Saturday, June 28, 2014

What Does the Word 'Pastoral' Mean, Anyway?

Now it is an outstanding manifestation of charity toward souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ; but this must always be joined with tolerance and charity, as Christ Himself showed in His conversations and dealings with men. For when He came, not to judge, but to save the world, was He not bitterly severe toward sin, but patient and abounding in mercy toward sinners?

Husbands and wives, therefore, when deeply distressed by reason of the difficulties of their life, must find stamped in the heart and voice of their priest the likeness of the voice and the love of our Redeemer.

So speak with full confidence, beloved sons, convinced that while the Holy Spirit of God is present to the magisterium proclaiming sound doctrine, He also illumines from within the hearts of the faithful and invites their assent. Teach married couples the necessary way of prayer and prepare them to approach more often with great faith the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Penance. Let them never lose heart because of their weakness.
Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae 29

Reflection – In the controversy and difficulties around the encyclical, and around the current discussions in the Church regarding the indissolubility of marriage, the word ‘pastoral’ is commonly used as a sort of contrary to ‘doctrinal’.

There are the doctrines of the Church and the call to teach them, but then there is the need to be pastoral, and these two things are seen as quite opposed to one another by some. And so in the face of people who genuinely do have difficult circumstances, even tragic circumstances, the pastoral response is to more or less discard the doctrine and let people do whatever they want. To be a loving and merciful pastor means either consciously or unconsciously choosing not to teach people what the Church’s doctrines are, or counseling them to ignore those doctrines in their lives, and this has been the model of much ‘pastoral’ care in the church of the past fifty years.

Well, it is deeply incoherent. It is either based on the conviction that the Church’s teachings are entirely untrue (in which case why bother being Catholic at all then?), or that ‘truth’ is somehow a bad thing, a heavy burdensome thing. And this attitude is profoundly unchristian in a way that cannot be exaggerated.

‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.’ The Lord Jesus says it, and this has to be the fundamental understanding of pastoral theology in the Church. We are always to be merciful, always kind, always to proclaim the ready forgiveness of God to all of us who are sinners, always entering into the real struggles and real burdens of people’s lives to do what we can to lift those burdens.

But never at the expense of truth. Never sacrificing our faith in what is true, good, and beautiful out of a misguided compassion. Never telling people, implicitly or explicitly, that there can ever be a set of circumstances so extreme, so difficult, that it justifies breaking even a single commandment of God. The Church is nourished by the blood of the martyrs, many of whom died over what seem like very small things—refusing to burn three grains of incense to Caesar, for example.

We are all of us called, frail sinners that we are, to that degree of heroic fidelity and obedience to God, at whatever cost. The ‘sheep’ of the pasture are called to be shepherds laying down their lives with great nobility of spirit and courage. And it is the true pastoral spirit of the Church, not to lead people into an easier and less heroic way of life, but to call people to the heights of sanctity and heroic charity.

And so with the issues of contraception, openness to life, chastity, and a true understanding of what marriage is and why it is indissoluble (namely, because Christ Himself declared it to be so, and we have not one bit of authority to negate His words), there is a great need to be merciful and kind, gentle and patient, deeply loving, not least because people have been so poorly taught by the pastors of the Church in the last fifty years and there is so little real understanding of the Church’s doctrine.

But all the kindness and mercy, patience and compassion and love, must be ordered towards calling people into the heroic path of faith, into a genuine discipleship of life where we follow the Crucified One so as to be crucified with Him, so as to rise with Him, so as to reign with Him. These are the ‘green pastures and still waters’ to which the Good Shepherd wants to lead his sheep.

And that, then, is the real pastoral love and pastoral care that bishops and priests especially are called to exercise in the Church, but all of us, really, according to our own gifts and station of life.