The Great Divorce of Doctrine and Discipline

by Ryan Fitzgerald  •  •  April 24, 2016   

"What God, then, has joined, let not man put asunder"

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Certain strains within the Church have been pushing for a dangerous divorce of doctrine and discipline, especially with regard to the sacraments of matrimony and the Eucharist. Giving transparent lip service to magisterial teaching, advocates of this unfounded split typically say Church doctrine should remain the same, yet they insist the way it is applied pastorally can and should change with time and circumstance.

Frequently lurking behind this trend is the popular false dichotomy between theory and practice, fact and value, "is" and "ought." The modern mind cannot fathom how the two could really be united; hence, the modern man compartmentalizes them into completely separate realms. And since his more immediate world is the world of practice, the proponent of this idea will often gradually lose sight of his initial theories and abandon them for new ones — innovative dogmas to conform more with his novel practices. Thus the modern man initiates a divorce between old dogma and practice and then proceeds to enter into a new union with new beliefs.

The problem with this is that both doctrine and discipline are indissolubly united in the Person of Jesus Christ. Anyone who attempts to disjoin the two will inevitably do harm to His Mystical Body and Bride. So, it is no surprise that some of the Church's highest ranking prelates have issued stark warnings about this damning new notion.

First, there was Cdl. Gerhard Müller, the head of the Church's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a man specially commissioned to clarify and illuminate the doctrinal aspect of the Faith. He takes the divorce of doctrine and discipline to be a sort of heresy. "Each division between 'theory' and 'practice' of the faith would be a reflection of a subtle Christological 'heresy,'" he asserts. Elaborating on the depth of this error, he says it proposes "a division in the mystery of the eternal Word of the Father, who became flesh."

Then there's Cdl. Robert Sarah, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, someone uniquely responsible for a major disciplinary aspect of the Faith. Like Cdl. Müller, Cdl. Sarah deems the separation of doctrine and discipline "a form of heresy." "To varying degrees, the idea would consist in placing the Magisterium in a pretty box and separating it from pastoral practice, which could evolve according to such circumstances, fashions and emphases," he states. He characterizes such a way of thinking as "a dangerous, schizophrenic pathology."

Higher in authority than both of these cardinals is none other than Pope Francis, who has also condemned the division in question. "Not infrequently an opposition between theology and pastoral ministry emerges, as if they were two opposite, separate realities that had nothing to do with each other," said the Holy Father. "False opposition is generated between theology and pastoral ministry, between Christian reflection and Christian life."

The Pope has been concerned about a supposed division in which many will associate doctrinal loyalty with an old, outdated way, while pastoral action is thought to invoke only what is new — as if the two are completely unrelated.

"We not infrequently identify doctrine with conservatism and antiquity," said Pope Francis, "and on the contrary, we tend to think of pastoral ministry in terms of adaptation, reduction, accommodation, as if they had nothing to do with each other."

However, he noted that one of the main aims of the Second Vatican Council was "to overcome this divorce between theology and pastoral ministry, between faith and life." According to the Pope, these two aspects of the Church's mission must be united and in dialogue.

Both doctrine and discipline have been fundamentally, even metaphysically united in Christ, therefore, "what God, then, has joined, let not man put asunder."


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