Submission, Obedience, and Free Love for Modern American Catholics

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Written by Glennamarie Rivers (Mount St. Mary’s) | Edited by Christopher Centrella

The following was a college essay written by Glennamarie Rivers. It has been edited and approved by Christopher Centrella. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

The American tendency to idolize independence as the greatest good contradicts the Catholic calling of total submission, obedience, and surrender of self in order to “have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The following paper recognizes this as a real and valid obstacle for many and puts forth that, ultimately, true freedom for the modern American Catholic can indeed be obtained through submission and obedience to God.

For reasons both historical and cultural Americans have an almost natural aversion to obedience and submission. The average American’s relationship with these ideas is deeply founded in the country’s past experiences with oppression. Rarely do classrooms discuss the idea of submission outside the context of struggling, defending, and fighting for independence and freedom for all. As a result, modern American culture and pride is so strongly interwoven in her historical identity that she strives with a stubborn heart towards an individualistic self-reliance.

On one hand, self-reliance and independence can inspire a person to greatness, and even to the heights of the coveted American dream. They are admirable qualities. On the other hand, the American tendency to idolize the independent person as the measuring stick for ultimate success, freedom, and happiness contradicts essential Catholic teachings on participation of life with Christ. The Vatican II document Dei Verbum, which addresses the role and interpretation of divine revelation in the modern age, declares that in order “to bring about an ever deeper understanding of revelation” one must surrender his will, intellect, and heart to God.[1] In other words, unless one fully obeys and submits to God, he will never fully understand God’s revealed Word and, consequently, will never have a full participation in the life of Christ. This indeed is a radical claim, especially to the ears of an average American Catholic living in the 21st century. The response regarding this conflict for the modern American Catholic is twofold: Part one confronts submission and obedience in the context of American culture that poses obstacles with Church teaching. Part two delves beyond cultural influences and into the foundation of a person’s intimate relationship with God. 

If a person responds to Dei Verbum by equating the negative connotation of the American historical and cultural experience, then at best he will have a very distorted perception of the teachings of the Catholic Church. At worst, this distortion will ultimately lead one astray from God’s loving embrace. To properly understand submission and obedience within Catholic tradition, one must understand it in light of the sacrificial life of Christ. Jesus devotes his entire life out of service to others, which culminates in his death as “the climax of a life lived for the sake of others.”[2] He fulfills the Father’s command to love precisely by submitting his own will and obeying God. We know he succeeds in this mission, for John tells us, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”[3]

The immensely important distinction between the submission exemplified by Christ and the submission of an oppressed or enslaved person lies in freedom of choice. This is a strange statement to modern ears, nevertheless I argue it must be truly heard. Albl’s explanation is helpful here: “The Father does not act as an abusive tyrant in ordering his Son to die. […] The Son willingly and freely accepts his Incarnation, suffering, and death as part of the Father’s plan for the salvation of the world.”[4] The obedience of a person enslaved by another is a forced response demanded from the slave owner. The enslaved one is stripped of respect and his dignity ignored because no opportunity is given for the slave to exercise his free will. Obedience is absolutely demanded. However, Jesus’ submission is not in any way forced into his obedience. God does not create with the malicious intent to dominate and manipulate creation. God is a loving Father, who created humans, gifted them with the ability and agency to act according to one’s own discernment (i.e. free will) and invites them into friendship with Himself. Jesus responds freely, and perfectly, to this invitation of friendship by submission. “The Son,” therefore, “is in such harmony with the Father’s will that he makes the Father’s will his own.”[5] Submission to God’s will means accepting the invitation to friendship with God.

This leads beyond the discussion of general cultural discomforts with submission and obedience and into the second half of the twofold response which challenges the ideas of submission and obedience on a more personal level. The Catholic Church teaches that we suffer the consequences of the Fall. Therefore, because of our inclination to sin and temptation (i.e. concupiscence), we suffer from our own sinfulness, temptations, shortcomings, and failures. No matter how much freedom we achieve, we will never be able to save ourselves from sin. No amount of stubborn independence, cultural or personal, will wash that away. We need the help of God. We need to understand that we need to let Christ be our Redeemer. True freedom that dissolves the bonds of sin is found on the Cross. And because God is no bully, he will not force us to the Cross and demand surrender. Like Jesus, he desires a free choice to love by means of surrender.

The quintessential American loyalties to independence and freedom from chains is an expression of a people yearning for love and harmony with one another. I argue that this free love can be achieved by submission and obedience. The road to free love is the way of the Cross. For justifiable reasons, it is understandable that American Catholics might want to flee from any kind of submission and obedience. But the modern American Catholic who is attentive to his relationship with God will eventually detect this struggle between an external push towards isolating self-reliance and an internal call to spiritual submission. He will be invited into a beautiful surrender not to the corruption of the world, but to life with Christ that is true liberation.

[1] Paul VI, Dei Verbum, accessed September 7, 2020,, 5

[2] Martin C. Albl, Reason, Faith, and Tradition: Explorations in Catholic Theology, Revised Edition (Anselm Academic, 2009), 308.

[3] John 13:1 (New American Bible)

[4] Albl, Reason, Faith, and Tradition, 309.

[5] Albl, Reason, Faith, and Tradition, 309.

One Response

  1. We can’t free ourselves from our slavery to worry, anger, unforgiveness, compulsions, and addictions. We surrender to God to get the peace and strength in order to get freedom from these things (see Philippians 4:6-7; 1Peter 5:5-7; Proverbs 3:5-6; Psalms 37:7; 55:22; Isaiah 26:3-4; 55:7-9; and Galatians 5:22-23). This is true freedom.

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