Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The Pope, Reform and Discipline

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 07, 2008

Since I began writing regular commentary for, I’ve occasionally pointed out the need for reform and renewal in the Church. Often these remarks have focused on bishops, religious superiors, and their respective administrative staff. For the past 30 years, Pope John Paul II and now Benedict XVI have clearly articulated the direction this reform and renewal ought to take, but many bishops and long-established religious communities have been very slow to respond. What’s the solution?

The Complexities of Reform

Religious communities can be very difficult to reform without highly dramatic outside intervention, because those who govern them are elected from within. Many of the older religious orders that secularized rapidly in the mid 20th century continue to be in desperate condition, even as their numbers rapidly dwindle. Female religious have been particularly hard hit, but as they have also abandoned many of their former fields of service, particularly education, the worst female religious have relatively little influence outside their own tiny circles. For men, the problem has not been quite so severe but, particularly as priests and theologians, dissident and lax male religious continue to have a significant impact on the laity, especially in higher education. It is perhaps also worth noting that the worst orders survive economically today only because they can sell off the impressive properties they accumulated in the past, when their numbers were much larger; there is a long, slow reduction of influence over time.

There are, of course, exceptions to these sweeping statements. Some older orders, or some sections or offshoots of them, are currently prospering in every way. In general, the number of vocations serves as a reasonable index of soundness. Most groups with excellent vocations are living their charisms well, and vice versa. But in any case, a great hope of religious communities is always new foundations. It may be difficult to reform existing orders from outside (though saints do sometimes arise who effect reforms from within), but zealous souls have considerable scope for new foundations, and these frequently play an enormous role in the renewal of the larger Church. One thinks, in this regard, of such disparate modern projects as Opus Dei and the Legion of Christ. There are many smaller examples as well.

But new foundations are not an option for the Church as a whole. If one diocese has problems, it is not an option to replace it with another one. Both the weakness and the strength of the diocesan system is that it is a direct part of the Church’s constitutional hierarchy. The weaknesses are obvious, but it is also a great strength because every bishop must be selected, or at least approved, by the Pope. For this reason, if the papacy is sound, the appointment of new bishops can also be sound. Thus the single greatest practical hope for the reform of the episcopacy is the Holy See. If that’s true, then, we have to ask why there has been so little apparent progress in episcopal/diocesan reform over the past generation, when the Church has been led by undeniably courageous, articulate and holy popes.

The Role of the Papacy

In a recent article in This Rock magazine, Fr. Robert Johansen of the diocese of Kalamazoo sought to answer this question head-on, under a highly appropriate title: Why Doesn’t the Pope Do Something about “Bad” Bishops? The article is worth reading to avoid certain false patterns of thought about the question, and we have placed it in our document library for that reason. But in the end it begs the question, as we shall see. Fr. Johansen rightly argues that we must not view the Pope as a CEO or the bishops as managers. Bishops have the fullness of orders, which configures them to Christ in a special way. They are the fathers of their dioceses, as the Pope in turn is the father of the whole Church, including all the particular churches within it. Typically fathers must be very bad indeed to have their paternal rights taken from them, and this analogy retains some merit when applied to bishops. Moreover, the need for both charity in judgment and adequate evidence before taking disciplinary action is very strong in a Christian setting, and there is always a danger of schism, great or small, looming behind the decision to remove a bishop (or especially many bishops) from office.

For all these reasons, Fr. Johansen is prepared to endorse what he calls the “gradualist” approach taken by John Paul II, who avoided confrontation while teaching, correcting and exhorting, rather than resorting to discipline. So far Benedict has done the same. “The gradualist approach may turn out to have been a mistake, but I don’t think so,” concludes Fr. Johansen. “The majority of episcopal appointments under John Paul II have been very good, even outstanding…. These bishops, along with the many renewal movements, are beginning to reorient the Church.” There is certainly some truth to this conclusion, but I think most concerned laity would find it over-stated. In any case, the weakness of Fr. Johansen’s argument stems from the fact that, while he rightly recognizes the Church as a unique disciplinary setting (far different from a corporation, for example), he concludes from this that the pope should not discipline at all.

But popes do have disciplinary authority over bishops (as do bishops over their priests). So the real question is not whether popes should exercise that authority but, given the nature of the Church, how and when they should discipline. Although I have repeatedly mentioned the possibility that there are aspects of the situation we do not see, that each pope has different strengths, that the Holy Spirit remains at work in the Church, and that we must be slow to judge the action or inaction of popes who are manifestly both spiritually deeper and wiser than ourselves (see Why Don't Popes Discipline?), we must also acknowledge that it is not consistent with the nature of the Church that the question “when should the pope discipline” ought to be answered “never”. It follows also that discipline should not be so infrequent that, in terms of its impact on the life of the Church, the answer is still essentially “never”.

Teach, Rule and Sanctify

Without going into theological detail, I think we can take the role and authority of the pope to be accurately summarized by the traditional dictum that the pope is to teach, rule and sanctify, with authority to match. It is difficult to claim that the order of these verbs is coincidental. The pope is guaranteed the protection of the Holy Spirit in teaching on matters of faith and morals to the whole Church. This authority to teach is obviously primary, for it is the means by which the members of the Church know the nature of the Christian life. The authority to rule is the authority to set the structures, personnel and requirements of the Church in the proper order to foster Christian life according to what is taught, and to exercise ongoing discipline to maintain that order. And the authority to sanctify, which certainly refers to power over the sacramental life of the Church, also includes the more general stimulation of holiness that occurs throughout the Church when both teaching and ruling are done well.

The condition of the Church varies greatly from place to place, and my familiarity is primarily with the West, particularly the United States. By every possible index, the Church has been in severe decline in the West for some time, and there has been an extremely rapid increase in the rate of decline since the middle of the twentieth century. At the same time, the pattern varies from diocese to diocese, and it is by now fairly clear that the Church is far healthier (again, by any conceivable legitimate index) in dioceses that have for some time been run by bishops who have taken their own traditional role of teaching, ruling and sanctifying very seriously (as both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have repeatedly exhorted them to do), as compared with bishops who have been primarily concerned with various secular agendas or with putting a bold face on dissidence and sin. It is not too much to presume that, as good bishops have found ways to discipline wayward priests, to reduce the impact of problematic religious, and to isolate misguided lay groups, so should popes do the same thing at a more universal level to ensure that more bishops will behave in precisely this way.

This is, after all, a matter of both justice and charity. Fr. Johansen rightly notes the importance of charity in evaluating the question of papal discipline, but in so doing he tends to restrict charity to bishops. He also rightly notes the necessity of proceeding with ample evidence, but in so doing he also tends to forget other aspects of justice and other persons with a right to it. For reform is, ultimately, about the rights of the faithful. Both modern popes and the Code of Canon Law have stated repeatedly that the faithful have the right to sound doctrine, to the sacraments, and to liturgical life according to the Church’s norms. When the faithful are not receiving one or more of these things through the fault of a priest or religious, the bishop or religious superior is expected to take appropriate disciplinary action. When the faithful are not receiving one or more of these through the fault of a bishop, then out of both charity and justice for the laity, the pope ought to do the very same thing.

The Purposes of Discipline

Discipline has four purposes: (1) Correction; (2) Admonition; (3) Example; and (4) Justice. For higher authorities, the very first purpose of discipline is to correct some unfortunate situation which has arisen from a failure of a lower authority to exercise authority properly. The immediate goal is twofold, to correct the problem and to change the behavior that led to the problem. The second purpose is admonition—to warn both the one in authority and all others in a similar position that a certain situation or behavior pattern will not be tolerated. It is useful to reflect on this purpose, because we may recognize that it is far better for a bishop (or anyone else) to internalize a new behavior pattern based on exhortation than to be forced into it unwillingly by discipline. This is certainly true, but to use this as an excuse not to discipline is to forget the primary purpose of discipline, which is to correct. By all means, popes should begin by exhortation. But if exhortation fails to bring a speedy result, the necessity of correction requires discipline.

Moreover, we should never forget that bishops are human. In the absence of clear signals from the pope, they may (like anyone else) fall into bad habits or even hold back from taking disciplinary actions of their own, based either on the pope’s own example or on fear that such actions will not be supported by the pope. Once shown that discipline is expected, many bishops will be moved to act from their own internal sense of what is right and just. And others will act because, though their hearts may not be in it, they can see that their superior demands it. By setting an example of discipline, therefore, the pope can actually strengthen the virtue of his bishops, and many may come to internalize a lesson which mere exhortation could not inculcate. Finally, if in the end some bishops still act only for the unworthy motive of protecting themselves from the pope, at least their people will be better served by the restoration of order in their dioceses, however ill-motivated it may be.

Under these circumstances, not all bishops will be driven by accurate perception, courage, and holiness but very few will actually resist. For those who do, the purpose of justice is most important. It is a matter of justice (for both the laity and the bishop) that those who do resist should be removed from their offices. While this will both increase the opportunity for repentance and serve as a powerful warning to others, the essential purpose of justice should not be overlooked, for justice is not only right but salutary. By clearly punishing the guilty, justice restores the moral order where that order has been upset. To sum up, then, we have four reasons to discipline: correction, admonition, example and justice. Moreover, all four work together for a fifth purpose as well: teaching. Every act of discipline powerfully reinforces the importance of the lessons of proper administration, right conduct, and virtue that the popes are presumably otherwise continuously attempting to communicate.

Sadly, modern papal practice with respect to erring bishops has generally been too lax to be considered just, and it has consistently taught the opposite of what the popes have attempted to communicate in other ways. Again and again, bishops who have behaved disgracefully (and whose transgressions are well-known both at home and in Rome) have been permitted to serve out their normal terms and to retire gracefully. In many cases, they have been rewarded with honorary posts in their retirement, presumably on the theory that this will keep people from the absolute certainty that something was very seriously wrong. As Phil Lawler has documented in The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture (see our review Why the Faithful Departed, and How to Get them Back), this behavior pattern has been all-too consistent even in very recent years.

A Healthier Church?

To be fair, I share Fr. Johansen's belief that the Church—in the United States at least—is healthier now than it was thirty years ago, and that this is a direct result of both the ceaseless teaching and exhortation of John Paul II and the improvement of episcopal appointments during his pontificate. But progress has been both limited and slow. The utter failure of the bishops to take serious personal responsibility for the sex abuse crisis (including their astounding effort to transfer responsibility to children through misguided safe-touch programs), the fact that they have not even perceptibly begun to recapture Catholic higher education for the Church, their inability to agree among themselves on how to deal with pro-abortion politicians, and the widespread continued existence of liturgical abuse and false doctrine in both parishes and parochial schools—these are all convincing proofs that discipline is absolutely necessary to hasten the progress of reform. The alternative is to perpetuate a manifest grave injustice to the laity through the continuing neglect of their souls—not to mention the particularly painful injustice to faithful priests attempting to serve under bad bishops.

There may be any number of difficulties, and undoubtedly there are some situations in which it is impossible to operate on the cancer within without causing greater harm, but this should not prevent each pope from asking himself repeatedly the fundamental question, “How can I effectively discipline in this particular case?” Again, the popes and everyone else must recognize that, for those possessing disciplinary authority, the right answer to “when to discipline” really cannot be “never”. In fact, the first rule for those with disciplinary authority must be this:


  1. Those in authority must discipline whenever a problem cannot be quickly corrected by other means, whenever both justice and charity to those affected demands it, and (in view of the many short and long-term advantages of proper discipline) whenever the cure will not be markedly and irremediably worse than the disease.

Then, when all the fashionable doubts about discipline inevitably rear their ugly heads, a second rule must also be firmly followed. Rule 2: Refer to rule number 1.


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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