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Vatican enforcement: Why does the Church lack teeth?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 20, 2017

It’s just not the thing. It just isn’t done. The Catholic Church does not enforce its own laws.

This is, of course, the mark of a very badly run institution. It isn’t clear to anyone in the Church—priest or layman, bishop or religious, cardinal or deacon—what it takes to get you restricted, demoted, fired, laicized, or excommunicated. It’s partly the nature of priestly leadership, partly the dynamics of the clerical club, partly the pastoral desire to appear culture-friendly, partly misplaced charity, and partly administrative incompetence. But clear and consistent ecclesiastical discipline ranges from rare to non-existent.

There are a few minor examples of discipline at work, as when a bishop puts in for early retirement and that retirement is accepted. Sometimes, too, a leading prelate who has undermined the faith for years will be moved to a position which better suits his talents, such as heading a dicastery for unity with non-Christians. Admittedly, it is not uncommon for discreet transfers to be made when public pressure heats up. But except in rare cases when the civil authority intervenes to imprison someone guilty of the sexual abuse of children, very few Catholics ever get to see the cause and effect relationship between gross misconduct in matters of faith or morals and “he was never heard from again”.

This may explain why it is so unremarkable that the papal commission on sexual abuse has been allowed for the moment to lapse, or that there are so few Vatican prosecutions against financial impropriety. It is no longer the Church’s style to exercise oversight, to punish, to imprison, to defrock, or to bar the door. Disciplinary thinking in Catholicland tends to run along these lines: “We are all good people here. A hint in the right ear will suffice.”

A toothless Church

This pattern has been pervasive throughout the lives of most of my readers. Pope St. John XXIII tended to flee as far as possible from those who advocated discipline (I grant, in those days, that he sometimes had good reason). Pope Blessed Paul VI believed that all he had been able to do for the Church was suffer. Pope John Paul I had a winning smile and a short pontificate. Pope St. John Paul II, throughout his long and very productive term of office, was known for his reluctance to discipline anyone. He was a teaching pope and a holy pope, worthy of the title “great” on both counts, but even he wondered (in his reflections on fifty years as a priest) whether he should have disciplined more. Under the gentle and unassuming Pope Benedict XVI, ecclesiastical punishments were handed out somewhat more frequently, but little was done publicly, and in the end Benedict, believing himself unequal to the necessary task, resigned.

Now, under Pope Francis, a certain cronyism often substitutes for clear and honest discipline. Francis appears to have three normal methods of communicating approval or disapproval: Surrounding himself with those who agree with him; ignoring and even stonewalling critics; and preaching vague homilies which either praise or blame uncertain targets. But the judicial axe still hangs suspended. Unlike God’s word, it rarely accomplishes the purpose for which it was sent. In fact, the current pope has been known to create problems by reprieving those rare persons who have been disciplined.

Continuing to read through Henri de Lubac’s notebooks from the Second Vatican Council, I was struck last night by a letter he had written which sheds enormous light on this problem and so much more of what ails the contemporary Church. A brilliant theologian and a Council peritus, he had replied to a bishop who insisted that the schema for what became the “Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World” needed to speak endearingly to all people. Happily, de Lubac included the bulk of this letter in his notebook.

I know that the first rule of quotation is to be brief, but here I am determined to violate this rule, and I believe those who give the text a chance will be glad I did. Remember that this was written during the actual sessions of the Second Vatican Council, specifically on Friday, September 25, 1964. What I ask the reader to do is to consider whether the attitudes which de Lubac warned against here do not reflect a mindset that is at the very root of the Church’s problems today, including her inability to discipline even within her own institutional borders:

Yes, it [the schema] should speak to all men. But that does not mean ‘to the man on the street’. It should be able to be read by many. But I do not believe that one is ever readable, when saying something meaningful, if one tries too hard to be so, if that is the predominant preoccupation, and if, for that purpose, one gets bogged down in the timid idea of ‘pre-evangelization’. If, despite its merits, this schema is scarcely readable, it is above all because it proceeds from fuzzy doctrine and because it is affected by excessive timidity. One can offer in that way only a half-truth, a Gospel that is half-trivialized, a half-hope, a moralism without vigor, too negative an apologetic. The reader will suspect ‘triumphalism’ with a moderate tone, whereas the spiritual force of a humble faith should shine forth.
The more one allows oneself to be emasculated by the scruples hidden under the word ‘pre-evangelization’, the more the defects that you point out will be emphasized. The Church will appear more or less like a being-in-itself, not like the messenger of the hope founded in Jesus Christ. The supernatural, to the degree one dares to introduce it, will be a superimposed feature. Christ will seem to be only a means: The world will no longer receive its meaning in him. Eschatology will have a temporal flavor. The very noble dignity given to man will be something very vague…. The heart of the world will not be touched, and the Christian faith will be half-betrayed.
This general remark does not cover everything, of course! I as much as anyone admit the necessity of knowing the world of today, of understanding the problems, of sharing the anxieties as well as the hopes. But why do some today imagine that this must be done at the expense of Christian vigor and clarity? Why do they seem to renounce making the full and joyous proclamation of the Good News resound in the ears of all? Why do they hesitate to have our hope shared by those to whom we have the duty to communicate it? There is in this a decline that grieves many believers today and that many unbelievers observe. By thinking in this way to draw nearer to them, we are distancing them from us.
If we are not convinced, a priori, by our vision of faith that there is a certain pre-established harmony between the revelation of Christ, taken in its fullness, and the secret expectation planted by God in the depths of man of all ages, we will lack the apostolic audacity that alone has a chance of teaching the man of our age. We will make the “captatio benevolentiae” [the beginning of a speech designed to win public sympathy]—which can take on many forms, from childishness to hateful maneuvers. Of course, our schema will not fall completely into such excess. But the slope I have just described does exist today in one part of the Church; and I believe that it is our duty to resist its possible allurements from the beginning.


Ecclesiastical discipline, of course, is only one part of the mechanism of a healthy Church. God forbid that it should ever be perceived as the whole, as it sometimes seemed to be in the years before the Council (as de Lubac himself had good cause to know)! But I wonder if the lack of Catholic discipline today at all levels, like the lack of effective engagement with the world, is not rooted in a contemporary Catholic fear of ever proposing anything more radical than a kind of unobjectionable pre-evangelization—of ever reaching beyond the identification the general yearnings of the human heart, of ever proclaiming what we might here call the disciplined fulfillment of those yearnings in Christ.

Having failed to reach further, we find that without the instruction of Christ these yearnings remain hopelessly confused. Inescapably, things go from bad to worse both in the Church and the world. I believe this is why, after quoting himself, De Lubac added just one more comment: “I doubt that this letter will have any influence in convincing my correspondent.”

I am sure each of us has experienced this same doubt. But we must still pray and work for the day when Catholicism will again be characterized institutionally, not by the soothing massage of pre-evangelization, but by a sharp bite which actually demands a response. This “bite” is never lacking in the Revelation of the Lord of Hosts.

Study questions: Why does the Church today imagine that everyone must be approached in some lesser and seemingly more benign way, without any hint at a disciplined Faith? Why must everyone be reached, as Henri de Lubac put it so succinctly, “at the expense of Christian vigor and clarity”?

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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