Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Prospects for renewal in a Church without discipline?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 14, 2018

In reading Elio Guerriero’s new and definitive biography of Pope Benedict XVI, I noticed this assessment of Benedict’s leadership style:

Rather than taking concrete measures, he preferred admonitions, leaving those concerned the freedom to adapt to the required behavior. As for the effectiveness of this way of proceeding, we can think of the parable of the sower throwing seeds on various types of soil. Some were wasted, others got trampled, while others brought forth abundant fruits. What is certain, nevertheless, is that the new pope’s method of governing aimed not so much at immediate effectiveness as at conviction and bearing witness. Only time would tell if this new style would bring the desired changes. [pp. 489-90]

I haven’t finished the book yet, so I presume Guerriero will notice further on that Pope Benedict quietly relieved a growing number of bishops of their sinecures, which suggests a more complex pattern of discipline. But perhaps more to the point, while the author is correct about the general approach of Pope Benedict, he is quite wrong in referring to it as “this new style”. For it was more a variation of the style of Pope St. John Paul II, who sought to renew the Church primarily through teaching and leading by example, and who wondered in his later years whether he had disciplined enough. (I believe, but do not quote me, that he expressed this doubt in his book Gift and Mystery: On the Fiftieth Anniversary of My Priestly Ordination.)

If we go back in time just a little farther, we will find that Pope St. Paul VI was ineffective as a disciplinarian as well. I believe (but again, do not quote me) it was at a general audience on the ninth anniversary of his pontificate (the only one I ever attended) that he stated he had been unable to do anything for the Church except suffer—though of course his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (On the Regulation of Birth) was a monumental gift to the whole world, even if it was a gift most preferred to throw back in his face.

Now that we are well into the pontificate of Pope Francis, we find an even worse disciplinary situation: A pope who prefers to “shake things up”, who seems almost vindictive in his vague denunciation of those he regards as “rigid”, but who never regards as rigid those who are firmly committed to undermining Catholic faith and morals. Here we may be facing a certain instability of personality from which the other popes I mentioned did not suffer (for they all possessed at least the courage of consistency), but the result is depressingly similar: The modern age of effective ecclesiastical discipline has not yet dawned.


I actually wrote about this problem in the third year of Benedict’s pontificate, back in 2008, when I offered seven specific reasons for the failure to discipline, reasons which can at least shed a little light on what must remain a mystery (see Why Don’t Popes Discipline?). I am also aware of an absurd theory which must be rejected wherever it is recognized, the theory that all of these “Vatican II” popes have been secret heretics, fools or cowards (or all three), so much so that we need not take seriously the canonization of two of them. (Or three, if we count Pope John XXIII: He had the good sense to abhor the narrow scholastic discipline that had characterized the Holy Office in the 1940s and 1950s as it punished many faithful theologians for the sin of taking seriously both Scripture and the Fathers of the Church.)

There is still a Traditionalist party in the Church which equates holiness with disciplinary success, on the laughable assumption that heroic virtue consists in meeting out effective punishments. But nobody who knows anything of the lives of John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI can possibly imagine, even for the briefest moment, that they lacked courage in their commitment to follow God’s call for the renewal His Church. Exactly the opposite is the case, and that is precisely why the lack of effective ecclesiastical discipline over the past two generations is such a mystery.

It may be nothing more than the mystery of a rapid cultural secularization set against the frightening incapacity of the old “strong” Church to mount an effective response. If this insight is true—as I suspect it is—then the burden of blame falls just as much on the frightening incapacity as on the rapid cultural secularization. In fact, for any observer possessed of even a modicum of depth perception, one conclusion in all this is inescapable: The outwardly strong Church of the first half of the twentieth century had already become something of a shell of an earlier, healthier Church—a shell in which, just as in society as a whole, a habitually fairly sound outward appearance masked a spiritual vacuum.

It is important to understand the big picture of what is wrong with the Church, and what has been wrong with it for far more than fifty years—namely that it became both ossified and self-satisfied during a long period in which Western culture still maintained outward forms of Christian respectability, right down to weekly churchgoing. And now what we have is a flabby Western Church with far too many members—most likely a decisive majority—who simply retained the secular source of their dominant values when the culture threw off its own outward shell, recognizing that the shell no longer protected anything in the hearts and minds of those who lived within it.


This deeper understanding is important for two reasons. First, it prevents us from looking in the wrong places for solutions—as if we would be fine if we only went back to the way the Church was in 1950, or as if the solution is primarily a matter of outward forms. (To take a fine example, we are wise to recall that it is precisely those who were nurtured on the “Latin Mass” who threw the baby out with the bathwater beginning in the 1960s.) Good forms can help, but particular forms are not the solution. Second, this deeper understanding prevents us from imagining that the Church can be renewed without shrinking dramatically in the West. There are a great many branches which must either be regrafted or cleared out.

If we avoid these misconceptions, the prospects for improvement are actually fairly good—always assuming none of us foolishly equates “improvement” with “lack of suffering”. In the West, surely, we will exchange spiritual suffering at the hands of an undisciplined Church for physical suffering at the hands of social groups and governments which tolerate Christianity only insofar as it is confused and weak. But there are several indicators of improvement visible now that were still largely unnoticed even as little as twenty years ago.

Let us consider five of these indicators:

  1. Even in the West, vibrant lay leadership: It is now clear that, in default of huge numbers of clergy, a largely self-renewed laity (though never without sound priestly guidance) has fulfilled the prophetic call for an age of the laity expressed at the Second Vatican Council, even if this has not come about as the Council fathers would have anticipated. As I have written elsewhere, the major apostolic initiatives in the West today—including a growing dominance in Catholic media—are lay-led.
  2. Even in the West, a nucleus of renewed dioceses and priests: Vocations increase only in dioceses whose bishops are possessed of sound doctrine and deep spirituality, and discipline is growing better in such dioceses as well. Under Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the West experienced over thirty years of (albeit uneven) diocesan improvement. There has been sufficient improvement to provide a “market” for all the good things included under the first point and, in at least some Western countries, to win important votes for authentic renewal at the level of the episcopal conferences. Put another way, the entire West has problems, but Germany is not the contemporary norm.
  3. A purification triggered by sexual abuse: The larger Western culture does not understand what it can create by disproportionately hammering the Church for the sexual abuse of minors. The dominant culture expresses a hypocritical abhorrence of such abuse without connecting it to the general Western canonization of lust. It also displays a determination to weaken or even destroy the Catholic Church because, despite her sins, everyone recognizes the Church’s even deeper opposition to sexual libertinism, as well as her overarching recognition of an authority which supersedes that of Western elites. It is good that the Church is being forced from outside to confront key aspects of her own spiritual failure. For by painful fits and starts this will further authentic renewal, making the Church, on the one hand, smaller and more likely to be persecuted and, on the other hand, stronger and more of a threat to secularism.
  4. Backlash in the next conclave: Pope Francis, apart from articulating a few themes that can be applied in excellent ways by more discerning souls (such as his horror of clericalism and his desire for a more evangelical Church), has clearly weakened the Catholic understanding of the role of doctrinal and moral commitments in authentic renewal—an understanding which was already widely absent in the Catholic professional classes, especially in the universities. But Pope Francis’ pattern of vindictive confusion is horrifying to many cardinals and bishops around the world. We can expect a backlash in the next conclave in favor of a cardinal with a strong sense of authentic renewal and a genius for fostering it. By then, there will be a far more widespread yearning within the Church for effective discipline, even if many “elite” universities and religious orders are still in shambles.
  5. Out of Africa, new Catholic strength: The Church in Africa, and to a lesser extent in Asia, has come a long way in a single generation. Already African bishops are flexing their spiritual muscles against the vapid secularization of their Western counterparts. While it will be some time before Africa becomes a center of world influence (which will, however, happen if Western societies continue imploding owing to their own moral and spiritual decline), the Church in Africa is clearly ready now to begin providing a more vibrant and aggressive leadership for the universal Church.


My prediction is that the Church, taken as a whole, is growing toward a moment of widespread welcome for authentic renewal. By this I mean an authentic renewal articulated and administered in more effective ways. Notice that I do not expect this to bring an end to faithful Catholic suffering. Rather, I expect a shift in the kind of suffering we are asked to endure.

Providence remains mysterious, and human predictions remain, well, human. But as clearly as Pope St. John Paul II saw a new springtime for the Church in the third millennium, I see this opportunity drawing closer. It may be an opportunity for many of us to suffer more. But if so, that suffering will be for the sake of a demonstrably more unified Body of Christ on earth—a demonstrably stronger and more spiritually fruitful Church.

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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