Discipline is for Disciples

Why don’t Catholics handle church discipline in the manner described in the New Testament? St. Paul has a number of things to say about Church members who sin publicly, thereby causing scandal, up to and including casting them out of the community until they shape up; but the Church today handles matters quite differently. Why so?

This question arose in a private forum I read; and a number of answers were offered. The most obvious is that there is an immense difference between a 1st Century diocese, a diocese in which every member knew every other member, and a present-day American Catholic parish with thousands of families. In those days, a Christian may have given up friends and family to be a Christian. He was on the outs with his non-Christian associates, and if he were to be on the outs with the Christian community as well he’d have no one to turn to. I imagine that that would be a powerful incentive to repent. Also, because the Christian community would be small, our hero’s sinful behavior would likely be widely known to the whole community, and would hence cause scandal.

In a modern parish of average size, it’s impossible to know everyone. Most people at my parish don’t know me, even if they see me reading at mass; and even if they do know my name they probably aren’t aware of my sins. To discipline me publicly for them, as was done in the 1st Century, would mean informing the parish at large as to what my sins were. But they generally have no need to know what my sins are; and for someone to tell them when they have no need to know about them is in itself the sin called “detraction”. So that’s one reason. Another painfully pragmatic reason is that there are often a number of parishes in any geographical region. If a priest publicly disciplined someone, that person could simply leave the parish and go attend another, thereby solving nothing.

For this reason, as another person commented, discipline and accountability now tend to happen in three places: in the confessional, within spiritual direction, and between friends in spiritual friendships.

But there’s another issue at play here, too. As Sherry Weddell points out in her book, Forming Intentional Disciples, many (often a majority) of our parishioners don’t know what it means to be a disciple, or to be in a living relationship with our Lord, Jesus Christ. I’m speaking here of regular mass-goers, mind you, not of the many who are on the books but rarely attend. We have not been calling our people to discipleship, and so we have few disciples. And the thing is, it’s discipline that makes the disciple. More particularly, it’s the willingness to accept discipline, and to live according to that discipline, that makes the disciple. It’s a choice the person has to make him or herself. Weddell refers to it as “dropping your nets”, as St. Peter dropped his fishing nets to follow Jesus.

Please note, I’m using the word “discipline” in its broader sense, as a restricted way of life intended to bring about growth, rather than in its narrower sense of punishment for misbehavior.

It makes sense for a priest to correct a disciple who is displaying overt sin; and the disciple, for his part, will welcome the correction and try to change his ways. And it also makes sense for the priest to do the same for any penitents who come to him, whether they are disciples or not. But it seems to me that the nature and severity of the correction should differ.

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