Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Pastoral practice must foster Faith, not split hairs

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 20, 2023

Phil Lawler’ latest post (Popesplaining and New Ways Ministry) prompts a serious question about pastoral practice that affects the ministry of the entire Church. In fact, the various emphases of Pope Francis have brought this question to a head.

Put simply, the question is this: Should Catholic pastoral practice be “softer” or “harder”—that is, “less precise” or “more precise”—than discussions of Catholic doctrine? Believe it or not, this question has haunted us incessantly for at least the past sixty years. The proof is that most readers today will assume that the proper place to soften the impact of Catholic faith and morals is in pastoral practice. In other words, in formal teaching the doctrine should remain clear, but in pastoral practice the doctrine should frequently be blurred through a tactic of practical indulgence, so that people will not be alienated from the Church.

This understanding generally underlies the constant call for a more “pastoral” Church. If this meant only that pastors should love their people to the point of sympathizing with human weakness, then it would be an unobjectionable understanding. But in the past sixty years, this emphasis on the difference between the doctrinal and the pastoral has been used to drive a wedge between the two. The great appeal of this is that it makes the purely natural lives of both willful sinners and pastors “more comfortable”. Moreover, any competent observer will have noticed that this distinction arises primarily in relationship with the sins that are culturally thought not to be sins. To put the spotlight on an illuminating example, the Church is typically urged to be “pastoral” when it comes to those guilty of non-marital sexual relationships, but she is not urged to be “pastoral” when it comes to those guilty of environmental pollution or racial prejudice.

Now, the poster child for a “pastoral approach” is the blessing of gay relationships. Gay marriage would be preferable to the dominant culture, of course, but the Church has drawn a doctrinal line there, and so the emphasis is primarily on a “pastoral” approach by which the Church’s ministers can be supportive of gay “couples” in their present circumstances. This is not just a question of smiling and nodding, but of the “pastoral” use of a quasi-liturgical blessing to assure the “couple” that God and the Church love and care for them in the context of their coupling. The further implication, of course, is that our new more enlightened God and Church do not really consider them any more “irregular” in their “coupling virtue” than anybody else.

Speaking pastorally, then, it seems that the Church must simply deal with a confusing inconvenience: Catholic doctrine requires a particular definition of “marriage” which, by the merest odd chance, simply doesn’t apply to gay couples. But what this example really illustrates is the complete fallacy of the notion that it is both normal and appropriate for Catholic pastoral ministry to contradict “in practice” what Catholic doctrine affirms “in theory”.

What it means to be a Pastor

Jesus Christ is the model for all pastors. Both the Old and New Testaments, along with the entire Catholic tradition, emphasize the importance of pastors as those who love and care for their flocks, seeking out and reclaiming the lost, and protecting them from every danger. No good pastor encourages his sheep to wander off into the wilderness or refuses to seek them out and bring them back when they have strayed. And no good pastor abandons the flock to wolves, failing to interpose himself between his sheep and whatever threatens them. In other words, to be “pastoral” means primarily to protect those entrusted to your care in a way that prevents them from being snatched out of the Lord’s hand (cf. Jn 10:28).

This certainly involves displaying a genuine love for the sheep, a willingness to attempt to bring them back no matter how wayward they are, and a patience that is worthy of its root meaning (to suffer). A pastor is always motivated by Christ’s love, but it is precisely for this reason that he must sound the alarm and mount a rescue expedition when any of his flock have placed themselves in grave spiritual danger. The true Catholic pastor will make firm efforts to bring wayward Catholics back to the safety of their supernatural connection to Christ in the Church.

Of course, the mere proclamation of Catholic teaching is not enough (nor have I ever heard any faithful Catholic claim that it was). Mere proclamation does not intrinsically acknowledge the personal difficulties of those to whom the Church ministers, and of course these difficulties must be probed, discussed, understood and resolved in ways that enable each one gradually to overcome the relevant temptations, to grow in grace, and to be united ever more closely to the Body of Christ. My point is not that pastoral care is irrelevant but that pastoral care will not be pastoral care unless it is subordinate to Christ, who always calls the “sheep” to repentance and spiritual growth.

In this process, a pattern of resolve and good spiritual practices may be punctuated by weakness and falls from grace, but the goal must always be adherence to Christ as the Way the Truth and the Life. Perseverance must always be recognized as virtue, and failure to persevere must always be recognized as sin. The distinction between Catholic doctrinal teaching and pastoral practice is not that the two admit of different principles or ends, but that the first clarifies our understanding of reality and the second encourages and assists each one to make spiritual and moral progress in accordance with reality.

What it means to be “pastoral”

Our modern understanding seems to be that Catholic doctrine is something we have to put up with in the institutional Church, but pastoral practice is how the Church’s ministers get around that unfortunate state of affairs. But of course this is flagrant nonsense. Far from being in contradiction with Catholic doctrine, pastoral practice must always be in the service of Catholic doctrine—which is to say that far from being in contradiction with Christ, pastoral practice must always be in the service of Christ and our union with Him. Let us stop to examine the implications.

If this is true, then pastoral practice will never accept as good any ignorance or denial of what we call Catholic faith and morals. Rather pastoral practice will always be directly in the service of souls whose aim must be to grow in grace and virtue in accordance with the teachings of Christ, which are securely known only through the teachings of the Church Christ founded. Moreover, pastoral practice will never betray its own purposes through “cultural accommodations” which encourage estrangement from Christ through sin. And it is just here that we come to the question of the blessing of relationships which are rooted in same-sex attraction and “honored” through same-sexual fidelity.

It is just here, in fact, that the catastrophe of misguided pastoral practices becomes especially clear. What it means to be “pastoral” is to lovingly care for the flock, and the biggest failure of any authentic pastoral work is the failure to identify the spiritual and moral dangers faced by the flock. Now, what this really means may strike some as paradoxical. But what it really means is that the goals and means must always be chosen with maximum spiritual safety in mind. In other words, pastoral practice is not characterized by a thorough examination of every possible theological idea ever advanced. Nor is pastoral practice primarily concerned with every possible interpretation of human intentions. In other words, pastoral practice is not in any sense supposed to be the kind of hair-splitting exercise that exposes us constantly to rationalization, and so to very serious danger.

As an example, let us take the case of the potential blessing of a same-sex relationship. We might say instinctively that there are many ways to interpret the intentions of the participants in such a blessing, and so such a blessing can be pastorally warranted. After all, pastoral practice is supposed to be more flexible and supportive than a mere statement of the relevant doctrine. But my whole point is that this analysis has things exactly backward.

In other words, Catholic doctrinal and moral teaching is really extraordinarily subtle. In every contradiction of the Church’s teachings on faith and morals, the Church insists that we consider both the understanding and the intention of the sinner, and it is precisely this understanding and intention which condition the highly subjective question of personal guilt. Nonetheless, it is always better for the human person to know the truth and to understand the difference between virtue and vice, for the simple reason that this is essential for authentic human growth and spiritual maturity. And this is why, in their pastoral practice, Catholic ministers are not called upon to obfuscate every moral issue but rather to present the teachings of the Church clearly and precisely, that they may become beacons for the lives of the Faithful.

In precisely this sense, the pastoral practice of the Church in the matter of marriage is that, in the administration of the Sacrament of Matrimony, she makes it as clear as humanly possible what she is blessing and what fruitfulness she intends to achieve. This is true from the first pre-Cana conference to the final celebration of the sacrament itself. In fact, while the special grace of each sacrament depends on the intention and authority of the Church, her pastoral practice is designed to inculcate in the recipients of the sacrament a deep human responsibility for the mysteries it entails. Even in infant baptism, she attempts to foster that deep human responsibility in the parents.

Something analogous is true of every ecclesiastical blessing. In the context of any priestly blessing, therefore, the pastoral practice is supposed to reflect not what might be in the minds of the recipients or even of the minister at the moment but the true Christian understanding of the occasion itself, along with its corresponding grace. Despite the deficiencies of the recipients and of the ministers, a priestly blessing has its own particular meaning and grace in the Divine dispensation. Thus it is blasphemous to offer a blessing for any evil, or to go through the outward motion in some way that obscures the real intention or desired outcome. (Note that there is a fine article in our library entitled The Priestly Power to Bless by Ernest Graf, OSB, which will shed more light than I can on this topic.)

Pastoral equivalence

Now, clearly, all pastoral practices are supposed to reflect the authentic intention of the Church, and this is of particular importance when it comes to quasi-liturgical actions, such as blessings. Yes, we can imagine (doctrinally or intellectually) that in a blessing on the occasion of a “mutual same-sex commitment” the Church’s minister may intend simply to bless the persons involved in the sense that he wishes them spiritual growth and increasing closeness to God, or he may intend for God to give them good health, or he may even intend for them to grow in their understanding of human sexuality and its connection with matrimony so that they ultimately separate from each other.

Indeed, the minister of this “blessing” might intend anything at all, but that is not our problem. “Occasional” blessings are always intended by the Church to be for the human and Divine goods which are objectively associated with that occasion. Therefore, to bless people in their formal commitment to a sinful relationship is blasphemous. While there is no sacrament intended here, a blessing is what we call a sacramental, which has its own sacred character. There is of course a normal intention associated with all blessings, which is that the Divinely-sanctioned purposes of the occasion may be strengthened in those who are blessed to their good and to God’s glory. It is both blasphemous and a deliberate deception—and a cheat for all participants—for a priest (or anyone) to bless an intentional act contrary to God’s will.

In other words, far from being less precise than an intellectual discussion of Catholic doctrine, Catholic pastoral action must actually be more precise. We might allow any of several related meanings to the doctrine of “outside the Church there is no salvation”, and we might well discuss and debate them at our leisure. But the pastoral practice must always point to the fundamental intention and fundamental reality that every person with the opportunity to enter the Catholic Church will be far better off than before, with far greater opportunities for union with God.

In the same way, there may be any number of strange ideas in those who give and receive blessings, but sound pastoral practice demands that the outward sign of the blessing be applied, so to speak, and certainly interpreted, in light of the intentions of Jesus Christ and the Church for the situation in question. In other words, there may be no debate or discussion or abstract elucidation of contrary opinions in pastoral practice, even though such tactics may well be appropriate to intellectual inquiry. Far from having a broader and more elastic scope, pastoral practice has limits far tighter than mere intellectual inquiry. As just one example, to stage a theological debate on certain questions of marriage may be quite permissible in certain contexts. But a blessing offered in contradiction to the teachings and purposes of Christ and the Church is a pastoral bridge way too far.

Blessings, of course, are a strategic flash point. But the same principle applies to pastoral counseling which contradicts the teachings of the Church.

Pastoral practices are more restrictive

The point I want to make is simply this: The idea that pastoral practice has within it far more latitude than Catholic teaching is actually the reverse of the real situation. A theologian might, in the study of the Catholic faith, consider a variety of ways to understand and apply what is found in Scripture, Tradition and the previous teachings of the Magisterium in their application to new questions that arise. But pastoral practice is not a matter of intellectual analysis but of the prayer and action which is most likely to bring struggling souls to a greater acceptance of Catholic faith and morals along their own path to holiness. Pastoral practice is not an intellectual analysis in which we consider all sides of a difficult theological question in order to more fully understand what the Church teaches; no, pastoral practice is the means by which we draw struggling souls more fully into the Church’s life of grace and virtue.

Or put it this way: The scope of doctrinal reflection is vast, and the theological penetration of the Divine mind is endlessly fascinating. Moreover, the intentional psychology of various theologians may be straightforward, abstruse, simplistic, vain or even dishonest. But there is no such wiggle room in pastoral action. Rather, pastoral action is tied to the very basics, and it must always be precisely what it signifies. Pastoral action deals with progress in the Christian life. It is a personal yet still outward sign of the sinner’s growth into union with Christ and His Church.

Insofar as theological study confuses, it may yet produce fruit. We may benefit from the insights, the debates, and the disagreements, especially insofar as all parties submit their ideas to the correction of the Church’s Magisterium. But insofar as pastoral action confuses, it simply fails. This is what I mean when I assert, against the current understanding, that the limits of pastoral action are actually more restrictive than the limits of doctrinal study and debate. And the reason ought to be clear: Insofar as “pastoral methods” are used as a way to evade the hard teachings of Jesus Christ and His Church, then the word “pastoral” becomes a synonym for opening the sheep gate to the wolves.

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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  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Oct. 22, 2023 7:26 PM ET USA

    Yet another example, quite amazing in this case, of how clarity obliterates confusion and wrong headedness. Should be required reading in every seminary.

  • Posted by: tjbenjamin - Oct. 21, 2023 1:10 AM ET USA

    Dr. Mirus, that last sentence packs quite a punch! It should be on a big banner hung at the synod for all to see.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 20, 2023 8:17 PM ET USA

    Consider the following scenario. About 60 years ago, an institution decides to change or even reverse its founding principles and policies. How to make the employees go along with it? Stop advertising or giving seminars/training on the founding principles and policies. Just tell them they don't want to become "lovers of rules and doctrines". Then slowly, stealthily introduce exceptions to the rules, then minor reversals for certain circumstances. Finally, establish "no-consequence" violations.