Not long ago, someone approached me with a great question: “Father, why does the Church change its rules?” Many people have seemingly lost their faith or become disenchanted with the Church over the years because to appears to have changed its teachings or “rules.” Most notably, this occurred with many of the reforms that followed the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Many changes took place, not only in the Mass, but in many other aspects of living the Faith as well. Things that were once an obligatory part of living the Faith were no longer. As a result, many lost their faith in the institution of the Church and broke away, either joining splinter groups, or wandering away from the Faith altogether.
Here are few examples of some “rules” that have changed throughout the Church’s history:
- Priestly celibacy: in the days of the early Church, many married men were ordained. Only since the early Middle Ages was priestly celibacy uniformly required in the West. In the Eastern Church still today, with the exception of bishops and monks, clergy are permitted to marry.
- Eating Meat on Fridays: While all Catholics must refrain from eating meat on Fridays in Lent, it used to be that such a prohibition applied to all Friday’s throughout the year. Today, while one need not be abstain from meat on Fridays outside Lent, all Catholics are to make at least some act of sacrifice.
- Eucharistic Fast: Today, we are to fast for at least one hour before receiving Holy Communion. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, one had to fast from midnight until receiving Holy Communion.
What are we to make of such changes? Isn’t the Church supposed to be infallible in her teaching? In order to understand such changes, an important distinction must be made – a distinction between doctrine and discipline.
Doctrine is a teaching of the Church that pertains to faith or morals. The foundation for such teaching comes from what Christ revealed, and passed on by the apostles through the Tradition of the Church. Over time, our understanding and expression of such teaching or doctrine can deepen and develop, but since it is part of what God has revealed to us, it cannot change. Discipline, on the other hand, consists of practices that are “man-made” and subject to change by those in rightful authority depending on time, place, culture, etc. The three “rules” mentioned above are all examples of disciplines in the Church. While disciplines within the Church are “man-made,” the authority the Church has to institute them come from God (Cf. Matthew 16:19, “…whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”).
For faithful Catholics, the challenge lies in learning to identity what falls under the area of doctrine and what falls under the area of discipline. Two things commonly confused with regard to this are priestly celibacy and the ordination of women. As mentioned above, priestly celibacy falls under discipline. Priestly ordination being reserved to men alone, on the other hand actually falls under the area of doctrine. This is because the theological meaning of the priesthood and what is inherent to it is a matter of faith (as in faith and morals) passed on from Christ and the apostles.