Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Doctrine, Discipline and Holiness: Not Always What They Seem

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 14, 2012

A letter in the latest Adoremus Bulletin reminded me that we “conservative Catholics” can go off the rails, at times, on disciplinary questions. The correspondent insisted that only musical instruments made from God’s own materials (that is, natural materials) were appropriate for use in Church. This was apparently taken from some papal prescription made somewhere during the Church’s long history. Wood, yes; plastic, no.

I referred here to “conservative Catholics”, but let me pause to emphasize that I don’t like to use adjectives before the word “Catholic”. To be fully Catholic means to be baptized, to accept the teachings of the Church on faith and morals, to obey ecclesiastical superiors wherever they have authority, and to use the gifts made available through the Church to grow in holiness. If we make a conscious decision to distance ourselves from any of these criteria, we throw our Catholicism into grave doubt; otherwise, regardless of our degree of perfection at the moment, we are completely justified in describing ourselves as “Catholic”.

Nonetheless, some adjectives are useful for indicating the tendencies of particular groups of Catholics, and every human tendency will ultimately lead to trouble if it is not corrected, shaped and perfected by participation in the life of the Church. Thus, for example, those whom we might call “liberal Catholics” will tend to speak more about charity and less about doctrine and discipline, while those whom we might call “conservative Catholics” will tend to speak more about doctrine and discipline and less about charity.

In fact, the so-called conservative Catholic will often view the liberal as deficient in truth, while the so-called liberal Catholic will often view the conservative as deficient in charity. Properly tempered and perfected, however, both dispositions can lead, through a life of increasing holiness, to that “caritas in veritate” (charity in truth) which Pope Benedict described in his encyclical by the same name. But both dispositions can also take us right off the rails of the narrow way that leads to life.

Liberal and Conservative Tendencies

I won’t dwell here on the characteristic mistakes of “liberal” Catholics, which typically arise from the uncritical acceptance of worldly ideas at the expense of a solid commitment to Catholic doctrine, and which place at grave risk the knowledge of what it actually means to love. Since most of those who support our work tend to be “conservative” Catholics, it is more to the point to take a look at a different set of characteristic mistakes. And these arise from a tendency to confuse orthodoxy and love, as well as a corresponding tendency to believe, despite the lessons of history, that particular ecclesiastical disciplines can cause the problems of the Church to disappear.

I have already hinted that authentic love requires authentic orthodoxy. Those who are ignorant of, or in rebellion against, Catholic teaching inevitably advocate many objective evils in the name of love, because—not understanding the Good—they cannot truly act for the good of another, which is the very definition of love. The plain fact is that we cannot love properly if we do not first honor the truth. And it is similarly important to notice that obedience to those ecclesiastical disciplines which the Church imposes upon us serve as a gateway to love. By humbling ourselves and giving up our own wills in these disciplinary and devotional matters, we become less selfish and so more open to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit.

But adherence to Catholic teaching is not enough, and it is even dangerous if it leads us to neglect either the gifts or the needs of others because they somehow do not “measure up”. It is also spiritually dangerous to take pride in our discipline, especially when it leads us to look down upon those who lack our wonderful fervor. Both orthodoxy and ecclesiastical or personal spiritual discipline can, when animated by the wrong Spirit, cater to our amazing capacity for self-respect. Wrongly used, they can lead, just like laziness and worldliness, to spiritual illness and death. The Devil himself is orthodox. The moment we take “holy satisfaction” in ourselves, it is a sure sign that we are suffering dangerously from the illusion of self-love.

The Nature of Discipline

Sometimes, at the level of ecclesiastical discipline, this problem can actually be quite humorous. I recall being in a discussion, when I was in my early 20s, with two priests, the one fairly old, the other quite young. We were coming up on Lent. The younger priest—and this was in the early 1970s—commented that he intensely disliked the Stations of the Cross because they were “such a penance.” I never could figure out whether he was joking. The older priest turned to him and said just two words: “Yes. And?”

I can remember, too, in the early days of Christendom College, when I was serving as a professor and the Director of Academic Affairs, and promoting the College like mad, that we received two letters from angry Catholics who had seen pictures of some of the female students wearing slacks. Citing Pope Pius XII, who had warned the women of Catholic Action against the fashion of wearing pants, these folks insisted that we could not possibly succeed in our mission unless we imposed the proper dress code.

It was not my first experience with people of one idea, nor was it to be my last.

The various specific instructions for ecclesiastical discipline and for engaging the larger culture change with time and place, and what is best for one group in one period may not be so for another group in another period. Moreover, some practices or fashions may be construed to represent an unfortunate tendency in one particular cultural “atmosphere” while communicating no such moral or ideological meaning in another. The same applies to particular penitential practices, liturgical rubrics, popular devotions, and so on. These can change with time, place and situation. Decisions about them may be good or bad even at the time they are made. A spirit of piety is always significant, but the importance of particular practices varies greatly, with time, place, situation and personality.

More Examples

Thus I find it both disturbing and somewhat amusing when someone writes in to “point out” that nothing we can do to renew the Church and society will have any effect until “the immemorial Tridentine Mass is restored”, as if the grace of Christ has never flowed (and can never flow) through any other liturgical form, and as if their own perception must be the liturgical rule for the whole Church, both East and West. And others sometimes write that we will make no spiritual gains until the world is consecrated to the Immaculate Heart (which, in fact, has already been done, but not to their personal satisfaction). Or that the only effective way to combat some evil is with a Rosary rally. Or that a true spirit of renewal requires that women cover their heads in church.

All of which brings me back to the (inadvertently humorous) letter in the Adoremus Bulletin, in which the correspondent itemized those things which were absolutely necessary for the proper use of liturgical music in Church. His first point was that “only the human voice is the preferred ‘instrument’ in the Church, as this is the instrument directly created by God.” His second was that “other instruments are tolerated…[but] the sound created by the instrument should be derived from God’s creation, i.e., wood, metal, or other natural substances.” And his third point was that, while this stricture permitted pipe organs, it obviously meant that “electric organs are not appropriate for Catholic churches, as the sound produced by these instruments is not derived from natural substances.”

What this writer did was thumb through a book on papal legislation on sacred music in which, at one time or another over a 1900-year period, various popes had stipulated or suggested these various pastoral or disciplinary (certainly not doctrinal) points. Hence his insistence on “Vatican-based standards” to solve the problem of liturgical music once and for all. The writer was a medical doctor. One is tempted to remark that he remembers how to read a prescription but has forgotten how important it is for prescriptions to be changed as conditions change.

The Spiritual Point

Now I hope no one will misunderstand my point. Precisely because Catholic doctrine is essential to true charity, its importance cannot be overstated. And precisely because Catholic and/or spiritual discipline is designed to dispose us to the transformation of all our attachments into a Single Love, we neglect or despise it at our peril.

But neither intellectual commitment nor disciplinary zeal is the same as love. Just as doctrine is dangerous when it becomes a source of complacency, by which we mentally and emotionally wash ourselves and then separate the washed from the unwashed, so too is discipline dangerous when it is absolutized—when we regard it as something more than provisional. Disciplinary practices are to be prized not because of their own intrinsic value but because of their suitability to the end of charity, which consists primarily in our own self-abnegation, by which we sacrifice our own will to the will of another, whether to God Himself or to our ecclesiastical superiors who represent God.

Truth, discipline, orthodoxy, piety: All of these are ultimately directed to doing God’s will, which is the sole and final measure of spiritual growth. God cares nothing for our knowledge of the truth if it does not lead us to love rightly, and He scorns our petty disciplines if they do not lead us to love Himself more, and others in Him. “Behold,” said Samuel of old, “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Sam 15:22). And at the very moment of the Incarnation, Our Blessed Lord said, “Sacrifices and offerings thou has not desired, but a body has thou prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings thou has taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Lo, I have come to do thy will, O God’” (Heb 10:5-7).

Do we think there is no justice at all or ever when those who are not quite like us accuse us of being pharisaical? Do we suppose the accusation represents nothing but their own miserable failure to see our priceless virtue? Are we never guilty? I cannot say “no”, so I prefer to think there is more to it, and to look to the speck in my own eye. Those of us with these particular tendencies must meditate often—not for despair but for charity!—on these words of Jesus Christ:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. You blind Pharisee! first cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean. (Mt 23:23-26)

And perhaps the next verse should be taken like a bracing tonic, at the start of each new day, as we set out anew to teach others how to live: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men's bones.”

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Mar. 06, 2012 3:41 PM ET USA

    Just happened onto this essay, and I think it is terrific. You speak accurately of the TLM, and it calls to mind my days of 141 mile trips to the nearest TLM. I served in the schola cantorum, and after months of high Masses, we begged for an occasional low Mass where we could pray. I might also add that you will not necessarily notice the charity of the orthodox Catholic, who was taught a proper modesty in doing good works. Today's applause reeks of trumpets in the temple.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Feb. 28, 2012 11:07 AM ET USA

    To New Sister, let me insist that I made no dishonest linkage. I was not criticizing those who happen to prefer the TLM. I was criticizing those who say (as a number of people have written to me) that no good can be accomplished until the TLM is restored, an idea which inescapably depends on the "as if" clause which follows. In other words, I meant only what I wrote, not something else! Also, let us note that there are spiritual dangers in every rite, because we so often slip into an inordinate attachment to whatever we find attractive, typically ignoring all contrary considerations.

  • Posted by: New Sister - Feb. 28, 2012 2:18 AM ET USA

    Grouping those who advocate “the immemorial Tridentine Mass [be] restored” and a schismatic belief “as if the grace of Christ has never flowed (and can never flow) through any other liturgical form” is dishonest journalism and divisive to the Body of Christ. There are spiritual dangers in the new liturgical form that (then) Cardinal Ratztinger himself has observed (Lex orandi, lex credendi) and valid reasons for advocating restoration of the TLM and the use of Latin. Leave TLM-goers alone, please

  • Posted by: robertcampbell_78332 - Feb. 26, 2012 8:30 PM ET USA

    Re: "Doctrine, Discipline and Holiness: Not Always What They Seem". An excellent article, but in reading, it made me wonder what your complaining reader would have thought about a trio of trumpeters from the Heralds of the Gospel, at the invitation of the pastor, giving an extended trumpet blast at the Consecration in our local parish. This nearly deafened many in attendance. The instruments were made of natural elements created by God.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 16, 2012 9:02 AM ET USA

    I'm one of those nincompoops that believes the consecration of Russia was not done the way Our Lady requested; just look around: If it had been we would not be living surrounded by evils on all sides, and Russia would not be using abortion as contraception (average gal has 5 abortions), corruption there massive and widespread. The Gulag wouldn't have occurred, as well as the murders of Catholics in the Middle East. Harden not your hearts! They have eyes but they do not see.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 15, 2012 8:20 PM ET USA

    "And precisely because Catholic and/or spiritual discipline is designed to dispose us to the transformation of all our attachments into a Single Love, we neglect or despise it at our peril." Nicely put and elucidating. "...but the importance of particular practices varies greatly, with time, place, situation and personality." Not so much. But why not? Answer that and one might find a clue as to why a darn good essay misses the mark. Nonetheless, Dr. Mirus is onto something important here.

  • Posted by: anne.adamczyk - Feb. 15, 2012 11:54 AM ET USA

    “I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate the wicked; you have tested those who call themselves apostles but are not, and discovered that they are impostors. Moreover, you have endurance and have suffered for my name, and you have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first." Revelation 2:2-5

  • Posted by: - Feb. 14, 2012 10:25 PM ET USA

    I need to re-learn these truths quite often. Thanks for the gentle reminder.