Cardinal Blase J. Cupich

‘The Joy of Love’ and the need for an authentic church discipline

Sunday, August 21, 2016

In my previous article on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “The Joy of Love, (CNW, Aug. 7), I referred readers to Professor Rocco Buttiglione’s comments on the document, published last month in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. Known for his expertise on the writings of St. John Paul II, this esteemed Italian scholar noted that some of the “learned class” have expressed concern about the pope’s appeal for a pastoral care of people that is marked more by mercy than rigorous enforcement of rules.

I too have heard these concerns. Some have even argued that such an approach will lead to a breakdown in church discipline and confuse people into thinking that when it comes to one’s faith life anything goes.

Of course, any fair-minded person reading the entire exhortation would conclude that this concern has no basis. Pope Francis wants discipline, but he wants the right kind of discipline. He is calling for a discipline that aims at forming disciples and not just enforcing rules.

It is a discipline that respects how a person matures in freedom. And it is a discipline that is based on the Catholic tradition, not a legalism that simply considers “whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being,” as the Holy Father observes. This is why a recovery of a discipline more faithful to our tradition is especially urgent as we offer pastoral care today.

Let’s look at this kind of discipline more closely, from the perspective of how it aims at forming disciples and is thereby more faithful to the Christian tradition.

For Francis, what is most important in human formation is a person’s growth through a life-long journey that allows people to act intelligently and have the internal freedom to exercise prudence, that is to say, to act like adults. The goal of formation is not simply to teach rules and carry out a system of enforcement, but to cultivate freedom through ideas, incentives, examples, models and dialogue so that people are led to do good on their own.

The Holy Father’s counsel to parents as they raise their children (chapter 7; see sidebar) is helpful in this regard. We adults, he writes, should be concerned not only with “where our children are physically, or where they are at any given time, but rather where they are existentially, where they stand in terms of their convictions, goals, desires and dreams.” The goal in this formation is to understand where our children really are in their journeys. Or, as the pope puts it, to ask: “Where is their soul?”

In Chapter 7 of “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis offers advice to parents for raising children, advice that applies to all of us:

Doing what is right means more than “judging what seems best” or knowing clearly what needs to be done, as important as this is. Often we prove inconsistent in our own con victions, however firm they may be; even when our conscience dictates a clear moral decision, other factors sometimes prove more attractive and powerful.

We have to arrive at the point where the good that the intellect grasps can take root in us as a profound affective inclination, as a thirst for the good that outweighs other attrac tions and helps us to realize that what we consid er objectively good is also good “for us” here and now. A good ethical education includes show ing a person that it is in his own interest to do what is right.

Today, it is less and less effective to demand something that calls for effort and sacrifice, without clearly pointing to the benefits which it can bring. Good habits need to be developed. Even childhood habits can help to translate important interiorized values into sound and steady ways of acting. A person may be sociable and open to others, but if over a long period of time he has not been trained by his elders to say “Please,” “Thank you,” and “Sorry,” his good interior dis position will not easily come to the fore.

The strengthening of the will and the repetition of specific actions are the building blocks of moral conduct; without the conscious, free and valued repetition of certain patterns of good behav ior, moral education does not take place. Mere desire, or an attraction to a certain value, is not enough to instill a virtue.

Our concern for their maturation must be about more than their physical and material well-being. It must focus on their development of prudence, good judgment, common sense, the freedom to rethink their own ideas, to understand that their lives and the life of the community are in their hands.

Of course, what the pope writes about raising children applies to all of us as we mature throughout our lives. It also has much to recommend to pastors who must reshape their pastoral ministry as they help people meet complex challenges.

Pope Francis’ starting point is that there has to be a “gradualness of pastoral care,” one that starts with a discernment of one’s situation through respectful dialogue with the aim of helping a person to move forward into a new freedom. Here the Holy Father relies on St. John Paul II, who “proposed the so-called ‘law of gradualness’ in the knowledge that the human being ‘knows, loves and accomplishes moral good by different stages of growth.’”

We have to be realistic, as St. John Paul II noted, about the fact that everyone “advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of God’s definitive and absolute love in his or her entire personal and social life.” This is the discipline that all Christians must commit to as they reflect on their lives.

But there has to be a corresponding discipline for those who offer pastoral care. They too must commit to a disciplined approach of ministry, marked by patience as they try to understand a person’s situation, always avoiding the temptation to impulsively prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution. Pope Francis is urging all pastoral ministers to achieve a level of apostolic discipline in their outreach to people, cultivating the virtue of patience while eschewing the vice of sloth by opting for “easy recipes.”

The Holy Father also makes clear that this approach to discipline is in keeping with an approach that has deep roots in our tradition. From its earliest days, the church imposed punishment to nudge the baptized to reflect on their lives and repent. Yet punishment and even exclusion were used as a last resort and for a limited period of time.

The goal was to help the penitent live an authentic life, a life in which all are accountable to the community. As many have noted, there is ample evidence in the New Testament that the church exercised a discipline when it came to participating in the Eucharist. But, as the pope notes, it was always a therapeutic discipline, one that always provided a path forward for sinners — because the church is for all of us, and we are all sinners.

Likewise, the church developed a set of criteria to determine a person’s responsibility for certain actions that violated moral laws. There are three conditions for determining personal culpability in weighing whether someone has committed a mortal sin: 1) the act must be a grave matter, 2) there must be full knowledge of the evil act committed with deliberate consent and 3) the sinner must have freely acted.

As Pope Francis reminds us, the Catechism of the Catholic Church offers a good summary of those “circumstances which mitigate moral responsibil ity, and mentions at length ‘affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that less en or even extenuate moral culpability.’” This means that an automatic application of a general rule to a particular case is not supported by the tradition of the church.

The Holy Father makes this point when he writes: “I earnestly ask that we always recall a teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas and learn to incorporate it in our pastoral discernment: ‘Although there is necessity in the general princi ples, the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects. … In mat ters of action, truth or practical rectitude is not the same for all, as to matters of detail, but only as to the general principles; and where there is the same rectitude in matters of detail, it is not equally known to all. … The principle will be found to fail, according as we descend further into detail.’ It is true that general rules set forth a good which can never be disregarded or neglected, but in their formulation they cannot provide absolutely for all particular situations.”

The pope is calling for a pastoral approach that is marked by disciplined discernment, which makes demands of each believer but also of those involved in pastoral care. He is urging all of us to be adults, to take responsibility for maturing into authentic human beings.

But he is also telling all of us pastors to walk patiently with those we serve. When we do this, when we respect how men and women mature in freedom, we are more faithful to our tradition. The great promise in doing this, a promise that motivates and inspires Pope Francis, is to position the church to take up with freshness the mission of Christ to set the world ablaze.

To read the other entries in this series of reflections, click here.