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Categorical Catholic imperatives

— ‘God’s compulsion’ is a deep and authentic ‘should’ inside us that is louder than other nagging voices, says Fr Ronald Rolheiser

There is a well-known axiom that I will phrase more delicately than its usual expression. It goes this way: Every time you tell yourself that you should do something, you pay a bad price. The insinuation is that we are forever mistaking the voice of neurosis for the voice of conscience and putting ourselves under false obligations that rob us of both of freedom and maturity.

Is that true? Yes and no. The axiom sounds cleverer than it is. It says that there should not be any shoulds in our lives; but that statement is self-contradictory.

Still it needs to be given its due. There is wisdom in its instinct, even if it is expressed with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It has this positive challenge:  Many times when we feel a nagging obligation inside (“I must do this! I should do that!”) the imperative is not coming from God or truth but from some other voice that is being falsely heard as the voice of God. Put more technically, most of the voices we hear inside that demand that we do something are psychological and emotional rather than moral or religious. They don not tell us what is right or wrong, or what God wants of us, they only tell us how we feel about certain things. For example: a feeling of guilt does not indicate that we did something wrong, it only tells how we feel about what we did, and that feeling can be healthy or unhealthy. Perhaps we did not do anything wrong at all, but are only wounded and neurotic.  Sorrow and contrition are better indicators of morality than any feeling of guilt.


So where do these feelings of obligation and guilt come from? They come from nature and nurture, from genetics and socialisation, from our unconscious and from our wounds. Freudians, Jungians, and Hillmanians offer different explanations, but they all agree on the main thing, that is, many of the voices inside of us that speak of right and wrong and demand that we do this or that are not moral or religious voices at all. They may well have important things to teach us but, if we take them as the voice of God and morality, we will end up acting out of something other than God and conscience. Many of the ‘shoulds’ we feel inside of us are not the voice of conscience at all.

But, with that being said, some important qualifications need to be added: Simply put, sometimes the voice of obligation that we feel inside is profoundly moral and religious, God’s voice. False voices speak inside but so too do true ones. CS Lewis, for example, in describing his own conversion, shares how he did not want to become a Christian but something inside of him told him that he had to become one. Despite being ‘the most reluctant convert in the history of Christendom,’ at a point in his life, he came to realise ‘that God’s compulsion’ was his liberation. He became a Christian because, paradoxically, in a moment of genuine freedom, he came to know he had no other choice existentially except to surrender himself to something, God’s compulsion, which presented itself to him as an obligation.

‘God’s compulsion’ is precisely a deep and authentic ‘should’ inside us, and the great paradox is that when we submit to it we become freer and more mature. It is also what brings joy into our lives. It is no accident that the book in which Lewis describes this experience is called, Surprised by Joy.


There’s a great paradox at the heart of life that is hard to accept, namely, that freedom lies in obedience, maturity lies in surrender, and joy lies in accepting duty and obligation. Jesus clearly taught and embodied this paradox: He was the free-est human person to ever walk this planet, yet He insisted constantly that He did nothing on His own, that everything He did was in obedience to His Father. He was the paradigm of human maturity, even as His life was one within which He habitually surrendered His own will. And He was free of all false religion, false morality, and false guilt, even as He constantly drew upon moral and religious imperatives deep inside of His own soul and inside of His own religious tradition.

Simone Weil, that extraordinary philosopher and mystic who guarded her freedom so deeply that, despite her belief in the truth of Christ, she resisted Baptism because she was not sure that the visible church on earth merited this kind of trust, was, despite fierce instinctual resistance, clear that what she ultimately wanted and needed was to be obedient. We spend our whole lives, she once stated, searching for someone or something to be obedient to because unless we give ourselves over in obedience to something greater than ourselves, we inflate and grow silly—even to ourselves. She is right.

We need to stop obeying false voices inside of us. Neurosis is not to be confused with conscience. But, that being admitted, there are some ‘shoulds’ that we should do!


—Fr Ronald Rolheiser is a Catholic priest and member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He is also president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas


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