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Effective Discipline

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 19, 2007

The Vatican is investigating the theological views of Georgetown University theologian Fr. Peter Phan. This was reported online at NCRcafe.org by John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter. But I found the comments posted by readers more significant than the story itself.

Every comment argues, in effect, that the Church should permit any theological view to be taught in her name, and that to do otherwise is heavy-handed and authoritarian. It is true that NCR has been a dissident newspaper for so long that regular visitors tend to be of one mind. Nonetheless, the point of view is instructive for those who manage the Church.

The comments highlight the extreme difficulty of effective Catholic discipline. While the Church has not attempted much by way of discipline since the twin notions of authority and obedience disappeared from Western culture in the 1960’s, this can be attributed to far more than lack of desire. The failure is at least equally due to the larger cultural situation, which makes it extremely difficult not so much to discipline as to discipline effectively.

The key to effective discipline consists in causing those who are threatened to dread the consequences. In the absence of good will, the entire purpose of discipline is to ensure that those who are tempted to write outside the lines refrain from doing so even though they still believe the lines are ugly and need to be erased. In a larger culture which cherishes what the Church opposes, it is hard to instill such craven self-restraint. In many instances, you will be better-liked and more highly praised, with more influential friends and a larger bank account, if you assume the false mantle of the rebel, embrace the values of the culture, and so earn the suspicion of Rome.

It is essential to understand that the shift away from effective discipline occurred even in the Church almost overnight in the cultural sea change of the 1960’s. The problem was not caused by those who have inherited it. It is for them an enormous given. Nonetheless, the habits of effective discipline must somehow be restored because the stakes are so very high. To cite just one important outcome, effective discipline is the only way to ensure that unsuitable candidates for future ecclesial positions will stop lining up in droves to present themselves for the jobs.

What this means is not that discipline can be avoided, but that disciplinarians must learn to think outside the box. A great deal of the creativity and energy of those in authority needs to be invested in finding means and methods of discipline that prevent the one disciplined from making a net gain as a result. Yes, discipline needs to be swifter and more definite. But that won't matter unless it is also more effective.

I do not wish to trivialize Church leadership by reducing it to mere discipline. But in our particular time and place, against our particular set of odds, disproportionate attention must be paid to this problem if significant gains in other areas are to be made. The comments in response to the Peter Phan story suggest that it is really just another Peter Pan story. It is a long road back from Never Land, and we need not only courage but also cleverness to get ourselves home.

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