Dear Friends in Christ,
During the Synod of Bishops now meeting in Rome and because of the debates among bishops at that meeting, parts of Catholic Christianity that are seldom thought about except by specialists are being discussed by many people, and in the service of bringing clarity to what might otherwise be obscure, here are few things to bear in mind.
Doctrine and discipline are not the same thing. The teaching of the Gospel by the Church constitutes doctrine, a word derived from Latin words meaning teacher and teaching. The Church teaches what is contained in the Word of God found in Sacred Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition, and in so doing she is fulfilling the Great Commission. But having taught the truth revealed by God, the Church must then make choices about how to arrange our life together as disciples of the Lord Jesus, and those choices are in a general sense the discipline of the Church. So, for example, the Church teaches that the Lord Jesus commands us to baptize in the Name of the Trinity (doctrine), while the liturgical Rite of Baptism together with the Canon Law of the sacraments provide the details of how this is accomplished in our parishes (discipline). The doctrine of the faith develops slowly over time under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but it cannot ever change in the sense of one day teaching the contrary of what was once taught. And as doctrine develops or the pastoral needs of the Church change with time and place, then the discipline of the Church changes to reflect the new conditions. So, the Church teaches that only men can be ordained to the priesthood (a doctrine that cannot change) while in the Latin Church only celibate men are ordained under normal circumstances (a discipline that can change). And from time to time, as in the case of former Anglican clergy, married men are ordained in the Latin Church (an example of how a discipline can be modified, even temporarily, without being abandoned).
Another good example of this distinction concerns the ways in which the Sacrament of Penance has been celebrated over the centuries. In the early Church, there were public and sometimes dramatic expressions of baptized Christians needing to be reconciled to the Church after serious sin, and it was common for them to be enrolled in the Order of Penitents for months or years, able and expected to attend the celebration of the Holy Eucharist but unable to receive Holy Communion. That public celebration of the Sacrament of Penance gave way over the centuries to the individual and private form of Confession that we all know. The doctrine that our sins are forgiven after Baptism in the Sacrament of Penance was always known and taught by the Church, but the practical ways in which that reconciliation has been accomplished have been a slowly changing discipline of that sacrament. What the bishops in Rome are now debating is how, if at all, the discipline of the Church can change without in any way altering the immutable truth about the nature and purpose of the Sacrament of Matrimony taught by the Lord Jesus. Pray for their wisdom, and do not be disturbed by what you read of their debates. The doctrine of the faith is solid and certain because the Gospel, like the Lord Jesus, is the same yesterday, today, and for ever.