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Ecclesiastical Discipline

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Etymologically the word discipline signifies the formation of one who places himself at school and under the direction of a master. All Christians are the disciples of Christ, desirous to form themselves at His school and to be guided by His teachings and precepts. He called Himself, and we, too, call Him, Our Master. Such, then, is evangelical discipline. However, in ecclesiastical language the word discipline has been invested with various meanings, which must here be enumerated and specified.

Meaning of discipline

All discipline may be considered first in its author, then in its subject, and finally in itself. In its author it is chiefly the method employed for the formation and adaptation of the precepts and directions to the end to be attained, which is the perfect conduct of subjects; in this sense discipline is said to be severe or mild. In those who receive it discipline is the more or less perfect conformity of acts to the directions and formation received; it is in this sense that discipline may be said to flourish in a monastery. Or, again, it is the obligation of subjects to conform their acts to precepts and directions, and is thus defined by Cardinal Cavagnis: Praxis factorum fidei consona — "conduct conforming itself to faith" (Inst. jur. publ. eccl., Bk. IV, n. 147). More frequently, however, discipline is considered objectively, that is, as being the precepts and measures for the practical guidance of subjects. Thus understood ecclesiastical discipline is the aggregate of laws and directions given by the Church to the faithful for their conduct both private and public. This is discipline in its widest acceptation, and includes natural and Divine as well as positive laws and faith, worship, and morals; in a word, all that affects the conduct of Christians. But if we eliminate laws merely formulated by the Church as the exponent of natural or Divine law, there remain the laws and directions laid down and formulated by ecclesiastical authority for the guidance of the faithful; this is the restricted and more usual acceptation of the word discipline. Nevertheless, it must be understood that this distinction, however justified, is not made for the purpose of separating ecclesiastical laws into two clearly divided categories in so far as practice is concerned; the Church does not always make known to what extent she speaks in the name of natural or of Divine law and with this corresponds the observance of laws by her subjects.

Object of discipline

Since ecclesiastical discipline should direct every Christian life, its object must differ according to the obligations incumbent on each individual. The first duty of a Christian is to believe; hence dogmatic discipline, by which the Church proposes what we should believe and so regulates our conduct that it shall not fail to assist our faith. Dogmatic discipline springs from the power of magisterium, i.e. the teaching office, in the exercise of which power the Church can proceed only by declaration; therefore it is ecclesiastical discipline only in a broad sense. The second duty of Christians is to observe the Commandments, hence moral discipline (disciplina morum). Strictly understood the latter does not depend much more upon the Church than does dogmatic discipline, as the natural law is anterior and superior to ecclesiastical law; however, the Church authoritatively proposes to us the moral law, she specifies and perfects it; hence it is that we generally call moral discipline whatsoever directs the Christian in those acts that have a moral value, including the observance of positive laws both ecclesiastical and secular. Among the chief duties of a Christian the worship of God must be assigned a place apart. The rules to be observed in this worship, especially public worship, constitute liturgical discipline. This cannot be said to depend absolutely upon the Church, as it derives the essential part of the Holy Sacrifice and the sacraments from Jesus Christ; however, for the greater part, liturgical discipline has been regulated by the Church and includes the rites of the Holy Sacrifice, the administration of the sacraments and of the sacramentals, and other ceremonies.

There still remain the obligations incumbent on the faithful considered individually, either on the members of different groups or classes of ecclesiastical society, or, finally, on those who are to any extent whatever depositaries of a portion of the authority. This is discipline properly so called, exterior discipline, established by the free legislation of the Church (not, of course, in a way absolutely independent of natural or Divine law, but outside of, yet akin to this law) for the good government of society and the sanctification of individuals. On individuals it imposes common precepts (the Commandments of the Church); then it states their mutual obligations, in conjugal society by matrimonial discipline, in larger societies by determining relations with ecclesiastical superiors, parish priests, bishops, etc. Special classes also have their own particular discipline, there being clerical discipline for the clergy and religious or monastic discipline for the religious. The government of Christian society is in the hands of prelates and superiors who are subject to a special discipline either for the conditions of their recruitment, for the determining of their privileges and duties, or for the manner in which they should fulfil their functions. We may include here the rules for the administration of temporal goods. Finally, any authority from which emanate orders or prohibitions should have power to ratify the same by penal measures applicable to all transgressors; hence, another object of discipline is the imposing and inflicting of disciplinary sanctions. It must be noted, however, that the object of these measures is to ensure observance or to chastise infractions of the natural and Divine as well as of ecclesiastical laws.

Disciplinary power of the Church

It is evident, therefore, that the disciplinary power of the Church is a phase, a practical application, of its power of jurisdiction, and includes the various forms of the latter, namely, legislative, administrative, judicial, and coercive power. As for the power of order (potestas ordinis), it is the basis of liturgical discipline by which its exercise is regulated. For the proof that the Church is a society and that, as such, it necessarily has the power of jurisdiction which it derives from Divine institution through the Apostolic succession, see CHURCH. Disciplinary power is proved by the very fact of its exercise; it is an organic necessity in every society whose members it guides to their end by providing them with rules of action. Historically it can be shown that a disciplinary power has been exercised by the Church uninterruptedly, first by the Apostles and then by their successors. The Apostles in the first council at Jerusalem formulated rules for the conduct of the faithful (Acts 15). St. Paul gave moral advice to the Christians of Corinth on virginity, marriage, and the agape (1 Corinthians 7:11). The Pastoral Epistles of St. Paul are a veritable code of clerical discipline. The Church, moreover, has never ceased to represent herself as charged by Christ with the guidance of mankind in the way of eternal salvation. The Council of Trent expressly affirms the disciplinary power of the Church in all that concerns liturgical discipline and Divine worship (Sess. XXI, c. ii): "In the administration of the sacraments, the substance of the latter remaining intact, the Church has always had power to establish or to modify whatever she considered most expedient for the utility of those who receive them, or best calculated to ensure respect for the sacraments themselves according to the various circumstances of time and place." In fact, we need only to recall the numerous laws enacted by the Church in the course of centuries for the maintenance, development, or restoration of the moral and spiritual life of Christians.

Mutability of discipline

That ecclesiastical discipline should be subject to change is natural since it was made for men and by men. To claim that it is immutable would render the attainment of its end utterly impossible, since, in order to form and direct Christians, it must adapt itself to the variable circumstances of time and place, conditions of life, customs of peoples and races, being, in a certain sense, like St. Paul, all things to all men. Nevertheless, neither the actual changes nor the possibility of further alteration must be exaggerated. There is no change in those disciplinary measures through which the Church sets before the faithful and confirms the natural and the Divine law, nor in those strictly disciplinary regulations that are closely related to the natural or Divine law. Other disciplinary rules may and must be modified in proportion as they seem less efficacious for the social or individual welfare. Thomassin aptly says [Vetus et nova Ecclesiæ disciplina (ed. Lyons, 1706), preface, n. xvii]: "Whoever has the least idea of ecclesiastical laws, those that concern government as well as those that regulate morals, knows well that they are of two kinds. Some represent immutable rules of eternal truth, itself the fundamental law, the source and origin of these laws from the observance of which there is no dispensation, against which no prescription obtains, and which are not modified either by diversity of custom or vicissitudes of time. Other ecclesiastical rules and customs are by nature temporary, indifferent in themselves, more or less authoritative, useful, or necessary according to circumstances of time and place, having been established only to facilitate the observance of the fundamental and eternal law." As to the variations of discipline concerning these secondary laws the same author describes them in these terms (loc. cit., n. xv): "While the Faith of the Church remains the same in all ages, it is not so with her discipline. This changes with time, grows old with the years, is rejuvenated, is subject to growth and decay. Though in its early days admirably vigorous, with time defects crept in. Later it overcame these defects and although along some lines its usefulness increased, in other ways its first splendour waned. That in its old age it languishes is evident from the leniency and indulgence which now seem absolutely necessary. However, all things fairly considered, it will appear that old age and youth have each their defects and good qualities." Were it necessary to exemplify the mutability of ecclesiastical discipline it would be perplexing indeed to make a choice. The ancient catechumenate exists only in a few rites; the Latin Church no longer gives Communion to the laity under two kinds; the discipline relating to penance and indulgences has undergone a profound evolution; matrimonial law is still subject to modifications; fasting is not what it formerly was; the use of censures in penal law is but the shadow of what it was in the Middle Ages. Many other examples will easily occur to the mind of the well-informed reader.

Disciplinary infallibility

What connexion is there between the discipline of the Church and her infallibility? Is there a certain disciplinary infallibility? It does not appear that the question was ever discussed in the past by theologians unless apropos of the canonization of saints and the approbation of religious orders. It has, however, found a place in all recent treatises on the Church (De Ecclesiâ). The authors of these treatises decide unanimously in favour of a negative and indirect rather than a positive and direct infallibility, inasmuch as in her general discipline, i.e. the common laws imposed on all the faithful, the Church can prescribe nothing that would be contrary to the natural or the Divine law, nor prohibit anything that the natural or the Divine law would exact. If well understood this thesis is undeniable; it amounts to saying that the Church does not and cannot impose practical directions contradictory of her own teaching. It is quite permissible, however, to inquire how far this infallibility extends, and to what extent, in her disciplinary activity, the Church makes use of the privilege of inerrancy granted her by Jesus Christ when she defines matters of faith and morals. Infallibility is directly related to the teaching office (magisterium), and although this office and the disciplinary power reside in the same ecclesiastical authorities, the disciplinary power does not necessarily depend directly on the teaching office. Teaching pertains to the order of truth; legislation to that of justice and prudence. Doubtless, in last analysis all ecclesiastical laws are based on certain fundamental truths, but as laws their purpose is neither to confirm nor to condemn these truths. It does not seem, therefore, that the Church needs any special privilege of infallibility to prevent her from enacting laws contradictory of her doctrine. To claim that disciplinary infallibility consists in regulating, without possibility of error, the adaptation of a general law to its end, is equivalent to the assertion of a (quite unnecessary) positive infallibility, which the incessant abrogation of laws would belie and which would be to the Church a burden and a hindrance rather than an advantage, since it would suppose each law to be the best. Moreover, it would make the application of laws to their end the object of a positive judgment of the Church; this would not only be useless but would become a perpetual obstacle to disciplinary reform.

From the disciplinary infallibility of the Church, correctly understood as an indirect consequence of her doctrinal infallibility, it follows that she cannot be rightly accused of introducing into her discipline anything opposed to the Divine law; the most remarkable instance of this being the suppression of the chalice in the Communion of the laity. This has often been violently attacked as contrary to the Gospel. Concerning it the Council of Constance (1415) declared (Sess. XIII): "The claim that it is sacrilegious or illicit to observe this custom or law [Communion under one kind] must be regarded as erroneous, and those who obstinately affirm it must be cast aside as heretics." The opinion, generally admitted by theologians, that the Church is infallible in her approbation of religious orders, must be interpreted in the same sense; it means that in her regulation of a manner of life destined to provide for the practice of the evangelical counsels she cannot come into conflict with these counsels as received from Christ together with the rest of the Gospel revelation. (See ROMAN CONGREGATIONS.)


THOMASSIN, Vetua et nova Ecclesiæ disciplina (ed. Lyons, 1706), preface; JEILER in Kirchenlex., s.v. Disciplin; all treatises on public ecclesiastical law, especially that by CAVAGNIS, Inst. jur. publ. eccl. (Rome, 1906), I. III, ch. ii; the treatise de Ecclesiâ in theological works, especially in HURTER, Theol. dogm. comp. (Innsbruck, 1878), I, thesis xlvi, and WILMERS, De Christi Ecclesiâ (Ratishon, 1897), 469 sq.

About this page

APA citation. Boudinhon, A. (1909). Ecclesiastical Discipline. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Boudinhon, Auguste. "Ecclesiastical Discipline." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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