Published April 3, 2000
In the second act of Camelot, King Arthur’s bastard son Mordred, a poisonous weed in the garden of the Round Table, mocks “the seven deadly virtues” in some of Alan Jay Lerner’s wittiest – and most prescient – lyrics:
“The seven deadly virtues, those ghastly little traps –
Oh no, my liege, they were not meant for me.
Those seven deadly virtues were made for other chaps
Who love a life of failure and ennui…
Let others take the high road; I will take the low.
I cannot wait to rush in where angels fear to go.
With all those seven deadly virtues
Free and happy little me has not….been…cursed!”
I say “prescient” because Camelot was first produced on Broadway in December 1960, at the beginning of a decade in which American culture came to look on words like “duty,” “honor,” and even “virtue” with profound skepticism. Freedom, on the new understanding of things, had far more to do with doing things “my way” than with doing the right thing for the right reasons in the right way. And given that understanding (better, misunderstanding) of freedom, the moral law inevitably came to be seen as a burden – an imposition from “outside” on my interior liberty. “Free and happy little me” was free and happy precisely because he (or she) didn’t care a fig what thousands of years of human moral experience (not to mention God) deemed bad news. “Obedience,” in this way of thinking, didn’t have much to do with either freedom or happiness. Dolts were obedient. Mature adults had broken free of all that.
Which brings us, by an admittedly circuitous route, to former Lutheran pastor Leonard Klein. Long one of the adornments of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Leonard and his wife Christa were received into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2003; Leonard is now preparing for his Catholic ordination as a priest of the (very fortunate) Diocese of Wilmington. Writing recently about his experience as a Catholic, Leonard Klein said that one of the things he had found most satisfying was the sense of freedom Catholicism engendered. This was, to be sure, “quite the opposite of what many would expect.” But, nonetheless, that’s the way things were:
“How can this be, the Protestant polemicist might ask? How can one speak of a greater freedom under the burden of the Roman obedience? The answer is simple – Catholics…know that it is not all up to them….Toward the end of my time as a Lutheran pastor I use to protest that we were all reduced to being gurus. I tried to be authentically Lutheran, but who was to say that I was and the liberal feminist or church-growth ersatz Evangelical down the street wasn’t just as Lutheran as I…By contrast a Catholic priest or lay person can speak of what the Church teaches or permits, and that is freedom. It should come as no surprise to anyone who understands that our true freedom lies in obedience, not the quivering obsequiousness imagined by post-Enlightenment people but the liberating obedience of faith. When the Church is Church, ‘liberating obedience’ begins to make sense even in the most routine matters.”
The Church’s greatest celebration of the mystery of “liberating obedience” is the Solemn Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday. There, we remember that on the eternal Son, taking all the refuse of the world’s evil upon himself in obedience to the Father’s design, offered himself for the world’s salvation in a radical act of self-giving love. Disfigured by self-seeking disobedience, humanity is redeemed by obedience: and obedience, on the model of the Son, is not mindless acquiescence, but a truth we enter only on the far side of blood-sweating Gethsemane – the garden of temptation to self-sufficiency, the playground of all the Mordreds of history.
Easter follows, as the liberating power of obedience is revealed in a New Life so dazzling that frightened disciples cannot at first recognize it. The path to Easter always runs, however, through Calvary – and through the mystery of obedient faith. Leonard Klein understands that. So should we all.