On Serenity and Severity in Church Discipline

The readings for today’s daily Mass (Monday Nov 12) largely deal with Church order and discipline. Paul in his letter to Titus tells him:

For this reason I left you in Crete so that you might set right what remains to be done and appoint presbyters in every town, as I directed you (Titus 1:5).

He adds that among other things, the men he picks be able both to exhort with sound doctrine and to refute opponents. Later in the letter we learned that people Crete tended to be unruly people and that there were many things that had been left undone and needed to be accomplished. (Titus 1:12).

If we look at the Church down through the Centuries, we will find what may be we described as a human condition. There are good and wonderful aspects of Church life, and there are things that are painful and difficult. The Church also goes through periods which are better, relatively speaking. There have been times of grave difficulties disorder, as well as periods of relative order and tranquility. But to be clear, there is never been an ideal or perfect time.

Last week we pondered on the blog that, in the 16th Century St. Charles Borromeo had a huge mess on his hands. Twelve million had just left the Church in the Lutheran revolt, and more were to follow. Clergy were poorly trained and disorderly, and the faithful were poorly catechized. It took decades to perform to restore reasonable order.

Our own times, show forth both light and darkness. In some areas the Church is growing, even flourishing. In other areas there is great decline and the culture is in great disrepair.

Jesus takes up the theme of sin in the Church in today’s Gospel. He says,

Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the one through whom they occur. It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him (Lk 17:1-4).

But despite saying this, the Lord counsels great mercy among the members of the Church:

and if he repents, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’ you should forgive him. (Luke 17:5)

Thus, while speaking of the need to discipline the sinner, he also speaks to the need to forgive seven times a day, a Jewish way of speaking that does not mean literally seven, but an abundance of forgiveness.

If the “woe” to those who cause scandal and the counsel to be merciful and forgiving seem in some tension, they are. Putting it another way, the Lord is saying to us, as for those scandalize others or fall into repeated sin, they are going to have to answer to me one day. But as for you, pray and work for their conversion, show mercy where possible, and leave many things up the God.

The fact is, we are not going to resolve every problem in the Church or in our families. And were we to try, we might create twice his many more problems. Scandals and problems are inevitable. We should work to resolve them, and, as the Lord says, correct the sinner. But we should do it in a way in which we do not surrender our serenity or our love.

To be sure, there are texts in the Scripture that speak to us of disciplining in ways that bring an end to mercy and execute firm judgment, texts that speaks even in certain situations, excommunicating a troublesome brother. Jesus counsels of Matthew’s Gospel:

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. (Matt 18:15-17)

In other words there maybe times when someone needs to be considered excommunicated. Paul says something similar 1 Corinthians 5 admonishes them to expel an incestuous brother in hopes that he may come to his senses to be restored to communion.

So there are times for strong discipline. But there are other times with the Lord counsels caution when it comes to severe discipline. Today’s gospel is one example. Another example of the Gospel of the wheat and the tares. The message seems similar to the gospel from today’s mass though it goes even further since there is not even evidence of theoretical repentance on the part of the sinner:

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)

In other words, there is going to be a day of judgment, but not now. Repeated sinners, and those who cause difficulty in church life and mislead others are going to have to answer to the Lord. But some of that has to wait for the Day of Judgment.

Exactly when to use tough measures, or when to delay, and show mercy, is not always easy to know. These are matters for prudential judgment. Some of the scenarios above presume theoretical repentance. (I say theoretical since repeated sinners may often indicate regret or have “reasons” for their behavior, but not really have true repentance at any any authentic or meaningful level). And these sorts of judgements don’t simply engage bishops, but also pastors at the parish level, and parents and siblings at the level of the domestic Church.

At any rate, in today’s readings both Paul and Jesus seem to have the longer picture in mind. They seem to counsel an approach more akin to chipping away at the problem, through instructing and admonishing, teaching and putting things in place rather than to round up every erring brother and throw them into the ocean. Perhaps too, it is good to remember that in asking for all the scoundrels, the rascals to be rounded up and thrown out of the Church, we ourselves might not fair too well, for most of us are not unambiguously saintly. We too might just get taken out with the trash.

This does not remove the need for the more strenuous measures that both Jesus and Paul counsel elsewhere, it simply balances them and shows, that in Church life, prudential judgments about such things are necessary.

Serenity – God himself leaves many things unresolved in both the Church and the created order. There is a kind of serenity in recognizing this, and taking it to heart. While we may wish for, and strive for the perfect family, the perfect Church, There is serenity in remembering that some things are going to have to be left to God.

And God often waits, for:  The patience of our Lord is directed to our salvation. Yes, He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:15,9)

9 Replies to “On Serenity and Severity in Church Discipline”

  1. At a very simplified level it is the blind leading the blind. We all see darkly through a mirror now. I often lose track of the fact that I forget my own sins when I am focused on the rest of the world’s issues. My small mind can never comprehend time from God’s perspective. Loving disengagement from this world seems the only answer. There is no guarantee in this life that the “bad people” get their due and if I am honest, thank you God for that. As much as I would like to give God a list of people who need their judgment now the Truth would require my name on the list. Very glad that in the Jewish tradition seven times can mean a lot more than seven.

    Thank you Msgr. Pope.

    1. Steve, well said. You simply must read the small essay by M. Guardini from 11/12/12 in the Magnificat magazine. I can’t find it online in a pastable form. If you don’t subscribe, stalk the pews and you will see many who have it.

  2. I thought of another way of interpreting this parable. I think in a sense our souls are also supposed to be the Kingdom of God and we sow good seed in our souls by doing things like praying, reading the bible, giving alms, participating in the Sacraments, and so on. We also have thoughts that come from we know not where.–and those are like weeds. If we spend all our time trying to rip out all of the weeds in our minds, we may end up ripping out all of the wheat. Is that also an acceptable way to read the parable?

    1. Yes, to some extent, but always under the watchful eye of a confessor or spiritual director since we tend to be poor judges in our own case. I remember my own spiritual director once saying to be about a struggle I was having: “God will help you resolve this in his own time. But however you resolve it, make sure you don’t destroy your self in the process.”

  3. May God bless you, Monsignor.

    I noticed that in Latin, Luke 17:3 contains “paenitentiam” and 17:4 contains “paenitet”.

    Could you please explain to us if I am correct in thinking that the brother in question has to actively do (italicized do) penance rather than simply be (italicized be) remorseful. If he is the former, which includes and begins with the latter, we are to forgive him. But if he does (emphasis does) nothing per se, but only is (emphasis is) the latter, we are not to forgive him, yet?

  4. Monsignor, it’s nice that you posted a picture of the cloister of Santa Sabina in Rome. It looks like a very peaceful place. When I visited Rome this past August, a film crew was shooting a scene outside the basilica. Thankfully, the basilica itself was open, but not the cloister. (August really isn’t the best time to be in Rome).

    For those who unaware, Santa Sabina is one of the best preserved ancient churches in Rome. It has been in the hands of the Dominicans [two of whom are in the photo] for over 700 hundred years. I strongly recommend a visit there to any pilgrim to Rome. It’s worth the steep trek up the Aventine Hill (which is particularly arduous in August!):


  5. To priests attending the deathbed of sinners, thank you.

    2 Corinthians 5 19:20 ‘ that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. [NRSV]

  6. My brother was terminally ill, I called the priest, he visited on Sunday, my brother died on Wednesday October 31. My brother had not visited a church for years as far as I know.

  7. Serenity is a metaphysical catharsis which I experience only after a severe struggle with overwhelming odds.

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