October 16, 2015

The Difference Between Church Doctrine and Church Discipline

The ordination of men only to the
priesthood is a doctrine of the Church.
A common criticism of the Catholic Church is that she "does not change with the times." To answer this objection we must distinguish between Church doctrines, which cannot change, and disciplines, which can — as well as discuss doctrinal development.

Doctrine vs. Discipline

A doctrine is a formal, infallible teaching of the Church which cannot be altered. Doctrines are central truths of the faith (i.e., Christ's divinity, the Eucharist is the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus). Doctrines address matters of faith and morality. They are proclaimed not invented.

Disciplines are the Church's man made laws (i.e., priestly celibacy). They are not Church teaching. They do not concern matters of faith and morals expressly, but actions and behaviors informed by the current state of the Church. They may be altered, but rarely are.

The all-male priesthood is a doctrine of the Church (see Ordinatio Sacerdotalis). Priestly celibacy is a discipline. Priest could be allowed to marry (outside of the exception for clerics who convert to Catholicism), although, it is highly unlikely this will change.

The Development of Doctrine

Once a doctrine is declared by the Church, it cannot be changed or rescinded. Doctrinal development is the deepening of our understanding of a doctrine over time. When Christ declared:
Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female?’ For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate,
He affirmed the sacrament of marriage, doctrinally declared by the Church, as the conjugal union of a man and woman for life, of exclusive and mutual fidelity, for the procreation and education of children. This doctrine remains unaltered. However, later thinkers, like St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John Paul II explained and expanded upon the institution of matrimony and the beauty of conjugal love in response to philosophical developments and societal changes.

We must recognize that the mysteries at the center of the Church's teachings are mysteries of God. Not until we see Him face to face will we fully understand them. Yet, as Holy Mother Church contemplates ever more deeply her Bridegroom's selfless love, we too can grow in our understanding of, and love for, the mystery and mind of God.

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