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Smaller Church, Bigger Faith, 3: Ecclesiastical Discipline

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 17, 2014

In the previous installment emphasizing the “impact of grace”, I noted the problematic nature of any kind of institutionalized program to press deficient Catholics to select themselves out of the Church. Once again, I am referring to those who claim the Catholic name but do not fully assent to the Church’s definitions of faith, her moral teachings and the basic precepts which outline the minimum requirements for effective participation. But I also noted the following:

I have not examined here the question of those who, in a definite rejection of some aspect of what it means to be a member of the Church, actually battle the Church from within. These would be the last to select themselves out, and this raises the question of ecclesiastical judgment as a means of determining membership.

It is time to consider ecclesiastical discipline.

Two Sides to Discipline

There are two sides to Catholic discipline, which can also be viewed in terms of both interior observance and exterior judgment. First and most important, despite lingering deficiencies, Catholics should—and usually do—draw ever more fully into the heart of the Church by deepening their perception of truth and their thirst for holiness, as manifested in all the virtues, particularly charity. This is an ongoing process of spiritual growth, and it relates closely to the last installment as a proper response to grace.

Second, Catholics should actually be seen to grow in their observance of the external “disciplines” of the Church, disciplines which are certainly designed to promote interior growth but also contribute to the esprit de corps of the Church as a body: Professing the Faith; observing the fasts; honoring the feasts; following the rules governing confession, communion and matrimony; attending Mass more often than the minimum; observing the special character of the Lord’s Day and holy days of obligation; participating in Eucharistic adoration and other official devotions; supporting their parish financially; spending time working on parish projects and in parish organizations; and so on.

To put this in the terms of the previous discussion of self-selection, we see that Catholics should definitely self-select themselves into an ever-deeper participation in the Church, but we hardly want them to self-select themselves out whenever their interior discipline falters through confusion or laziness, and neither do we want them to select themselves out whenever they fail in various ways to observe the external disciplines of the Catholic life. Catholics are members of the Church by baptism, and it would simply be a further temptation, upon recognizing their “problems” with the Church, to renounce their baptism.

Ecclesiastical Judgment

But discipline has a corollary in punishment. Just as a lack of interior discipline is ultimately punished by the failure to respond properly to reality, up to and including the consequences of rejecting God, so too is a lack of external discipline subject to external judgment by the same authority which creates disciplinary rules in the first place. This brings us to the question of the Church’s official role not only in creating disciplines for the Church but also in preserving the Church’s discipline.

There are various ways in which this can be done. For example, it is the minister of the Sacrament of Penance who imposes the punishment, voluntarily accepted as a penance, on those who confess their interior and exterior faults. The pope and the bishops make rules for the reception of the sacraments, and these rules are often enforced simply by ensuring that certain minimal external requirements are met for such things as first confession, first communion, confirmation and matrimony. Beyond these methods, it is very difficult to assess juridically (for purposes of punishment or exclusion) the failures of the faithful in ordinary cases, because it is very difficult to know for certain the nature and frequency of their ordinary failures.

It seems clear that we no more want ecclesiastical authority to expel members from the Church for interior tepidity or a failure to carefully observe the Church’s external disciplines than we want these same members to renounce their baptism when they recognize such failures in themselves. Even if this were desirable (which I deny), it would require an immense and costly staff, constant monitoring, frequent reporting and cross-checking, and in all something so disturbingly harmful to authentic spiritual development as to cause the Church to rival in her own field the worst excesses of the modern bureaucratic state, under whose Draconian tutelage we must increasingly follow massive codes of secular conduct and decorum.

It is perhaps obvious to conclude that the proper scope for Church discipline is twofold. First, ecclesiastical authority must be used to establish, with adjustments as needed, the sorts of Catholic avowals and practices which are most conducive in each time and place to both interior growth and esprit de corps. Second, ecclesiastical authority must punish violations of these disciplines only in egregious cases which involve willful and public defiance. It is not ordinary human failure that requires ecclesiastical punishment but rather the defiance which undermines the commitment and health of the whole body of the Church. This is especially egregious when it enables those who have ordinary difficulties with Catholic teaching to cite dissident figures as proof that the Church really tacitly approves a rejection of traditional beliefs, or is about to change.

Note that we do not care a fig, for purposes of discipline, whether an avowed atheist loudly proclaims that the Church’s beliefs are ridiculous. But when one who claims to be Catholic publicly contradicts or repudiates something essentially Catholic, this is exactly the kind of fault, and poses exactly the kind of danger, to which ecclesiastical authority must respond.

The Proper Exercise of Authority

Many concerned Catholics have complained for a long time about the weakness of Catholic authority and discipline, as outlined in the previous paragraph, over the past fifty years. One of the problems with eliminating this weakness, of course, is that it cannot simply be done by throwing a switch. Church officials are, like all Church members, influenced by the permissiveness, the lack of appreciation for religious and moral values, and the rapid secularization of the larger culture.

In some ways, this is a good thing. For example, it is necessary to recognize that the disciplinary methods used by the Church in, say, 1400—when the entire European community was Catholic and tied closely to ecclesiastical authority—may not be effective in our own time, when social pressure to conform to ecclesiastical discipline is all but non-existent. But in other ways, the failure to identify salutary disciplines—including the articulation of specific “symbols” (formulas) of faith and morals—and the failure to enforce these disciplines against public rejection by those who claim the Catholic name—is merely symptomatic of the general weakness of Church membership, at every level, which we are seeking here to ameliorate.

Even in modern society, it remains relatively easy in most cases for the pope and bishops to discipline wayward clergy. This can be accomplished through non-preferment, reassignment, withdrawal of faculties, refusal of the mandatum to teach theology, forced retirement and, if necessary, laicization. Adverse publicity is to be expected, but not to be feared. Even the public excommunication of a layman who plays a leading role in opposing principles of faith and morals which the Church holds as absolutely certain will only bring the kind of publicity that helps to draws clearer lines and, over time, to build an authentically Catholic esprit de corps.

If we want to improve the quality of the Church’s membership, it seems that we must be advocates of improved ecclesiastical discipline, including advocates through prayer that our ecclesiastical superiors will have the perspicacity and courage to impose it well. Nonetheless, its implementation and even its salutary results are hardly certain. And that is why there is still much more to consider.


Previous in series: Smaller Church, Bigger Faith 2: The Impact of Grace
Next: Smaller Church, Bigger Faith 4: The Challenge of Preaching

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: bruno - Apr. 23, 2014 8:39 PM ET USA

    "This can be accomplished through non-preferment, reassignment." Precisely the punishment I witnessed being meted out to a few holy priests during the 1980's. Thankfully, that crowd of prelates is now growing older with me. 'After all, every dog has to die someday'. May God's grace raise up faithful ministers and many in your future.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Apr. 22, 2014 4:29 PM ET USA

    Cross reference to Canadian Cardinal who "criticized" the Catholic teachers etc This Cardinal's criticism is a dead giveaway to a hypocritical attitude with respect to discipline within the Church. He gives the appearance of censure and concern when his primary purpose is to disguise and divert.How can Catholic teachers have 2 identities, as though what they do on the outside doesn't matter much so long as formality is maintained in the classroom?!& why do mature Catholics just accept nonsense?

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Apr. 18, 2014 4:07 PM ET USA

    Great summary of the problems in discipline. Where to begin? It would seem logical for the church to discipline first the priests and bishops that have a need for discipline. This must happen in a very public manner. Then the church should discipline sisters and monks. Then discipline theologians and teachers of the faith. Once that is finished the laity will have received the message loud and clear.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 18, 2014 11:53 AM ET USA

    "Church officials are, like all Church members, influenced by the permissiveness, the lack of appreciation for religious and moral values, and the rapid secularization of the larger culture." The problem has been a problem of faith. Many officials simply have not professed in word, nor exhibited in deed continuity with the Church's timeless mission. A crisis of faith has hurt the esprit de corps because the spirit is something other than authentic charity all good intentions notwithstanding.

  • Posted by: loumiamo7154 - Apr. 17, 2014 9:54 PM ET USA

    I suppose it's to be expected, with the coming canonization of JP2 that u would end this column with the caveat, the "implementation (of discipline) and even its salutary results are hardly certain." He could have done so much that would have minimized the damage caused by the modernists, but instead he chose to write books instead.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Apr. 17, 2014 5:53 PM ET USA

    It all sounds "very good" Dr. Mirus, but it offers little in regard to practical personal responses. "Self-selecting out?" which should occur when a person finds themselves unworthy of Eucharist, simply is not happening. Overt public discipline of flagrant practical offenders? That isn't happening either, with Richard Rohr, priest receiving no punishment or sanction from the Franciscans & only being required to give the bishop of Santa Fe a letter saying "I promise not to do it again..."

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