Discipline is in short supply in the postmodern West. A long season of postwar prosperity has made possible an age of indulgence in which technological fixes substitute for virtue, fake remedies for the wages of vice. We indulge immoderately in food, drink, and sex, and expect pills to save us. And where a sort of discipline is exercised, it’s exercised punitively: those in charge wish to show others that They Are Taking Matters Seriously. The late Francis Cardinal George pegged our problem when he wrote, “The world permits everything and forgives nothing.”
And so we let everything go until it is made public that someone has transgressed some new boundary du jour as our ongoing cultural revolutions, like Saturn, devour ever more of their children, and ours. But medicine is no substitute for virtue, and policy is no substitute for discipline. Pills may arrest disease, and bylaws may channel outcomes, but we remain human, and only the real disciplining of body, mind, and spirit will make us ever more so, truly free to live as we ought under God.
Living tokens of discipline do abide. Every Olympic athlete is only free to excel because she has disciplined her body in years of training. Every world-class musician is only free to excel at his instrument because he has disciplined himself in years of practice. Demosthenes, so the ancient story goes, was only free to be a great orator because he practiced speaking over the roar of the ocean waves with pebbles on his tongue. What’s true for individuals goes for groups as well: Crack military units and famous sports teams excel in battle and match because they have practiced corporate discipline.
Freedom and risk
These examples illustrate the fundamental if forgotten truth about freedom: it depends on discipline. If that sounds ironic, it’s because we in the West have been convincing ourselves for hundreds of years that freedom is libertinism, the license to break any and all constraints—the constraints of law, tradition, nature, even the constraints of our own bodies. John Stuart Mill famously called for “experiments of living” just like scientists conducted experiments of nature, and today the coupling of our hyperpowered science (especially in the area of biotechnology) with our fascination with ever more radical experiments of living has resulted in slavery to the spirit of the age, to the fulfillment of raw desire. If we’re to have true freedom, then, in which our lives are lived in harmony with nature, we desperately need a recovery of virtue developed through discipline.
This is true of the Church as well as of the individual and of society. St. Paul is the apostle of freedom, having famously written in Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (5:1). But anticipating antinomian misreadings of his letter, he later continues, “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (5:18). Rather, for Paul the end of being “in Christ Jesus” is “faith working through love” (5:6). And so for Paul, Christian freedom is not freedom from constraints but freedom for virtue, indeed the highest theological virtue of agape, of caritas, of love in the community that is the very body of Christ, the Church.
Love in Christian community requires discipline, both to keep individual members on the path of virtue and, concomitantly, to keep the community living in the purity of love. An unavoidable reciprocity obtains between body and members, sustained by charity on the way to glory. And so ultimately, discipline in the Church is meant to be remedial, salvific, to keep and bring everyone deeper in Christ on the pilgrim way of salvation. Conversely, the laxity of indiscipline has its obvious results: damage to Christian life and witness, and ultimately the loss of souls. But the exercise of discipline is difficult, and has its dangers. Just as a coach or parent can misread a situation and misapply discipline, so too can ecclesiastical authorities. Discipline is messy, and mistakes are made.
In fact, some of the greatest saints and even doctors of the Church have suffered under errant discipline. St. Hildegard of Bingen, now a Doctor of the Church, was placed under interdict along with her convent for a time in the final year of her life, having permitted an excommunicated man to be buried on the grounds of her convent. (She had believed him to have repented and have received the sacraments before his death.) St. Mary MacKillop found herself the victim of intrigue, perhaps involving the scandal of sexual abuse, enduring excommunication for about six months when she declined to agree with her bishop’s request to revise the constitution of her order, the Josephites. (He had her excommunication lifted while on his deathbed.) St. Padre Pio was forbidden from public celebration of the Mass and from hearing confessions as well as responding to correspondence for some years until Pius XI began to restore his faculties in 1933, and Pius XII later worked to rehabilitate his reputation. Whole nations and city states have been put under the ban for political reasons, and at one point during the Great Western Schism in the context of the Avignon papacies it can be argued that all of Europe was excommunicated, given one’s loyalty to different popes and (as judged later) antipopes with their particular clergy doubling up over and against the other team’s clergy in many dioceses.
And a thought arises: What if Luther hadn’t been excommunicated so roughly, but dealt with gently in a longer attempt to keep him formally in the fold? Luther’s fiery, uncompromising temperament would have kept the prospect of ultimate success unlikely, short of Rome affirming his theology, but dropping the hammer of Exsurge Domine on him most certainly made reconciliation impossible. In retrospect, the last chance was for the seriously pious Charles V to have had him burned at the Diet of Worms, but Charles was too honest and charitable a soul to engage in that drastic solution, and so he gave Luther several days’ safe passage to escape. Thus the Reformation as we know it launched like a rocket, with Luther safely hidden in the Wartburg and later finding enduring protection in Wittenberg while he wrote and taught freely.
Discipline is thus risky, and hindsight reveals instances in history in which it’s been poorly and wrongly applied. Nevertheless, there are also instances in which it proved effective. St. Ambrose excommunicated Theodosius I, the very emperor who had made Nicene Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, after the latter engaged in a brutal reprisal, having seven thousand Thessalonians killed for the murder of the commander of the military garrison, and the emperor repented. During the intrigues of the Investiture Controversy, Pope Gregory VII managed to have the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV excommunicated, which was lifted after Henry spent three days in penitence in the snow at Canossa. Closer to our own day, during the difficult days of desegregation in the South, New Orleans Archbishop Joseph Rummel planned to integrate the Catholic schools, and when segregationist Catholics in government and their supporters began considering a state law barring racial integration in Catholic schools, Rummel dropped the hammer of excommunication to great effect.
Renewal and redemptive discipline
Today we sometimes seem to have the problem of exercising discipline according to the world’s standards. Priests who appear “intolerant” or “divisive” by teaching and exercising their own discipline according to the words of the Catechism and canon law—say, refusing sacraments where good warrant exists to do so—can find themselves removed from their ministerial assignments, while others who make statements in support of certain progressive agendas at odds with Catholic teaching persist in peace.
The aftermath of the Second Vatican Council left the Church in a moment of crisis regarding practice and belief, as myriad surveys and statistics reveal. And so in 1977 on the sixtieth anniversary of the final apparition at Fatima, soon-to-be Pope St. Paul VI observed,
The tail of the Devil is functioning in the disintegration of the Catholic world. The darkness of Satan has entered and spread throughout the Catholic Church, even to its summit. Apostasy, the loss of the Faith, is spreading throughout the world and into the highest levels within the Church.
And it has arrived in our day with full force, as Catholics prominent and obscure reject the Church’s express, humane teaching on the nature of the human person. Catholic Ireland’s Eighth Amendment, which served to give unborn persons the protection of law, was repealed by a lopsided margin in the recent referendum; life was routed. And in our own United States the situation is no better. Former Vice President Joe Biden, a regular mass-goer who once famously asserted his piety by saying, “The next Republican that tells me I’m not religious, I’m going to shove my rosary beads down their throat,” officiated a wedding between two homosexual men in the waning months of his tenure. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, mother of five children and a practicing Catholic, recently told a group of letter carriers, “I just want to tell you this one thing because I’m a person of faith, and I see everything in terms of my religion,” but does all in her political power to advance a proabortion and antifamily agenda.
None of us laity should want the real burdens borne by bishops (and the best of the clergy do not seek such burdens either but simply obey the Holy Father when he appoints them). It’s easy to sit in our armchairs and wish we were the ones calling the plays. Nevertheless, given that discipline is necessary for any individual or group or society to function to its fullest, it’s worth considering whether the crisis of our present moment invites reconsideration of the value of the practice of redemptive discipline. All renewal in the Church is sparked by and grounded in the sources, and the source of Scripture provides warrant and witness for the exercise of discipline.
Lessons from Corinth
Practicing Christians find themselves struck by just how perennial Scripture is, as we today belong to the same Church founded by Jesus and led by his chosen apostles. St. Paul was also an apostle, chosen by the risen Jesus, and I’ve often thought that his first letter to the Corinthians might as well have been written to the Americans. Like us, the Corinthians engaged in the sort of theological liberalism Newman decried; instead of using the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection as the lens to understand and judge their Greco-Roman thinking and behavior, they tried to adapt the Christian message to their own commitments to their culture. Like us today, they needed a conversion of their imagination. And so St. Paul writes to them, teaching them the necessity of discipline and instructing them to exercise it.
The Corinthians’ problems were not simply similar to ours formally, but also materially. Like us, they suffered confusion about the human person, specifically about the body. Good Greco-Romans (even the Jews among them having imbibed the spirit of Hellenism), they thought the body was a problem and weren’t sure what to do with it. And so some of them engaged in sexual immorality and drunkenness and even went so far as to deny the resurrection of the dead, even that of Jesus himself. But Paul wrote to them to remind them that purity of doctrine and body are requisite for real peace and unity in the body of the Church.
For St. Paul, the Church is simply one. In 1 Corinthians 3:16–17, he uses an image of the Church as a spiritual temple, undoubtedly calling to mind the temple in Jerusalem as an integral structure dedicated to holiness and sacrifice:
Do you not know that you all are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in the midst of all of you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you all together are.
I’ve adjusted the RSV translation to make clear the plural “you” in the Greek. Paul is saying that the corporate body of the Church has the Holy Spirit in its midst, and destruction of that holy temple of the Church invites condemnation.
Two things threaten the Church’s unity: dissent and sin. Addressing the first, St. Paul appeals to the Corinthians, demanding that “all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor 1:10). Doctrinal disagreement involves factionalism, and the Corinthians divided into groups, rallying themselves around the figures of Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter), and Christ (1:12). Paul reminds them then that there is no other to rally round than Christ and that it’s the fact of his cruciform death that puts an end to all human speculation (1:18ff). In essence, Paul is saying that the Corinthians are to accept the Gospel and see everything through it, not contort it, twist it, adapt it in accord with the Greco-Roman spirit of their age.
Addressing the second, St. Paul later confronts a horrifying instance of sexual sin. “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife” (1 Cor 5:1)–perhaps his stepmother, perhaps his biological mother. Like incipient antinomian Gnostics, they are boasting about their freedom in Christ from the law (5:2, 6). Paul, however, insists on redemptive discipline: “When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (5:4–5). The Church is to be pure, so Paul insists the man be excommunicated from the Church—that’s what delivering him to Satan means, putting him outside the body of the Church, where Satan has his domain. But it’s redemptive; Paul insists on this discipline so that the man might ultimately be saved, not damned.
And the passage presents overtones of the Eucharist, which Jewish ritual sacrifice prefigured: “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed.” (1 Cor 5:7). It’s no accident that later on St. Paul will credit disunity and sin with causing certain Corinthian Christians to suffer illness and death because they’re taking the Eucharist unworthily (see 1 Cor 11:17–34). Factions and drunkenness have made a mockery of the Cross of Christ that the Eucharist presents, and some are paying the price. For Paul, discipline involves receiving the Eucharist worthily—in a state of grace—and so here too the Corinthians are to discipline themselves lest the Lord Jesus discipline them further. Even then, the Lord’s discipline is redemptive: “when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor 11:30).
Unity and purity are necessary for the Church to be fully herself, and St. Paul, among other Scriptural witnesses, teaches that discipline is necessary for the Church to achieve that unity and purity. Unity nowadays often appears as an exercise in false concord, however, a unity of appearance, a papering of differences, letting sins and crimes slide while trying to hide them. True unity and purity require the virtue of courage that we might dare to discipline. Then the Church will be more fully herself.
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