The Relationship of Discipline and Doctrine

David Mills says that all disciplinary norms have some relationship with doctrine; Dr. Edward Peters responds

The irreplaceable canonist Edward Peters argues that disciplinary norms can have no, some, and a fundamental relation to doctrine, and though not a canonist, I think he’s mistaken about the no. Donald Cardinal Wuerl, questioned about communion for the divorced and remarried, had said that “The reception of Communion is not a doctrinal given, it’s a pastoral application of a doctrinal position.” Not exactly, Peters responded in his Canonlawblog.

He gives three different situations illustrating the difference. They range from someone who hasn’t kept the fasting regulations (“clearly practical and pastoral,” he says, when “clearly” seems to mean “entirely”) to someone who hasn’t been baptized (“entirely doctrinal”). Those who discuss these matters must distinguish “whether doctrine underlies the disciplinary norms. Sometimes doctrine is not involved; sometimes doctrine is involved in part; and sometimes doctrine is the fundamental basis of the discipline in question.”

One hesitates to argue with the learned doctor of canon law, especially as he is the canon lawyer to whom almost everyone I trust turns to, but I don’t think this is quite right. Disciplinary rules must necessarily have a direct (if sometimes distant) relation to doctrine, because they describe practically how to live the life the doctrine requires. The Church does not impose arbitrary rules. We have particular practices because we believe certain things to be true about the cosmos, things that must be lived out. Otherwise it doesn’t matter what people do. The Church requires us to fast before communion. She doesn’t require us to wear matching socks.

The relation may be immediate or distant, and Peters treats the immediate relation as the doctrinal one and the distant relation as the practical and pastoral one. But distant is not not doctrinal.

This seems to be a very small point about which to argue with Dr. Peters, who was only, in the lawyerly way, setting the stage for the discussion of communion for the divorced and remarried. And is, if I guess rightly, trying to head off in this controversy the common use of “pastoral” to mean not the discerning application of belief but its tempering or mitigation. But I think it’s more significant than it looks.

The problem of suggesting that our actions, especially the actions the Church instructs us to take, can be separated from our beliefs is not just the problem that when you say “practical and pastoral” many people think “unimportant if not irrelevant.” That’s a greater problem than it should be. The problem is also that by dividing discipline and doctrine we rob ourselves of a deeper insight into the very complex mechanism, the very complex organism, that is the Catholic life.

It’s more fruitful to find the relation of the two, even if it is very distant. Why can’t Catholics receive Communion if they’ve eaten within the last hour? Why can’t we walk over from the diner to the church and receive Our Lord half an hour after the bacon and eggs? There’s got to be a reason and the reason has to express something fundamental. This rule expresses something crucial about the holiness of the Sacrament and our unworthiness to receive it — both of which are matters of doctrine. Saints and wise men have played out profound meditations on this. If the rule has no relation to doctrine we have no reason to think about it, and really no reason to obey it other than it comes from an authority who commands our obedience.

The contents of the rule expresses our best judgment of what is needed and what people will do. The rule itself expresses a revelation about who God is, who we are, and what he’s given us in the Mass. The Church requires us to fast before communion. She doesn’t require us to fast before saying the rosary or adoring Christ in the Tabernacle.

The distinction I would make is not between pastoral and doctrinal, since every discipline is doctrinal and pastoral, but between those disciplines that prudentially work out the wise expression of the doctrine (Peters’ “doctrine is not involved”) and those that necessarily express the doctrine directly (his “doctrine is the fundamental basis”).

We know that some expression of repentance and reverence before receiving the Body of Christ is necessary — it’s what the doctrine demands — but we are left to figure out what the best expression would be. We have a prudential decision to make. (And for the record, one hour is just not long enough.) We know that the unbaptized cannot receive the Body at all. We have no prudential decision to make, though we are left with the practical problems of explaining this to the unbaptized and presenting the teaching well.

It’s a minor point, but not unimportant, in an antinomian age that longs for an integrated life, where belief and action cohere, some of whom look to the Church for that integrity.


Response from Dr. Edward Peters:

This will be a short debate. I readily agree with David Mills’ point that even something as obviously practical and pastoral as establishing the period of the Communion fast has at least some relation to doctrine, else, why would it be treated in sacramental canon law at all? Indeed, my two articles calling for extending the Communion fast draw in great part on doctrinal considerations, further evidence that I agree with Mills’ good observations.

Having noted in my original post on Cdl. Wuerl’s comments, though, that the law on the Communion fast was practical and pastoral, I thought I had covered my bases re: the idea that some, albeit minimal, connection to doctrine might be involved in assessing the specific length of the fast. I still think that. But when I mentioned a few lines later later that some disciplinary canons in the Code have no connection to doctrine (a point I am happy to defend), I introduced a segue in thought that, while logically sound, I can hardly blame even careful readers for missing. Again I much appreciate Mills’ alerting me to it, underscoring, as it does, the duty of a writer to be of service to the reader.

May I add, this isn’t the first time I have learned something of the craft of writing from David Mills. I doubt it will be the last.


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About David Mills 0 Articles
David Mills, former editor of Touchstone and executive editor of First Things, is the author most recently of Discovering Mary. He writes a weblog for Patheos.