of justice.

The Catechism of the Council of Trent affirms:

“We are bound to honor not only our natural parents, but also others who are called fathers, such as bishops and priests, kings, princes and magistrates, tutors, guardians and masters, teachers, aged persons and the like, all of whom are entitled, some in a greater, some in a less degree, to share our love, our obedience, and our assistance.”

St. Paul commands likewise: “Obey your prelates and be subject to them. For they watch as being to render an account of your souls; that they may do this with joy, and not with grief. For this is not expedient for you” (Hebrews 13:17). All of those in legitimate authority over us must be honored and respected for the office they hold.

Hence, we are obliged by the Fourth Commandment to observe true obedience. But what does obedience really mean? Many faithful, traditional Catholics are accused of being disobedient. But is this a sound critique or rash judgment?

St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, on True Obedience

St. Thomas Aquinas distinguished between true obedience and false obedience, and this distinction is important for all of us today.

True obedience, according to St. Thomas, is aligned with moral virtue and the Natural Law. He rightly taught that individuals have a moral duty to obey laws and authorities that are consistent with reason and the moral order. True obedience involves following just laws and legitimate authorities in a manner that upholds, above all, God’s law and also proper ethical principles. This also applies to secular rulers who possess valid authority, as St. Thomas teaches in the Summa Theologiae:[1]

“Now the order of justice requires that subjects obey their superiors, else the stability of human affairs would cease. Hence faith in Christ does not excuse the faithful from the obligation of obeying secular princes.”

On the other hand, false obedience occurs when individuals follow commands that go against moral principles or the Natural Law. In accordance with perennial Catholic teaching, the Angelic Doctor explained that people are not morally obligated to obey commands that are contrary to the principles of justice and morality. This teaching goes back to St. Peter himself and is infallibly taught by the Holy Ghost in the Sacred Scriptures. If a law or command contradicts God’s Law or the Natural Law, then individuals are bound – by true obedience – to not follow such an evil law or command.[2]

When May a Catholic Refuse Obedience?

There are two primary situations when a Catholic may refuse to obey a superior (e.g., a parent, a priest, a bishop, etc.): when the order comes from one lacking the proper authority or when the order is harmful for souls. Likewise, St. Thomas clarifies that laws may be unjust in two ways:[3]

  • “when an authority imposes on his subjects burdensome laws [which are] conducive, not to the common good, but rather to his own [greediness] or vainglory”; or
  • “when a man makes a law that goes beyond the power committed to him – or … when burdens are imposed unequally on the community, although with a view to the common good”.

Exception 1: If the person issuing the statement lacks authority, no law is created.

A law must come from a valid lawgiver. It requires the government to pass laws according to the foundational rules of the nation (a Constitution) and laws already in place. The one issuing the law must do so in a lawful manner and have the power to do so by the office he holds. Not just anyone can pass laws which obligate others.

St. Thomas further teaches: “Law is nothing else than an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.” If someone lacks authority, such a person does not have valid care of the community or the authority to promulgate law.[4]

Exception 2. If the law is harmful to souls, it must be rejected.

Assuming that the person has proper authority, a law must still be rejected if it is harmful to souls or encourages, promotes, or orders what is sinful. The adage “salus animarum, suprema lex” (the salvation of souls is the supreme law) underpins all of this. For this reason, while obedience is to be highly valued, if a superior orders what is sinful, we must disobey his command. As St. Thomas Aquinas stated:

“Laws may be unjust in two ways: both in being contrary to human good, and in being opposed to the Divine good. The first way is when a law is contrary to the human good rightly apprehended. In this case, a law ceases to be a law, and becomes instead an act of violence.”[5]

A Particular Application

Are the perennial teachings of the Church harmful to souls or conducive to salvation? For example, the truth that Heaven and hell exist, that God judges each soul at the moment of death, and that the human soul is immortal and will never be simply annihilated. Or that marriage is between one man and one woman until death do them part, with the primary purpose of the procreation and proper formation of children? Or that homosexual acts are unnatural and intrinsically evil? Or the truth that God never blesses sinful acts? Since these are all true and truth does not change, then Catholics are bound to hold fast to them no matter what any authority on earth might say.

Catholics may never, under any circumstance, abandon the dogma of Faith. As the Fourth Council of Constantinople (869-870 AD) infallibly taught, and the First Vatican Council reasserted (1870 AD): “The first condition for salvation is to keep the rule of the true faith.[6] In a similar vein, the Second Council of Nicea (787 AD) infallibly declared: If anyone rejects any written or unwritten Tradition of the Church, let him be anathema.” Note well, Our Lady warned at Fatima that many would in fact lose the dogma of Faith.

The Mass of Ages is of course a great tradition of the Church; in fact the Roman Rite is the oldest liturgical rite with its origins traced back to St. Peter himself. Is the Traditional Latin Mass harmful to souls? No. It was and is the Mass of the saints. Are the fruits of the Latin Mass overwhelmingly positive? Yes.

And is the fruit of the Novus Ordo deficient? Sadly, yes. Even when it is said with piety and respect for the liturgical rules, it does not convey the truths of the Faith as the Mass is designed to do – by Our Lord Himself. Rather, it has been influenced by the spirit of Protestantism, modernism, and false ecumenism. Much to our sadness and chagrin, it bears within it a poison harmful to the Faith.

Good bishops, priests, and theologians have been trumpeting this reality since the 1960s (see the well-known Ottaviani Intervention). The rotten fruits of the past sixty years have proved the truth of their sense of the Faith. Therefore, a Catholic can never be obligated – by any authority whatsoever – to attend the Novus Ordo or be forced to abandon the Traditional Mass of Ages (see Quo Primum by Pope St. Pius V).


Perhaps Bishop Athanasius Schneider said it best when, in response to the suppression of the Tridentine Mass in June 2021, he stated in part:

“In disobeying formally such an unheard-of prohibition of an inalienable patrimony of the Roman Church, one in fact obeys the Catholic Church of all ages and all the Popes who diligently celebrated and commanded the preservation of that venerable and canonized form of the Mass.”

The next time you or someone else is accused of “disobedience” for upholding Christian morality, reverence, or the Mass of the Ages, remember the principles of St. Thomas Aquinas. Obedience does not require blindly obeying an order. In fact, refusing evil orders and holding firm to the Faith of our forefathers is true obedience and, with the example of St. Athanasius, we must do likewise.

Editor’s Note: For those interested in this subject, we strongly recommend the recent works by Dr Peter Kwasniewski: Bound by Truth: Authority, Obedience, Tradition, and the Common Good (Angelico Press, 2023) and True Obedience in the Church: A Guide to Discernment in Challenging Times (Crisis Publications, 2022).


[1] Summa Theologiae, Second Part of the Second Part [II-II], Question 104, Article 6.

[2] “It is written (Acts 5:29): ‘We ought to obey God rather than men.’ Now sometimes the things commanded by a superior are against God. Therefore, superiors are not to be obeyed in all things” (Summa, II-II, q. 104, art. 5).

[3] Summa, I-II, q. 96, art. 4.

[4] Catholic theologians teach that if a bishop should be judged a formal heretic by the proper authority, then he would lose his office. In such a case, the proper authority should in fact issue a formal public declaration and excommunicate the formal heretic with the hope that he renounces his sin and returns to Catholic unity in the truth.

[5] Summa, I-II, q. 96, art. 4.

[6] See Pastor Aeternus, Chapter 4, No. 2 (Session 4, 18 July 1870).