Saving “Pastoral” from the Wolves

During the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family, I would guess the Internet saw an all-time high in occurrences of the word “pastoral”. Reactions were mixed: one person’s blog post about the events was praised as “pastoral,” and another person responded in the combox with “‘pastoral’—*gag*”. It is clear that for some the word captures the greatest virtue of a priest while for others it is, to quote Lord Business of the Lego Movie, “a bunch of hippy, dippy boloney!”

While I can understand flinching at the P-word, we can’t allow political in-fighting to hijack a venerable vocabulary. So I would like to stake a stab at saving “pastoral” from the extremes by suggesting a concrete content for a Catholic context.

When used in a Catholic setting, “pastoral” surely means having true concern for the people placed in one’s care. But in addition, it seems to me that “pastoral” means something like this: Treating people’s experiences as real facts on the table with all the other facts when you make a decision. This is opposed on the one hand to making “a good experience” the immediate goal of your decision (“hippy dippy”), and it is opposed on the other hand to pretending that people’s experiences are unreal. The first extreme is what we tend to call “pastoral” with an edge of sarcasm, while the second extreme is what we tend to call “unpastoral”.

Let me offer some examples to show what I mean. Outside the Catholic sphere, I was involved once in an online exchange with Latin teachers about the best way to teach Latin—I was teaching college Latin at the time. It was a highly charged conversation, with broad theories of language learning at stake. At one point I wrote something along the lines of, “I experienced X and Y while I was learning Latin.” The response I got was something like this: “No, you didn’t.”

Excuse me? I’m sorry, but I did.

In a fit of abstract commitment, those high school and college Latin teachers denied the reality of my experience rather than expand their theories to account for it. What could have been an interesting conversation ended with a jerk.

But that kind of denial is rampant in Catholic conversations. For example, I feel lifted up when I attend a Mass celebrated in Latin, and I am one of those people who think about the consequences of the Church’s global shift to the vernacular. My brother in law, a priest in the Diocese of Vienna, mentioned to me once that he has had numerous conversations in which older parishioners who lived through Vatican II told him they get more out of the Mass in German than they had done before in Latin. It is tempting, as a lover of Latin, to say, “No, you must be mistaken!” But at some point you just have to let their experience be one of the facts on the table.

These are examples of the temptation to “unrealize” someone’s experience. But treating someone’s experience as real does not mean that you make a “happy experience” your immediate goal.

When I was Academic Dean at Wyoming Catholic College, I took part once in a disciplinary decision. The student in question had not just broken the rules but smashed them, and that repeatedly, but still we were inclined to mercy. We didn’t want to be harsh. In the end, however, we decided that the most pastoral thing for this student was expulsion, because anything short of that would teach the student that there are no limits, that one can continue to abuse trust endlessly without consequence, and we feared that lesson would later destroy a friendship, a marriage, or even a relationship with God. We treated his experience, the pain of expulsion from our little community, as a reality—a medicinal one.

So how would this way of meaning “pastoral” apply to a hot-button issue like denying communion to the divorced and remarried? On the one hand, some may view their pain and distress as illegitimate and therefore unreal: they brought this on themselves through their sinful decisions, so we have no obligation to take their experience into account. On the other hand, some may view a happy experience on Sunday as the immediate goal to be reached: we don’t want people to experience pain and distress! That makes us the bad guys!

A pastoral decision, it seems to me, would avoid both extremes. The pain and the distress of the flock would be vivid for the true pastor, and would cause him pain as well; he would mourn with those who mourn. But the true pastor might decide in the end that this discomfort is needed in order to move his flock to a new and better position. Both in the bodily and in the spiritual realms, God has given us pain as a message about where green pastures lie.

On the one hand, a calloused recital of moral doctrine spares the pastor his uncomfortable obligation of weeping with those who weep, but it does not assure the distressed that he can interpret their experience for them. On the other hand, omitting true moral doctrine to alleviate the pain denies that their experience has any meaning needing interpretation in the first place; it is, to quote Pope Francis’s closing remarks at the Synod, “a deceptive mercy [that] binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots.”

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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