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Doctrine vs. Discipline: Ascension Thursday when it’s Crazy Go Nuts

Today, I fulfilled my Ascension Thursday tradition and put out a frantic question on Facebook: IS THURSDAY A HDO IN NH OR NOT???

The answer is: Yes, in my diocese it is. All of New Hampshire is the Diocese of Manchester, which is a part of the Ecclesiastical Province of Boston, which, unlike most places in the U.S., has not moved the feast of the Ascension to Sunday. Thursday is a Holy Day of obligation in New Hampshire, and also in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

Our family’s schedules are crazy go nuts, so I was trying to figure out if I really needed to excuse my kids from a mandatory final dress rehearsal or not, or if we should tell the carpool kid we can’t get her because we’ll be getting to our three schools late because we need to go to the morning Mass, or if I should cancel today’s doctor appointment and have all the kids go into aftercare so I can get to the vigil Mass in a town forty minutes away. I mention this in case you’re wondering why I don’t just say, “I love Jesus, so we’ll go to Mass whether we have to or not.” I do love Jesus, but, see: crazy go nuts.

Anyway, there was some back-and-forthing among my Catholic friends around the country, and one of my non-Catholic friends commented:

I ask this in all sincerity as a non-Catholic, so please forgive me if it seems disrespectful. But if it takes a 40-person Facebook discussion, a set of trigonometric tables, and a slide rule to figure out if Ascension Thursday is a Holy Day of Obligation, does it really matter that much to God? I mean, is He going down the list and saying “Sinner! Oh, never mind, she’s in the Diocese of Omaha and it’s Daylight Saving Time”?

A fair question! Here is my answer.

There are some things we are obligated to do because they have intrinsic moral significance, and there are some things we are obligated to do out of obedience. So it’s not a question of God trying to keep up with the rules that the Church has created. It’s a question of whether or not we believe that God has given the Church the authority to define doctrine and to impose discipline.

That’s what we’re talking about here: doctrine vs. discipline.  Everything that the Church obligates us to do falls under one or the other category.

What’s the difference? The classic example illustrating doctrine vs. discipline: the male priesthood vs. the celibate priesthood. The first is doctrine, and has intrinsic moral significance; the second is a discipline, and we’re obligated to follow it out of obedience.

The male priesthood is the doctrine that says only men can be Catholic priests. Doctrine never will be and cannot be changed, because the Church has decreed that there is an unchangeable theological reason for this teaching.  The Church simply does not have the authority to decide that women can be ordained priests, and Catholics have always been obligated to acknowledge that women cannot be priests.

The celibate priesthood, on the other hand, is a matter of discipline: it’s something that the Church can change and, in fact, has changed. So if there was a married priest celebrating Mass, God wouldn’t look at him and say, “Hey! You have a wife? Sinner! Oh, wait, it’s only the year 1 AD. Never mind, you’re fine, bro.” The Church has the authority to change this discipline.

But here’s the key: We are obligated to obey both what the Church teaches as doctrine and what the Church imposes as discipline. The first will never be changed; the second might. Whatever the Church currently imposes as a discipline, we are required to obey that, because we recognize that the Church has authority over us.

So, back to the current question about the Holy Day of Obligation and the scheduling shenanigans. I discovered that tomorrow is a Holy Day of Obligation for us in New Hampshire, so we are obligated to get to Mass if we possibly can. It’s a discipline that the Church has the authority to impose on us, and if I know that this is the case and it’s reasonably possible for us to get there, then we need to get there. Not because God is just cuh-razy about Thursdays and gets mad when people go to choir practice instead, but because God has given the Church the authority to define doctrine and to impose disciplines.

It’s fitting to talk about these things on Ascension Thursday since that was the day that the work of redemption was completed. When Jesus ascended into Heaven, He left behind His Church, having given His Church the ability to define doctrine and to impose disciplines. God is not bound by the Church’s rules. Instead, He has given us the Church as a way of helping us learn to come closer to Him. When we obey the Church in legitimate matters of Faith, then we are obeying God. Which we do because we love Jesus, crazy go nuts or not.

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Image: photo by Waiting for the Word (license)

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