The Truth About ‘The Obedience Paradox’

If we are to understand obedience and ‘Finding True Freedom in Marriage,’ we must focus on Mary.

St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 5:22 contains the precept, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord.”
St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 5:22 contains the precept, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord.” (photo: AlexLB / Shutterstock)



By Mary Stanford

Our Sunday Visitor, 2022

167 pages, $12.95

To order: THE OBEDIENCE PARADOX - Finding True Freedom in Marriage | EWTN Religious Catalogue

St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 5:22 contains the precept, “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord.” Many Catholics, even some of those in authority, seem embarrassed about that verse. The current missal even puts the verse in brackets, allowing the priest the option for its complete omission during Mass. Rather than have the verse censored, however, the faithful need a solid explanation of submission and obedience.

Enter Mary Stanford, author of The Obedience Paradox.

Stanford states the problem: “Catholics today tend to fall in lockstep with modern culture in our antipathy toward the term obedience in everyday married life. Any mention of a wife ‘obeying’ or ‘submitting to’ her husband is usually met with a chuckle or a raised eyebrow.” Stanford explains the problem often stems from the fact that Christians largely do not understand what is meant by “obedience.” She explains, “The word obedience comes from the Latin obaudire, meaning ‘to hear or listen to.’” Ultimately, obedience means to hear or listen to God. And in that respect, every Christian has duties of obedience. That is the essential point that we have forgotten, ignored, or censored.

While we might consider the rejection of obedience as yet another manifestation of modernist times, Stanford argues that such rejection is anything but new: “What we often fail to recognize — even amid our modern discomfort with such references — is that our aversion to the notion of obedience is not a radically modern development. It surfaced at the very origin of humanity’s relationship with our Creator.” Original sin —and every sin that followed, for that matter — is a matter of disobedience.

Modern society objects to obedience, even equating it with slavery. This is entirely wrong. While sin enslaves us, the virtue of obedience set us free — and true obedience involves free will. Stanford explains, “Authentic obedience is always chosen, not compelled or forced.” Mary’s fiat illustrates this point — and no one listened better or more lovingly. And if we are to understand obedience, we must focus on Mary. Stanford writes, “To suggest that Mary’s obedience was slavish robs her of that very gift that makes her a person: her freedom.”

To confirm this point, Stanford cites Pope Leo XIII’s Arcanum Divinae Sapientiae, in which the Pontiff writes, “The husband is chief of the family and head of the wife. The woman … must be subject to her husband and obey him; not indeed as a servant, but as a companion, so that her obedience shall be wanting in neither honor nor dignity.” This companionship is also vital to a husband in his role as father. Stanford notes that “a wise husband often heeds a wife’s advice and defers to her expertise in many matters — particularly those regarding our children, to whose needs, feelings, and moral development she is particularly sensitive.”

Vital to the conversation about obedience is the virtue of charity. Not only is charity the greatest of virtues, but serves as the primordial virtue to obedience and all the others. This applies to the wife, but even prior to the husband. For a husband cannot properly function as the head of the family without love. In fact, if he neglects to love — if he fails to love, honor and dignify his wife as a companion — he is violating his duty of obedience to God. He becomes a tyrant. Stanford explains, “A tyrant takes; a lover gives. … If the husband is called to give himself, a wife’s submission can be understood generally as a response to — a reception of — her husband’s self-gift.”

From the opposite side of the spectrum, Stanford argues that many marriages suffer not from the husband being overly authoritarian, but, rather, in refusing to accept or exercise any authority at all. Stanford writes, “How many husbands and fathers today bypass headship because it can be such a headache? Too many men are willing to take the path of least resistance because they would rather not be the ‘bad guy,’ particularly when it comes to saying no to their children’s wishes.” Of course, it doesn’t help that many so-called intellectuals continually insist that fathers are extraneous and unimportant. Fathers need to recognize that this is nonsense and lead their families accordingly.

Stanford makes another specific and crucial point regarding obedience: Sinful instructions and commands cannot be followed. Within marriage, Stanford refers to contraception as one example. But Stanford broadens out this discussion, stating: “When those in authority — in the political or the domestic sphere — misunderstand their role as tyranny, they attempt to dominate their subjects. This tyranny crushes their spirit, drains them of life, and in so doing makes of itself something monstrous. All authentic authority must be true to its name: It must foster life.”

To build upon Stanford’s principle, it would be no exaggeration to conclude that our age has experienced a weaponization of obedience. We have witnessed uncharitable, unjust, and flagrantly sinful commands given by many of those in authority — including some in ecclesiastical positions. It is increasingly coming to light that many clerics have committed heinous abuses and Luciferian atrocities in the name of obedience. The evidence of that statement could fill many relentlessly sorrowful volumes. Thus, rather than run from the discussion of obedience, the Church desperately needs to focus on the nature of obedience as well as its defined limits. I would love to see Stanford discuss this topic more in her future writing.

One of the great strengths of the book is that Stanford — who holds a Master of Theological Studies and is the home-schooling mother of seven — weaves a discussion of theological principles with her own practical experience. It’s important to note that though obedience is the central theme of the book, it opens the door to a much more comprehensive — and very beautiful — view of marriage. Stanford has adroitly explained some difficult topics in a clear and understandable way. Stanford’s book accomplishes something else that Register readers will appreciate: It serves as a powerful antidote to decades worth of atheistic and anti-family feminism penned by those who claim to be experts on marriage and family yet abhor the very thought of marriage.

The prime audience for this book is clearly married persons. Even after 30 years of marriage, I found this book insightful on both a philosophical and practical level. As I read it, I kept thinking that it would make an extraordinarily helpful pre-Cana text. But there’s another audience who desperately needs to hear this message: parish priests. When we’ve reached the stage in which priests are omitting passages in sacred Scripture, it’s imperative that pastors gain the knowledge in this book and begin proclaiming the beauty of the teaching about obedience — and about marriage.

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