Crack That Whip!
A common objection on the part of some Protestants toward the Catholic Church goes something like this: “You Catholics claim that your church has all this divinely-bestowed authority, and yet you never bother to wield it. Instead, you just let all these heretics and deviants run around teaching and living however they want with total impugnity.” The objector then points out that such would never be the case in his church, but the offender would be dealt with in a timely manner.
Before I point out a few issues I have with this objection, I would first say that I can empathize with this frustration. If I could push a button and magically fix a few things in the Catholic Church, this would probably be one of them. But with that said, there are also some problems with this objection.
First, the unspoken major premise in this argument is that if a church is to make a credible claim to being the church that Christ founded, then it must exercise its disciplinary authority infallibly, universally, and quickly. But that position is hardly able to function as a major premise in an argument, for it is itself a highly disputable claim. With the exception of the episode recorded in I Corinthians 5, where does the idea arise that the exercise of discipline is a mark of the church, such that failure to exercise it swiftly divests the church of its claim to authority? Of course, the response could be given that Paul’s insistence that the Corinthians deal with their sinful church member is enough to justify the premise that discipline is a mark of the church, and its lack of exercise necessarily entails a church being robbed of its status as a true church, but that seems like quite a big claim to derive from a pretty incidental passage in an occasional letter. In a word, that premise needs to be argued for, and not simply adduced as axiomatic.
Secondly, the Catholic Church disciplines people all the time, so the objection amounts to a disagreement over the efficiency of an already-existing practice, and not over the absence of that practice altogether.
Thirdly, it is an oversimplification biblically to just insist on universal and speedy discipline of doctrinally or morally erring church members. There are plenty of passages in the New Testament that give the impression that disciplinary judgment can be rendered in an overly-hasty way. Jesus’ rebuke of James and John for desiring to call down fire upon the Samaritans comes to mind, as does the parable in which the vineyard owner urges his steward to give the field more care and attention in the hopes that it will eventually yield a harvest (in fact, the entire Old Testament sort of highlights divine longsuffering if you ask me). God’s judgment must be considered in the light of his mercy and patience, is what I’m saying.
Further, since there is no such thing as “The Protestant Visible Church,” the complaints by members of various disunited Protestant congregations about the slow manner in which the Catholic Church exercises discipline are somewhat hard to take seriously. What authority do they have to determine just how quickly discipline should be pursued, and how universally it should be applied, and how long it should take? None of those who raise this objection claim to be infallible, and neither do the scattered and provincial micro-denominations to which they belong. So when a member of the URC, an American denomination which was founded in the 1990s and has roughly 25,000 members, criticizes the Catholic Church’s failure to properly discipline its 1,100,000,000 members spread throughout the world, it is hard not to be slightly amused slash annoyed.
Finally (and not without significance and a touch of irony), the claim that a given Protestant denomination would never drag its feet with discipline cases, but would deal with them decisively is somewhat laughable since Protestantism, by its very design, has no real visible church from which an erring member can be excommunicated in the first place. If the “visible church” consists of all baptized people, then how can someone be removed from that group? Sure, a person can be excommunicated from this or that visible congregation, but there is nothing stopping him from simply joining another visible congregation down the street. And if the original congregation objects, its leadership has no authority to do anything about it beyond stomp their feet and yell really loud.
Therefore it seems to me that the objection that the Catholic Church has forfeited its authority by failing to discipline its erring members (1) begs the question by presupposing that discipline is a mark of the church, (2) fails to recognize the many ways in which the Catholic Church does practice discipline, (3) forgets that disciplinary judgment in Scripture is coupled with the mercy and longsuffering of God towards his people, and (4) ultimately fails due to the fact that Protestantism’s lack of a visible church and infallible Magisterium makes it impossible for Protestants to speak meaningfully about the grounds for discipline in the first place, let alone effectively carry it out.