The Fruits of Soft Discipline

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When I was in the seminary in the early 1960s, we were indoctrinated in the notion that the harsh discipline of the Church over the centuries would be a thing of the past following Vatican II. Supposedly, none of this harshness had ever really worked to safeguard the teaching of the Church, so a new softer approach was needed.

A half-century later, the results are in – and it’s indisputable that the softer approach didn’t work. In addition to the exodus of priests, nuns, and religious, there’s been a massive loss of knowledge among ordinary lay people about what the Church teaches. And no wonder, since there’s been little effort to make Church teachings clear in the flight from the bad old days of “harsh discipline.”

The bad example most often cited back then was the effort by Pope St. Pius X to root out modernism by removing dissident professors and then, in 1910, instituting the Anti-modernist Oath “to be sworn to by all clergy, pastors, confessors, preachers, religious superiors, and professors in philosophical-theological seminaries.” This oath began by embracing and accepting “each and every definition that has been set forth and declared by the unerring teaching authority of the Church, especially those principal truths which are directly opposed to the errors of this day.”

Those errors were then briefly explicated, followed by this submission: “I submit and adhere with my whole heart to the condemnations, declarations, and all the prescripts contained in the encyclical Pascendi and in the decree Lamentabili, especially those concerning what is known as the history of dogmas.”

Now the “enlightened” critics of this oath were many and prominent during the Second Vatican Council, and they won just two years after it closed. In 1967, the CDF under Paul VI issued a much-shortened Profession of Faith in “substitution of the Tridentine formula and the oath against modernism.” It is a brief restatement of the Creed with a closing qualifier: “I also firmly accept and retain each and every truth regarding the doctrine of faith and morals, whether solemnly defined by the Church or asserted and declared with the ordinary Magisterium, as well as those doctrines proposed by the same Magisterium.”

Pope St. Pius X

Fine, so far as it goes, but it names no specific errors, even when they contradict the Church’s “ordinary Magisterium.” By that point, the errors may have become so numerous that it was necessary to abbreviate the oath or profession.

But I’m not sure that’s the only reason, The change also reflected a desire on the part of powerful elements at the Council to present a new, softer face of the Church to the world.

Pius X was too smart to think that an oath was going to cleanse the Church of heretical dissidents. But it did set down markers for bishops who were obliged by their own office to discipline and remove not only those who refused to take the oath but also those who supported heretical doctrines.

Vatican II had affirmed the authority and responsibility of individual bishops as true successors of the apostles. So, you could argue, if the bishops fulfill their grave obligation to safeguard the faith, no such oath – or at least no such detailed oath – would be necessary.

Unfortunately, after the Council discipline mostly collapsed, at least when it came to safeguarding the faith. Witness the open and massive dissent from Humanae Vitae – certainly an exercise of the pope’s ordinary Magisterium, but also a formal reaffirmation of a constant teaching of the Universal Ordinary Magisterium, which was defined as infallible by both Vatican I and Vatican II.

Yet it’s hard to think of anyone among the “clergy, pastors, confessors, preachers, religious superiors, and professors in philosophical-theological seminaries” openly disciplined by his bishop for dissenting from this teaching. Indeed, it took twenty-five years to remove one of the ringleaders of dissent, Charles Curran, from a Pontifical University (The Catholic University of America). Many others continued at Catholic institutions until they retired.

St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI tried to change things, but with modest success.

Part of the problem was that several bishops were, themselves, dissenters, though secretly out of fear for repercussions. I had a certain respect for the honesty, at least, of one or two bishops who openly opposed Humanae Vitae. But you would have to be very naïve to think that there were only one or two bishop-dissenters. That’s become abundantly clearer in recent years.

Inevitably, the soft church became even softer when it came to the growing problem of Catholic laity and Catholic politicians openly supporting crimes against humanity such as abortion. How could the bishops discipline them when they failed to discipline even their own clergy and teachers in Catholic universities?

The double standard would have been obvious. So today we have a Church leadership that talks endlessly, but does virtually nothing to protect the faith of the little ones who were always the object of our Lord’s special love – and of the great popes of history. Often this soft discipline is justified in terms of charity. But what about charity toward the little ones who are easily – and gravely – misled?

Ordinary Catholics know well that words are cheap unless they are backed up by action. They know that no successful institution could operate the way the Catholic Church exercises discipline. If a person in authority contradicts the mission or disputes the principles that guide that mission, he will soon find himself out.

When bishops fail to discipline those who are in positions of grave responsibility, the ordinary person will no longer take a bishop’s words seriously. Perhaps that is why so many ordinary Catholics have come to side with the secular world on abortion, divorce, homosexual “marriage,” you name it.

But the ultimate victim of a failure to maintain discipline is truth. If you are not willing to defend the truth, then truth itself becomes a matter of opinion. That is, sadly, where we stand today.

Fr. Mark A. Pilon

Fr. Mark A. Pilon

Fr. Mark A. Pilon, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA, received a Doctorate in Sacred Theology from Santa Croce University in Rome. He is a former Chair of Systematic Theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary, and a retired and visiting professor at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He writes regularly at littlemoretracts.wordpress.com.

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