The pastoral imperative—and when it becomes a sin

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 22, 2017

From the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has placed great emphasis on pastoral care, often using colorful similes and metaphors, such as “the Church is a field hospital” and pastors must “get the smell of the sheep.” This is a salutary emphasis, for we are all prone to take things for granted. We habitually ignore certain opportunities to help others with their material and spiritual needs. We all tend to get stuck in our own ruts, reluctant to try new solutions to old problems. We live within our comfort zones, when we should be seeking Christ’s comfort zone.

As with many other good things, however, this emphasis on pastoral care is salutary—except when it isn’t. It is not salutary when it is set in opposition to what is called a dogmatic, or doctrinal, or catechetical, or moral “approach”. In this context, if we never again hear the compliment that Father X “is very pastoral”, it will be too soon.

Such an expression (when not uttered with tongue firmly in cheek) presupposes a false dichotomy between charity and truth. A Christian approach to others—a Christian way of befriending and assisting them—is by definition rooted in the Person of Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life. Truth is the mind’s conformity with reality, which in the Christian dispensation is the mind’s conformity with Christ. Thus truth is in itself a grace which frees us to live in Christ. For this reason, a “pastoral approach” always and intrinsically includes the dogmatic, the doctrinal, the catechetical, and the moral. It is always, as Pope Benedict so clearly pointed out, “charity in truth” (Caritas in Veritate).

Dogmatic personalities

What we might call a “dogmatic personality” is another thing entirely. This is the personality type of those who tend to be very definite in their opinions, confident that these opinions are right, and argumentative or even dismissive of those who disagree. Do many of those who have dogmatic personalities stress the importance of orthodoxy within the Church? Certainly, and this is even more true because it is dogmatic personalities who are most likely to resist the counter-influences of the predominant secular culture. But do those with dogmatic personalities have to guard against their own adherence to Catholic teaching?

No. What they must guard against is their own tendency to make dogmas out of things that are not dogmas; not only to prefer their own opinions (who doesn’t?) but to propound opinions as if they were dogmas; to be unnecessarily argumentative, and to be contemptuous of those who disagree—rather than accepting difference or looking for other ways to win someone over. In such cases, the “dogmatic personality” carries with it temptations to certain kinds of sins (as does every personality type under the sun). Is it part of the process of spiritual growth to overcome such personality defects, so as to represent Christ more fully to others?

Of course it is. But that is a completely different effort from downplaying, ignoring, or contradicting the truth in order to make friends and influence people. Pope Francis once commented, in regard to the contentious issues of our day, that “we do not need to talk about these things all the time”. That is a fair point, but only when it does not mean “we ought not to broach unpleasant topics in our effort to help our neighbor to respond to the call of Christ.”

Nonetheless, it remains true that priests, and bishops and even popes—just like the rest of us—can be unfortunately dogmatic on points that are not dogma, and this naturally brings dogma into disrepute. A perfect example is Cardinal Robert Sarah’s recent assertion that it is inappropriate to use a smart phone (or similar electronic device) rather than a book to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. I love Cardinal Sarah; I would welcome his election to the See of Peter; and I choose to emphasize this particular indiscretion only to illustrate a larger point. Thus, I will go farther even than my colleague Phil Lawler in critiquing this assertion (see About Cardinal Sarah’s caution on using an iPhone in prayer). This is exactly like saying, a few thousand years ago, that using one of those new-fangled books was not as reverent as reading from a scroll.

Smart phones are ubiquitous not iniquitous. They use far less energy and resources for praying the Liturgy of the Hours throughout an entire lifetime than it takes to create personal copies of the books we would otherwise need. In our culture they are within the reach of far more people than are a full set of volumes for the Liturgy of the Hours. The relevant “apps” also make the prayers far easier to find and coordinate. These devices are lighter and take less space than books. In other words, provided the smart phone does not present temptations in other areas, there is in fact every reason to use it for prayer. This animus is a simple example of a cultural preference posing as a dogma concerning the spiritual life. This is an extremely minor issue, but it illustrates a more important point: Our dogmatic quirks make real dogma just a little bit easier to dismiss.

As a final point concerning the “dogmatic personality”, we need to note that people who decry those teachings of Christ which our dominant culture rejects often slip into a kind of cultural dogmatism themselves. Taking their cues from the culture, they feel perfectly justified in dismissing and even persecuting those who deny what “everybody knows” to be true. On this point, see Phil Lawler’s commentary, Father Martin and his allies: intolerance masked as a plea for tolerance. Avoiding Catholicism is not a safe way to avoid dogma. It is only a safe way to avoid dogma that is actually true.

When the “Pastoral” is eviscerated of the “Dogmatic”

The removal of truth from our idea of “pastoral care” is, in fact, a grievous sin. Those who do this either lack the courage of their convictions or lack the convictions altogether. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred the convictions are weakened or gone because they are culture-bound. They have drifted into a secular mindset which takes its cues from the culture rather than from Christ. In doing so, they resort to a whole raft of sophistries (whether consciously or subconsciously, who can say?) to maintain the pretense that they are deeply committed to Catholic teaching, despite the fact that they routinely undermine it, and constantly dismiss as either stupid or mean-spirited those who criticize them for it.

Those of us who lived through the sixties, seventies and eighties of the last century have almost universally suffered a great deal under this sort of “pastoral care”. We have experienced bishops, priests and sisters who took years and even decades to admit that they had simply lost their faith. Today, the chief representatives of this breed are academics, and the single organized group which provides constant theological “cover” for such culture-bound cowardice is the still-unreformed Society of Jesus. It can be no surprise, then, that the latest public controversy within the Church over the sinful use of the “pastoral imperative” concerns the ministry to the LGBT community of Fr. James Martin, SJ.

Unsurprisingly, Fr. Martin has been defended vigorously (through the usual rash condemnation of his critics) by none other than Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, who last year responded to Amoris Laetitia by inviting those in immoral hetero-sexual liaisons to decide for themselves whether they should receive Communion, while almost going as far for gays and lesbians (see my commentary from late 2016, the title of which calls to mind another very pertinent point: When questions are perceived as threats, a guilty conscience is at work).

The two key points

I commented a few months ago at greater length on The problem with doctrinal obscurity. But there are just two essential points which must be understood from today’s discussion:

First, beyond the proclamation of the Gospel and kindness in other forms of interaction, it is quite simply impossible to devise a truly pastoral approach to any group which defines itself in terms of pointed opposition to Catholic teaching. Charity is always a Christian duty, but pretending that participation in the Church is open to those who self-identify as deeply opposed to the teachings of Christ, or that hostility to the Church can be reduced legitimately by downplaying the importance of the teachings in question—these things make a mockery of the concept of pastoral care.

Anecdotally, later personal accounts by those who have gone in this direction over the past several generations indicate that they had, at the time, already largely ceased to pray. More often than not these pastoral initiatives also suggest weaknesses in faith or morals (or both) on the part of the “pastors” themselves. These weaknesses, when vacuously formalized in pastoral programs, are nothing less than a betrayal of Christ and the Church.

Notice that the issues involved are always the hot-button issues pressed upon us by the dominant culture. As such, these pastoral programs are also a proclamation of something deeper still: They fairly shriek, “I will not accept cultural marginalization, much less real martyrdom.” Meanwhile, those who suffer from same-sex attraction for any reason (to continue with the most prominent example today) are more than welcome in the Church as soon as they do not define themselves by their opposition to the Church—as soon as they identify first and foremost as sons and daughters of a loving Father, and seek to live in accordance with His will, no matter how often they may fall.

Second, those who are tempted to pursue pastoral initiatives of this type have, knowingly or unknowingly, lost their faith in the efficacy of the grace of Jesus Christ. They simply do not believe that the proclamation of the Gospel can actually carry with it the power of Christ, through which those who hear can undergo a radical personal transformation. They can, in a word, escape slavery to sin. Those who hear the Gospel can, for the first time, experience freedom. On this question, see the brilliant comments of Fr. Robert Imbelli, which I presented in On Pastoral Accompaniment to Nowhere.

We must always keep in mind one of the most famous pastoral comments of St. Paul:

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But then what return did you get from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. [Rom 6:17-23]

The pastoral imperative is to preach the whole Christ, and Him crucified, as made known through His Church. The pastoral imperative is to find effective and even sacrificial ways of getting this done, even against the human odds. But please repeat after me: When used to justify deformations of the Gospel to please an audience which rejects the teaching of Christ, the pastoral imperative becomes a sin.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Sep. 22, 2017 9:44 PM ET USA

    On the mark.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Sep. 22, 2017 5:08 PM ET USA

    I never thought we would be rehashing the same old arguments, and yet, here we are.