Oliver O’Donovan, Church Discipline, and the Current Catholic Scandals

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Ask a typical Protestant what “church discipline” means, and you will probably get a blank stare.  “Are you talking about keeping the youth in line on a mission trip?” they might ask.  No.  Most Protestants probably will not know the word “excommunication.”  In our age of worshipping the individual conscience, Protestants have (contra the New Testament witness) abandoned any real sense of church discipline.  This is both an overreaction reaching back to Reformation criticisms and a capitulation to modernity.  As Professor O’Donovan narrates it, “the Enlightment swept away church discipline from all but sectarian Protestant communities.”  Unfortunately, the laxity with which Protestants treat church discipline at all levels, but especially at the level of laity, seems to be present in Roman Catholic treatments of scandalous priests.

What was lost?  For O’Donovan, the chief concern ought to be the public integrity of the Church, not first and foremost the well-being of the individual.  “The point,” he argues, “is that discipline does not exist first to serve the penitent; it exists to enable the church to live a public life of integrity.”

Of course, discipline applies not only to lay persons but also to clergy.  Unfortonately, all churches tend to approach disciplining the ordained as if they are walking through molasses.  On one level, this is not surprising: all systems will protect its own, and the closer you are to power within the system, the more likely you are to be protected.  All the various Church communions, on some level, simply protect their own.  This seems to have, in some Catholic dioceses, gotten out of hand.  I think that the whole narrative of “those sexless old white men need to marry so they will stop molesting children” is overplayed and viciously simplistic.  Likewise, I do not think the corruption goes all the way to the top, though it is natural to want “the buck” to stop with the Pope.

O’Donovan, both in Resurrection and Moral Order and in his magisterial Desire of the Nations, has a  vested interest in the public witness of the Church.  In the case of Church discipline, he sees the major turning point as “the fateful exchange of public penance for private.”  Thus, all discipline was rendered a matter of the penitent’s spiritual good, and the need of the community to exhibit an unblemished face was forgotten.  In his schema, it seems, any priests facing church discipline would and should do so publicly, sparing their own private interests for the sake of the Church’s witness.

In his discussion on the consequences of lacking true church discipline, I found O’Donovan quite prescient.  Tell me if you hear the current Catholic scandals described almost exactly:

Although the scandal may arise from private fault, though not inevitably, the function of discipline is to address the public problems that it poses for the church’s common life.  Until this is recognized, our churches will continue to be vexed by the all-too-familiar pattern of misunderstanding in which the people find themselves humiliated by some scandal and demand a firm line of their clergy or  bishops, the bishops think the people harsh and unforgiving, the people think themselves betrayed, and everything is at cross-purposes.  That is the necessary fruit of an attempt to render private and, in and individualistic sense, ‘pastoral’ what are in fact the church’s rites of public justice, namely, the avowal of repentance and the assurance of forgiveness. (Resurrection and Moral Order, 169)

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