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On Discipline, Again

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 03, 2009

From time to time I’ve considered the question of ecclesiastical discipline (or the lack thereof). Several recent occurrences have drawn my attention once again to this issue. Of course, I am in the position of a zealous subordinate (and a zealous lay subordinate, at that). Typically subordinates feel more free to advocate decisive measures when they are advising others than when, after promotion, they find the buck firmly riveted to their own desks.

Most parents are familiar with this same syndrome: Discipline always seems so obviously called for when it comes to other people’s children, but that does not stop most of us from hesitating to be too strict with our own kids. It also goes without saying that every situation is different. So it seems that advice about discipline always needs to be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. That’s fine. But it should not stop us from thinking about the problem, and it should not stop those in authority from striving mightily to exercise effective discipline.

Notre Dame

The current scandal at Notre Dame (I refer to University President Fr. John Jenkins’ invitation to President Obama to give the commencement address and receive an honorary degree) occupies an interesting place in the history of sad, critical, abhorrent, and repeated scandals (let’s call them SCARS). Inviting the single most powerful advocate of unlimited abortion to address Catholic students on the occasion of their transition from study to work is a singular insult to graduates. When coupled with the University’s conferral of an honorary degree, it is very difficult to avoid the supposition that Fr. Jenkins desires either to tear down Catholic values or to gain worldly prestige by currying favor with our political elites.

This supposition is reinforced by the naming of a new Dean of the Notre Dame Law school—a position which says much about the attitude of the University toward law and public life. The candidate selected, Nell Jessup Newton, has given thousands of dollars to further the campaigns of politicians who favor abortion. Thus we have two SCARS in quick succession at Notre Dame, which is widely regarded as one of the flagship universities representing the Catholic Church in the United States. These SCARS have been inflicted in direct defiance of both the Vatican (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, 1990) and the U.S. Bishops (Catholics in Political Life, 2004). The President of the USCCB has stated point blank that Fr. Jenkins’ action is insupportable and has called for opposition; numerous other bishops have condemned the decision; and the Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend intends to boycott the graduation.

So naturally the question arises: Should somebody actually apply some discipline? Universities are fairly independent entities, governed by their own Board of Directors, and Notre Dame has long since ceased to be controlled by the Holy Cross Fathers. The Church is not in a position to enforce a change of policy. But two key ecclesiastical figures are in a position to discipline Fr. Jenkins: His superior in the Holy Cross Fathers, and the Pope himself.

Admittedly, for the Pope to do so would be a major diplomatic statement, not to be approached lightly, but it would be wonderfully clarifying to Catholics, even though a great many Catholics would unfortunately be appalled. But the Vatican has reportedly rejected President Obama’s proposed ambassadors to the Holy See (as it does all proposed Catholics who are not in good standing with the Church), so it ought not to be impossible to hope for something more. After all, if nothing is ever done about such things, we will never get beyond the situation in which we find ourselves—a situation in which, whenever the abortion culture is seriously opposed, a great many Catholics are unfortunately appalled. It would seem obvious that this particular scandal is great enough to warrant serious consideration of ecclesiastical discipline at the highest levels.

Sound Advice

Recently I’ve been reading some very sound advice on how ecclesiastical governance should be handled. Here is a key passage:

Let ecclesiastical leaders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching; for Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” Never admit any charge against an ecclesiastical leader except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear…. Keep these rules without favor, doing nothing from partiality….

Teach and urge these duties. If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching which accords with the will of God, he is puffed up with conceit, he knows nothing; he has a morbid craving for controversy, and for disputes about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among men who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain….

Shun all this; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called.

This striking text comes from a letter containing extensive advice to a young bishop in the very early Church. The young bishop’s name was Timothy. The author’s name was Paul (1 Tim 5:17-6:12).

You don’t have to be an exegetical genius to see that St. Paul’s primary focus in his advice to Timothy is on faithfulness to Christ for its own sake. An ecclesiastical leader must seek to do the will of God, to teach only what Christ has revealed, and to exercise prudent discipline in order to prevent others from being led astray. A few verses later he sums up nicely: “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards the faith” (1 Tim 6:20).


But though Christ certainly deserves our fidelity in and of Himself, there are other good reasons for the Church to exercise sound discipline, even if the other reasons are somewhat more pragmatic. Perhaps the most important of these is the extremely negative impact that a lack of discipline has on vocations. It is no surprise that vocations plummeted in the West from the 1960’s through the 1980’s, not only in general because of increasing secularization but also in particular because so many dioceses and religious communities failed to maintain discipline in their own ranks. It is by now clear to even casual observers that vocations are relatively numerous in dioceses and religious orders known for their disciplined fidelity to the teachings of the Church, whereas they have dwindled to almost nothing in dioceses and religious orders which are known for the opposite.

Indeed, many have traded the Faith for the latest secular fashions, have permitted their priests and religious to preach and teach heresy, have failed for many years to properly form those under their jurisdiction, and have allowed various sins to deeply infect their communities. The result is lost vocations, for the lax offer the young no reason to make a vocational commitment. Thus, in terms of vocations alone, the Church as a whole has paid a very high price for her failure to deal more decisively with laxity and infidelity within her ranks.

In this connection, a striking observation by St. Thomas Aquinas is particularly appropriate. Raising the question of whether God will ever permit the Church to be without the vocations she needs to continue Our Lord’s mission, St. Thomas answers as follows:

God never so abandons his Church that suitable ministers are not to be found sufficient for the needs of the people; provided the worthy are promoted and the unworthy are set aside (Summa Theologiae, Supplement, q.36, a.4 ad 1).

Provided the worthy are promoted and the unworthy are set aside! It is difficult to conceive a phrase more calculated to unsettle the mind of modern Churchmen. All ecclesiastical leaders who are themselves spiritually sound have a serious obligation to meditate on these words of the great Common Doctor in order to find within themselves the counter-cultural wisdom, courage, resolve and patience to restore discipline: Wisdom to discern what to do, courage to do it, resolve to see it through, and patience to await the results. I stress resolve and patience in addition to wisdom and courage because, in a flabby ecclesiastical culture, the fruits of discipline will be reaped only over an extended period of time.

In the meantime, those who are willing to discipline must also be willing to be criticized loudly by the very people whom they wish would fawn over them. It never ceases to amaze me how many leaders find this difficult. In a spiritual wasteland, the beasts of denunciation and rebellion feed on the first tender shoots of discipline, but let a few of these shoots establish themselves and they will fence the beasts out, allowing the entire field to be put to good use once again. Apparently St. Thomas knew how this was to be done: Promote the worthy, he counseled, and set the unworthy aside. Easier said than done, perhaps, but it does sounds like a plan.

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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