Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ecclesiastical Discipline

Here's a dry but precise discussion of the Catholic Church's view of church discipline, from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Ecclesiastical Discipline

Etymologically the word discipline signifies the formation of one who
places himself at school and under the direction of a master. All
Christians are the disciples of Christ, desirous to form themselves at
His school and to be guided by His teachings and precepts. He called
Himself, and we, too, call Him, Our Master. Such, then, is evangelical
discipline. However, in ecclesiastical language the word discipline
has been invested with various meanings, which must here be enumerated and specified.


All discipline may be considered first in its author, then in its
subject, and finally in itself. In its author it is chiefly the method
employed for the formation and adaptation of the precepts and
directions to the end to be attained, which is the perfect conduct of
subjects; in this sense discipline is said to be severe or mild. In
those who receive it discipline is the more or less perfect conformity
of acts to the directions and formation received; it is in this sense
that discipline may be said to flourish in a monastery. Or, again, it
is the obligation of subjects to conform their acts to precepts and
directions, and is thus defined by Cardinal Cavagnis: Praxis factorum
fidei consona"conduct conforming itself to faith"
(Inst. jur. publ. eccl., Bk. IV, n. 147). More frequently, however,
discipline is considered objectively, that is, as being the precepts
and measures for the practical guidance of subjects. Thus understood
ecclesiastical discipline is the aggregate of laws and directions
given by the Church to the faithful for their conduct both private and
public. This is discipline in its widest acceptation, and includes
natural and Divine as well as positive laws and faith, worship, and
morals; in a word, all that affects the conduct of Christians. But if
we eliminate laws merely formulated by the Church as the exponent of
natural or Divine law, there remain the laws and directions laid down
and formulated by ecclesiastical authority for the guidance of the
faithful; this is the restricted and more usual acceptation of the
word discipline. Nevertheless, it must be understood that this
distinction, however justified, is not made for the purpose of
separatingecclesiastical laws into two clearly divided categories in
so far as practice is concerned; the Church does not always make known to what extent she speaks in the name of natural or of Divine law and
with this corresponds the observance of laws by her subjects.


Since ecclesiastical discipline should direct every Christian life,
its object must differ according to the obligations incumbent on each
individual. The first duty of a Christian is to believe; hence
dogmatic discipline, by which the Church proposes what we should
believe and so regulates our conduct that it shall not fail to assist
our faith. Dogmatic discipline springs from the power of magisterium,
i.e. the teaching office, in the exercise of which power the Church
can proceed only by declaration; therefore it is ecclesiastical
discipline only in a broad sense. The second duty of Christians is to
observe the Commandments, hence moral discipline (disciplina
morum). Strictly understood the latter does not depend much more upon
the Church than does dogmatic discipline, as the natural law is
anterior and superior to ecclesiastical law; however, the Church
authoritatively proposes to us the moral law, she specifies and
perfects it; hence it is that we generally call moral discipline
whatsoever directs the Christian in those acts that have a moral
value, including the observance of positive laws both ecclesiastical
and secular. Among the chief duties of a Christian the worship of God
must be assigned a place apart. The rules to be observed in this
worship, especially public worship, constitute liturgical
discipline. This cannot be said to depend absolutely upon the Church,
as it derives the essential part of the Holy Sacrifice and the
sacraments from Jesus Christ; however, for the greater part,
liturgical discipline has been regulated by the Church and includes
the rites of the Holy Sacrifice, the administration of the sacraments
and of the sacramentals, and other ceremonies.

There still remain the obligations incumbent on the faithful
considered individually, either on the members of different groups or
classes of ecclesiastical society, or, finally, on those who are to
any extent whatever depositaries of a portion of the authority. This
is discipline properly so called, exterior discipline, established by
the free legislation of the Church (not, of course, in a way
absolutely independent of natural or Divine law, but outside of, yet
akin to this law) for the good government of society and the
sanctification of individuals. On individuals it imposes common
precepts (the Commandments of the Church); then it states their mutual
obligations, in conjugal society by matrimonial discipline, in larger
societies by determining relations with ecclesiastical superiors,
parish priests, bishops, etc. Special classes also have their own
particular discipline, there being clerical discipline for the clergy
and religious or monastic discipline for the religious. The government
of Christian society is in the hands of prelates and superiors who are
subject to a special discipline either for the conditions of their
recruitment, for the determining of their privileges and duties, or
for the manner in which they should fulfil their functions. We may
include here the rules for the administration of temporal
goods. Finally, any authority from which emanate orders or
prohibitions should have power to ratify the same by penal measures
applicable to all transgressors; hence, another object ofdiscipline is
the imposing and inflicting of disciplinary sanctions. It must be
noted, however, that the object of these measures is to ensure
observance or to chastise infractions of the natural and Divine as
well as ofecclesiastical laws.


It is evident, therefore, that the disciplinary power of the Church is
a phase, a practical application, of its power of jurisdiction, and
includes the various forms of the latter, namely, legislative,
administrative, judicial, and coercive power. As for the power of
order (potestas ordinis), it is the basis of liturgical discipline by
which its exercise is regulated. For the proof that the Church is a
society and that, as such, it necessarily has the power of
jurisdiction which it derives from Divine institution through the
Apostolic succession, see CHURCH. Disciplinary power is proved by the
very fact of its exercise; it is an organic necessity in every society
whose members it guides to their end by providing them with rules of
action. Historically it can be shown that a disciplinary power has
been exercised by the Church uninterruptedly, first by the Apostles
and then by their successors. The Apostles in the first council at
Jerusalem formulated rules for the conduct of the faithful (Acts
15). St. Paul gave moral advice to the Christians of Corinth on
virginity, marriage, and the agape (1 Corinthians 7:11). The Pastoral
Epistles of St. Paul are a veritable code of clerical discipline. The
Church, moreover, has never ceased to represent herself as charged by
Christ with the guidance of mankind in the way of eternal
salvation. The Council of Trent expressly affirms the disciplinary
power of the Church in all that concerns liturgical discipline and
Divine worship (Sess. XXI, c. ii): "In the administration of the
sacraments, the substance of the latter remaining intact, the Church
has always had power to establish or to modify whatever she considered
most expedient for the utility of those who receive them, or best
calculated to ensure respect for the sacraments themselves according
to the various circumstances of time and place." In fact, we need only
to recall the numerous laws enacted by the Church in the course of
centuries for the maintenance, development, or restoration of the
moral and spiritual life of Christians.


That ecclesiastical discipline should be subject to change is natural
since it was made for men and by men. To claim that it is immutable
would render the attainment of its end utterly impossible, since, in
order to form and direct Christians, it must adapt itself to the
variable circumstances of time and place, conditions of life, customs
of peoples and races, being, in a certain sense, like St. Paul, all
things to all men. Nevertheless, neither the actual changes nor the
possibility of further alteration must be exaggerated. There is no
change in those disciplinary measures through which the Church sets
before the faithful and confirms the natural and the Divine law, nor
in those strictly disciplinary regulations that are closely related to
the natural or Divine law. Other disciplinary rules may and must be
modified in proportion as they seem less efficacious for the social or
individual welfare. Thomassin aptly says [Vetus et nova Ecclesiæ
disciplina (ed. Lyons, 1706), preface, n. xvii]: "Whoever has the
least idea of ecclesiastical laws, those that concern government as
well as those that regulate morals, knows well that they are of two
kinds. Some represent immutable rules of eternal truth, itself the
fundamental law, the source and origin of these laws from the
observance of which there is no dispensation, against which no
prescription obtains, and which are not modified either by diversity
of custom or vicissitudes of time. Other ecclesiastical rules and
customs are by nature temporary, indifferent in themselves, more or
less authoritative, useful, or necessary according to circumstances of
time and place, having been established only to facilitate the
observance of the fundamental and eternal law." As to the variations
of discipline concerning these secondary laws the same author
describes them in these terms (loc. cit., n. xv): "While the Faith of
the Church remains the same in all ages, it is not so with her
discipline. This changes with time, grows old with the years, is
rejuvenated, is subject to growth and decay. Though in its early days
admirably vigorous, with time defects crept in. Later it overcame
these defects and although along some lines its usefulness increased,
in other ways its first splendour waned. That in its old age it
languishes is evident from the leniency and indulgence which now seem
absolutely necessary. However, all things fairly considered, it will
appear that old age and youth have each their defects and good
qualities." Were it necessary to exemplify the mutability of
ecclesiastical discipline it would be perplexing indeed to make a
choice. The ancient catechumenate exists only in a few rites; the
Latin Church no longer gives Communion to the laity under two kinds;
the discipline relating to penance and indulgences has undergone a
profound evolution; matrimonial law is still subject to modifications;
fasting is not what it formerly was; the use of censures in penal law
is but the shadow of what it was in the Middle Ages. Many other
examples will easily occur to the mind of the well-informed reader.


What connexion is there between the discipline of the Church and her
infallibility? Is there a certain disciplinary infallibility? It does
not appear that the question was ever discussed in the past by
theologians unless apropos of the canonization of saints and the
approbation of religious orders. It has, however, found a place in all
recent treatises on the Church (De Ecclesiâ}. The authors of these
treatises decide unanimously in favour of a negative and indirect
rather than a positive and direct infallibility, inasmuch as in her
general discipline, i.e. the common laws imposed on all the faithful,
the Church can prescribe nothing that would be contrary to the natural
or the Divine law, nor prohibit anything that the natural or the
Divine law would exact. If well understood this thesis is undeniable;
it amounts to saying that the Church does not and cannot impose
practical directions contradictory of her own teaching. It is quite
permissible, however, to inquire how far this infallibility extends,
and to what extent, in her disciplinary activity, the Church makes use
of the privilege of inerrancy granted her by Jesus Christ when she
defines matters of faith and morals. Infallibility is directly related
to the teaching office (magisterium), and although this office and the
disciplinary power reside in the same ecclesiastical authorities, the
disciplinary power does not necessarily depend directly on the
teaching office. Teaching pertains to the order of truth; legislation
to that of justice and prudence. Doubtless, in last analysis all
ecclesiastical laws are based on certain fundamental truths, but as
laws their purpose is neither to confirm nor to condemn these
truths. It does not seem, therefore, that the Church needs any special
privilege of infallibility to prevent her from enacting laws
contradictory of her doctrine. To claim that disciplinary
infallibility consists in regulating, without possibility of error,
the adaptation of a general law to its end, is equivalent to the
assertion of a (quite unnecessary) positive infallibility, which the
incessant abrogation of laws would belie and which would be to the
Church a burden and a hindrance rather than an advantage, since it
would suppose each law to be the best. Moreover, it would make the
application of laws to their end the object of a positive judgment of
the Church; this would not only be useless but would become a
perpetual obstacle to disciplinary reform.

From the disciplinary infallibility of the Church, correctly
understood as an indirect consequence of her doctrinal infallibility,
it follows that she cannot be rightly accused of introducing into her
discipline anything opposed to the Divine law; the most remarkable
instance of this being the suppression of the chalice in the Communion
of the laity. This has often been violently attacked as contrary to
the Gospel. Concerning it the Council of Constance (1415) declared
(Sess. XIII): "The claim that it is sacrilegious or illicit to observe
this custom or law [Communion under one kind] must be regarded as
erroneous, and those who obstinately affirm it must be cast aside as
heretics." The opinion, generally admitted by theologians, that the
Church is infallible in her approbation of religious orders, must be
interpreted in the same sense; it means that in her regulation of a
manner of life destined to provide for the practice of the evangelical
counsels she cannot come into conflict with these counsels as received
from Christ together with the rest of the Gospel revelation. (See

Publication information Written by
A. Boudinhon. Transcribed by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the
Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume V. Published 1909. New York: Robert
Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort,
Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York

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