Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Why Don’t Popes Discipline?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 30, 2008

After my recent columns pointing out some of the problems in our oldline religious orders, a reader asked me why the Holy See doesn’t use discipline to restore Catholic order. I believe this question has a seven part answer.

  1. We live in an age in which discipline usually increases sympathy for the one disciplined. With our democratic prejudices, our strong emphasis on the individual, and our secularized mass media, discipline tends to create attractive martyrs. For this reason, the prudential question of whether to discipline will, whether we like it or not, at least sometimes be answered in the negative.
  2. The crisis of faith is so severe that effective discipline may be impossible. It is arguable that by the time of the death of Paul VI, who lamented that he had never been able to do anything for the Church but suffer, the intellectual rot and crisis of faith had penetrated so thoroughly that there was no longer much to work with. If the Pope were to exercise discipline in certain areas, who would obey?
  3. Given these circumstances, effective discipline must be fairly creative. I made this point in an earlier commentary (see Effective Discipline). Before discipline can be effective again, we will need a pope who can think, in a specifically administrative way, outside the box. I have no particular solution to offer. Few have been successful disciplinarians of late.

  4. The Church can afford to take the long view. I know we hear this ad nauseam but it contains a certain truth. The abandonment of authentic Catholicism on the part of many Catholic institutions (the Catholic press, seminaries, universities, religious orders, many diocesan bureaucracies, and so on) is self-defeating because it fails to attract the young even while it causes the old to abandon the mission. Rotten branches fall off the vine of their own accord; luxuriant growth occurs in new shoots.
  5. Recent popes have been “academics”. The academic mind typically has a strong predisposition to discussion, to solve problems through reason and gentle teaching rather than strong language, condemnation or disciplinary measures. Pope Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI have all been “academics”. In fact, in the modern world, it is difficult to conceive of electing a man who does not have an academic temperament.
  6. Recent popes may have had poor judgment concerning what is best for souls. It is clear that a huge majority of those who have supported the teachings of recent popes have also wished they would discipline more. Pope John Paul II himself was concerned near the end of his pontificate that he may not have disciplined enough. I think we can rule out lack of courage, but I don’t think we can rule out a failure to understand the proper role of discipline in the economy of salvation.
  7. Recent popes appear to have been sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Having admitted the possibility of poor papal judgment, we must also admit the possibility of our own poor personal judgment. The papacy is a school of holiness today almost before it is anything else, and recent popes have been unquestionably holy in life and sublime in teaching. We must admit the possibility that, for some reason unfathomable to ourselves, the Holy Spirit is not calling for discipline.

Therefore one of the great mysteries of our time remains. To what degree is the lack of papal discipline a function of the Holy Spirit, and to what degree is it a function of impossible conditions, personal style or bad judgment? Has the Holy Spirit been heeded or thwarted?

It is easy for subordinates to demand decisive action of their superiors, for the subordinate does not have the responsibility of decision. This is probably as it should be, and I intend to go on calling for action. But I also recognize the profound justice—indeed the absolute necessity—of assuming the rightness of the popes who have been placed over me, all of whom have been self-evidently holier and wiser than myself. In this matter I see many possibilities, but I part company with all those who claim to know for sure.

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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