We’ve had a good amount of debate on the blog about the question of Church discipline. Specifically, what should bishops do to discipline prominent Catholics and Catholic institutions who stray from Church teaching and/or practice, and do so in a rather public way.
The issues revolve around abortion, especially voting to fund abortion, homosexual “marriage,” and religious liberty. Names and Institutions such as Nancy Pelosi, Kathleen Sebelius, Sr. Carol Kegan, John Kerry, the late Ted Kennedy, Georgetown University, Notre Dame University, etc., et al.
Prudence – I have argued that the best way forward in such things is often a matter of prudential judgment. A prudential judgment is the judgment, rooted in the virtue of prudence whereby a person, recognizing his moral duty in a given matter, discerns and then chooses the best means to accomplish it. A prudential judgement is also one in which the circumstances must be weighed to determine the correct action. And since circumstances may vary, there are situations where two people could weigh the circumstances differently and ethically come to different conclusions. Further there are, often times, different paths to the same goal.
It would seem that the essential goals for a bishop in matters like these would be the salvation of souls, the good of individuals, the common good, unity of the faithful in the truth of Christ and the gospel and of holding souls as close to Christ as possible.
How best should this be accomplished? There seem to be two basic camps in the discussion with very different views of what the Bishops should do in terms of discipline, when and to whom. In a way I am mindful of the old Latin expression: Festina Lente: Make haste, slowly! Hence I will term these two schools of thought: Festina! and Lente! Lets look at each school and see the scriptural roots behind each.
I. FESTINA! Swift and firm action – This view holds that the individuals and institutions like those above should be strongly and publicly warned by their own bishop, and, in the case of Federal politicians, also warned by the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington. Further, they should be denied Holy Communion and also warned of formal excommunication if they do not repent. Such procedures should be begun soon after it is discovered that repentance is unlikely.
It is argued that this approach is necessary, both for the good of their own souls, but also for the common good of the Church. As for institutions, such as the universities listed, they should loose their status and identity as Catholic institutions in short order, if they fail to comply with the document Ex Corde Ecclesiae and other relevant norms. Again, this, it is said, will prevent them from doing further harm.
Scandal – For the Bishops, pastors and other Church leaders to fail in this regard is to give wide and public scandal and to allow evil and error to proliferate.
Fraternal correction – This sort of conclusion is strongly rooted in the need and call for fraternal correction spoken of in scripture. Jesus himself says,
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matt 18:15-18)
There are numerous other passages in the Scriptures about fraternal correction (which St. Thomas numbers as an act of charity) in a lengthier article I wrote on the topic here: Correcting the Sinner
The point of fraternal correction, even up to, and including excommunication, is that it is like a medicine meant to heal. It’s purpose is not simply to shame or exclude, but to illustrate the seriousness of something and call forth repentance and ultimate reintegration into the community of faith. A second purpose of fraternal correction, even including excommunication is to protect the community from the effects of sin and sinners.
Here then is approach number one to the situation before us: swift and firm action by the bishops, pastors and other Church leaders, for the reasons stated, against offenders such as those listed above.
II. LENTE! Careful, deliberative discussion with the purpose of keeping doors of communication open and avoiding the alienation of either offenders or third parties. This position usually gives greater weight to the circumstances of our time, wherein disciplinary actions are often misunderstood and misrepresented by a hostile media, and other third parties. For example, it is thought that the refusal of communion to a pro-abortion politicians, will not be seen as a matter of the Church engaging a member in a matter of internal discipline. Rather it is seen and portrayed as a politically based attack by a Church that is increasingly conservative and only “selectively outraged.” These charges are not true but are widely accepted as such. There is also the fear that the disciplined public figures will become martyrs for their cause, and the whole thing becomes a backfire for the Church.
This approach also gives greater weight to the wish to keep the doors of discussion open and to avoid the risk of alienation either of the individual, the institution, or the people people closely associated with them. It emphasizes that Christ called sinners more than he repelled them, that it is better to hold sinners close, than repel them.
The approach is strongly rooted in the Scripture of the wheat and the tares:
Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’ “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied. “The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’” (Matt 13:24-30).
It is also argued that this second approach, articulated here by Jesus, is also the usual approach of God, who is patient with sinners and often very slow to punish. Indeed, his patience often makes the patience of Catholic bishops seem pale by comparison. For God was “slow” to bring an end to the likes of Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot and many other genocidal maniacs. He has allowed many heretics and heresies to flourish.
God’s delay is deeply mysterious to us. Why does he allow such things, knowing many will be hurt, killed, misled, and confused? It is not easy to say. But this is God’s usual way, and the way described by Jesus in the parable of the wheat and tares. In that parable the “owner” (God) sees greater risk in harming the wheat by pulling up the weeds, than by letting them grow together to the harvest. There is a wisdom that we can grasp here, but it also remains mysterious to us that God allows evil and error to go on so long.
So where do these reflections and camps leave us? It would seem that they lead us back to the understanding that knowing the best course in given circumstances, involves prudential judgements and the weighing of many factors. It would seem that we are led to greater humility and away from certain and sweeping condemnations of Bishops or other leaders who do not follow our exact plan and judgment, and also of those who think more aggressive measures are needed today. Reasonable people will differ on what is best.
Note the balance demonstrated by both Scripture and orthodoxy. Both these very different courses of action are taught and displayed in Scripture. Both are needed. Both can be applied depending on circumstances. The Jesus who said of the unrepentant sinner refusing correction of the Church, “Treat him as a Gentile or tax collector,” also said of the weeds, “No, don’t tear them out, let them grow together until the harvest.”
Which is it? Orthodoxy says both. And it is a prudential judgement about which course of action to apply when, on whom, where and to what extent.
Comments are open. I realize you may favor one approach or the other. It is fine to say what you prefer to be done by Church leaders. But try to avoid denunciations of either side. As I hope can be seen, both traditions have a place in the Church, and reasonable men and women can, and do, authentically differ on which course to take. And they differ both generally, and in specific cases. Again, it is Okay to say what approach you favor, but avoid name calling and judgements about the personal character of those who may have different approaches or understandings, including our leaders. It might be interesting to note not only why you favor one course over another, but also, why you think the parameters of the other course of action do not apply.
In this movie scene from The Mission two brother priests have chosen very different ways to address an impending threat to the community. One chooses to confront the evil, the other chooses the way of prayer. Sadly both end up dying and destruction comes upon the community despite the best (and different) efforts of both. Who was right, who was wrong? The frustrating and ambiguous ending reminds us that it is not always clear what is best. Yet somehow in the terrible wake of this battle, the faith survived, for God can make a way out of no way.