In order for oeconomia to work properly, there needs to be an understanding of what it is and what it is not. Oeconomia is not a simple relaxation of the rules, as though either a priest or a bishop were winking at you, patting you on the shoulder, and telling you that it is all OK. Nor is it simply the priest or bishop feeling sorry for you and making life easier for you. Nor is it the priest or bishop easing the rules in order to keep from losing members.Â
Rather, at its deepest level, oeconomia is the active application of the canons, by priest or bishop, in such a way that it helps us to grow more into the image of our Lord Jesus Christ. At the beginning of his Gospel, St. Luke records a prophecy that said of the coming Christ that, “a bruised reed he will not break.” In Church history, that has meant that, as Jesus said, “man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath was made for man.” Or to put it another way, humans were not made for the canons, but the canons were made for humans. In other words, we ought not to enforce the canons in such a way that it kills off an already damaged person.Â
One of the most shocking applications of this is found in the story of the woman caught in adultery. As generations of preachers have pointed out, according to the Law, she deserved to have the death penalty applied to her, and the mob was ready to do it. Jesus never denies that the death penalty applies. But, most commentators agree that whatever Jesus wrote on the ground most certainly shamed the crowd into leaving the woman alone. At the end, no one was left, and Jesus did not condemn her either, but rather gave her instant absolution. Holy Tradition says that the woman followed him into martyrdom. In other words, He made the bruised reed to be a strong and vibrant reed.Â
In the same way, so are bishop and priest called to apply the canons. Holy Tradition tells us that there are certain canons that may never be changed. Generally, these are the dogmatic canons. But, the disciplinary canons, meaning the canons that discipline or order the Church, can be and are subject to oeconomia. But, who gets to apply the oeconomia and whether that application is appropriate or not, is another whole discussion. But, suffice it to say that oeconomia is a real and living principle that keeps us from either the extremes of licentiousness or phariseeism.Â
Generally, it is not the principle that causes problems, but its application of it.
— More to come —