Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Synod, Doctrine, Pastoral Practice, and the Good Shepherd

As the bishops gather in Rome for the Synod on the Family, there is a phrase being used that can sometimes be interpreted incorrectly.  It is said that this Synod is not about "doctrine", but rather about finding "pastoral solutions." For the outside observer--and even for many within the Church--this can make it sound as though doctrine exists exclusively way up in some unattainable cloud and that the "pastoral" exists down in the weeds of every day life, unaffected by doctrine. Pastoral solutions, however, are not the opposite of doctrine. Pastoral solutions are about helping persons to live the truth of the doctrines, not creating safe havens from those doctrines. If the Synod intends to provide pastoral solutions, it needs to do so by helping people to live the doctrines. The doctrines are not oppressive. They are beautiful! 

We all fall short of living the full Catholic life. The good pastor is not the one who finds creative ways around living the full Catholic life. The good pastor is able to find the best way for the particular wounded person in front of him to live the Catholic life in all of its fullness. While the current situation has been focused upon the pastoral care of the divorced and remarried and their reception of the Eucharist, I'd like to offer another example. I realize that every analogy necessarily falls short. I offer this example not to equate it with the issue of the divorced and remarried, but simply as an analogy.

The Gospels teach that we must forgive our enemies. Every pastor has been approached by persons who have acknowledged that their heart is filled with hate. Perhaps the person hates a politician or perhaps the person hates his spouse, a parent, family member, priest, bishop, friend, acquaintance, or stranger. Perhaps when we hear the person explain the situation, we can easily understand why he or she has reacted so strongly. We hear the story and feel a closeness to this person. Perhaps they were unjustly or viciously treated. We can totally appreciate why they feel the way that they do. 

The reason that the person is in front of us in this moment is because the Scriptures are filled with admonitions, teachings, and instructions stating that the disciple of Jesus must forgive. The person in front of us might be filled with a hatred and an unwillingness to forgive. They know that there is a gap between what Jesus demands and where they presently are. In that moment, the good pastor is the one who is able to assist that person to move from hatred to love. Sometimes it would be easier to tell that person, "Hey look, that person was a jerk to you. God can't possibly expect you to love that person after what he did to you." But, that is not a pastoral solution. A pastoral solution that is detached from the doctrine or seen as an alternative to the doctrine is not a pastoral solution. A pastoral solution is one that leads the person to live the fullness of the doctrine.  In this example, the true pastoral solution will be to help the person move from hatred to charity, from bitterness to forgiveness, from anger to peace. 

Separating the pastoral from the doctrinal is to surrender hope that the person in front of us is able to live the full truth of the Gospel. In the example above, separating the pastoral from the doctrinal would be to say, "This person has been so wounded that it is best to leave him in hatred, bitterness, and anger. After all they've been through, it is impossible for them to live a life of charity, forgiveness, and peace." But this is not a true pastoral program. A true pastoral program does not leave the patient hopeless of ever regaining health.  A true pastoral program acknowledges the deep wounds that are present, diagnoses the causes, and prescribes the best possible method to restoring full health. 

Those who draw too much of a distinction between doctrine and pastoral care should exercise great caution. The two are intimately linked. The doctrine has to shape our pastoral practice and our pastoral practice--to be worth anything at all--must lead to a fuller living out of the doctrine. The joy of the Gospel is not only discovered in the doctrine itself, but also in the amazing truth that by grace, we--wounded and weak--can live in accord with that doctrine! The Good Shepherd--the one who provides true pastoral solutions--loves us so much that he takes the wounded sheep upon his shoulders and carries him to the green pastures of solid doctrine. 

1 comment:

  1. Dear Fr. Barnes,

    Thank you so much for writing this. It's the best summary I've seen, and clears up a lot of confusion in my mind. May God continue to bless you as you work with young people at such a critical time of their lives.