In the ongoing debates about the status of Church teaching on several “family” issues (including marriage and sexuality) – discussions occasioned by the Synods of 2014 and 2015 – there is a prior question that is mighty significant: are proposed changes questions of discipline or doctrine?
The answer about the specific issues, of course, depends upon how one understands the word “doctrine.” Properly speaking, it’s the received teaching of the Church that began with the earliest Gospels and the first-century Didache, and is today summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. As such, a doctrine cannot be changed. When the media use the word “doctrine” they may (innocently or not) mistake discipline for doctrine, and disciplines can be changed.
It’s no surprise that there is some confusion about which rules are doctrine and which are discipline – confusion exacerbated by those who would like one to be the other. So, for instance, on the question of the ordination of women, those who favor it will tend to suggest it’s just a matter of discipline, in hopes that a change may come some day, which is why Pope St. John Paul II actually settled the matter in his brief but definitive apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994):
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful. [emphasis added]
If only it were possible to remove doubt in all such cases. Of course, all doubt has not been removed in the minds of dissidents and never will be – not in this life anyway.
And in our time, we’ve seen plenty of examples of discipline overwhelming doctrine. So many of the changes in Church practice after Vatican II were, in effect, ad hoc (and de facto) and not de jure.
And a sort of blending goes on, whereby papal statements about, for instance, the death penalty may be taken by the faithful to indicate that Catholic doctrine is opposed to capital punishment, although strictly speaking (i.e., in terms of doctrine) it is not.
Or in the case of divorce, civil remarriage, annulment, and Communion, the medium of a motu proprio may be used, as Pope Francis did (in Mitis et Misericors Iesus) ahead of the recent Synod, to affect discipline without needing to address doctrine.
Our own Father Gerald Murray has questioned the canonicity of Mitis, but whether or not the pope’s apostolic letter is valid, it will be applied at the parish level. It remains to be seen how many divorced Catholics will actually bother to avail themselves of the simplified annulment procedures, which (it seems beyond doubt) were instituted by the Holy Father in order to bring Catholic practice more in line with predominant, worldwide secular law. And yet Jesus’ teaching about the indissolubility of marriage remains unchanged, perhaps to be reaffirmed at some point in the way Ordinatio Sacerdotalis reconfirmed the all-male priesthood.
But to return to the question of doctrinal change: Does the “binding-and-loosing” power given to the Church by Christ apply here? If a pope chose to speak ex cathedra on the reception of Communion by those remarried without annulment – i.e. to allow it – would such a pronouncement be valid?
I can only consider such questions, not answer them, for I can find no precedents. Such changes as have been made to Catholic teaching have rarely, if ever, been made to doctrine but only to discipline. Perhaps, as Father Murray suggests, the pope has, intentionally or not, blurred the line between the two in Mitis et Misericors Iesus. Perhaps it was clear to him that change would not emerge from the Synod. We can probably live with that – and live to fight another day.
In changing Catholic discipline on fasting, as Paul VI did in the apostolic constitution Paenitemini (1966), damage may have been done to the allure of Catholic life, but clearly no assault on doctrine was involved. As Rodney Stark has written:
Getting rid of meatless Fridays was a dreadful error the Church made. When I was a kid – in a town that was 40 percent Catholic and 60 percent Protestant – meatless Friday was an enormously important cultural marker. . . .Our high-school football games were always played on Friday nights. After the game, you took your girlfriend to the drive-in restaurant. And, around midnight, you could hear the Catholic kids count down to twelve and then shout, “Hamburger!” And everybody would laugh. It was a little social ritual that left Catholics with an enormous sense of solidarity.
Of course, it wasn’t wonderful that Stark and his Protestant brethren “thought hamburgers were the big denominational difference,” but the point is still well made.
Were Pope Francis directly to allow divorced-and-remarried Catholics, with or without annulment, to be admitted to Communion, he would be acting directly in contravention of Christ’s direction in Matthew 5:32. Francis would consider such a step an act of mercy, but would it be?
Speaking about abstinence in Paenitemini, Paul VI emphasized “that salutary abstinence. . .will forearm [the faithful] against the danger of allowing themselves to be delayed by the things of this world in their pilgrimage toward their home in heaven.”
How is this not even more true with regard to the disciplines of marriage? And as St. John XXIII said with regard to the Council of Trent: “What was, still is.”