What a Pastoral Church Looks Like

Now more than ever, there are calls for a more pastoral Church. That’s a good thing. It’s the clergy’s job to be our pastors, and who could object to priests, bishops, and popes doing their job?

“Pastor“ means shepherd, so we find what pastors should do by looking at what shepherds do, especially in the Bible. A pastoral Church, then, would be one that looks out for her members, protects, feeds, and fosters them, maintains a sheepfold, brings back those who stray, drives away wolves and bears, and is ready to sacrifice the personal interests of her pastors—for example, their worldly standing and reputation—to their flock’s well-being.

With that in mind, it’s hard to see why a pastoral church would primarily be one that rejects boundaries, is always going outside of herself, emphasizes openness to the world and dialogue with those who reject her, and wants above all to accompany people on their walk, wherever that may take them.

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Some of those things have a function in some ways—the Church should offer what she has to those outside her, and speak respectfully, honestly, and substantively to them, and pastors should retain their concern for strayed sheep who show no interest in returning to the fold—but they cannot be central. What is central for pastors is the good of the flock, and, in particular, the specific goods entrusted to the Church for their benefit.

Jesus said he came so that his people might have life more abundantly. More specifically, he said he came to give eternal life, which he identified with knowing God. So it seems our pastors’ job is to help those willing to accept the Christian way attain a better life in this world, and then eternal beatitude, by growing closer to God.

That seems basically a matter of developing the right orientation toward God and the world in which he has placed us. In other words, our pastors are to help us love God with our heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves. The success of that project evidently requires certain conditions: concern for the nature of God and man, so man’s good and God himself can be known better; concern for the network of human connections of which we are part, so that unity in truth and mutual love can grow, and evil communications can be kept from corrupting good manners; and some concern for our physical well-being, since poverty and illness disrupt human life.

So it seems our pastors, to be pastoral, should cultivate the theology of God, man, and society—more or less in that order, since that is the order of their importance and of the competence of the Church—pass them on to the people, and help them understand and live by them. By doing so, they will lead them into the truths that make them free, and help them become what God meant them to be and they most truly are.

The effort is needed. It is difficult for an ordinarily weak and wavering Catholic to live well in a world that treats him as an employee, consumer, and client to be managed, and thus as a means to the political, social, and economic goals of powerful interests and institutions. It becomes much more difficult when the Church, which should be pastoral, leaves him to his own devices, and (worse) finds reasons to subordinate herself to those same goals, interests, and institutions. Matters become even worse to the extent the Church undercuts institutions, such as family and local community networks, that interfere with administration and commerce but enable ordinary people to come into their own.

Of course it is obvious what an ordinary Catholic should do in such a situation. He should stop being so weak and wavering. Instead, he should fast, pray, frequent the sacraments, love God and neighbor, and become a living saint. He should view his situation as a challenge and opportunity, a spur to seeking holiness with ever-greater fervency and a chance to display the loveliness of the Faith to a skeptical world.

While he’s at it, he should also lose fifteen pounds, get regular exercise, eat a healthy balanced diet, keep all his New Year’s resolutions, avoid wasting time pointlessly, and do many other things he’s not likely to do more than a day or two at a time. All of us know how to live much better than we do, and we deserve blame for our failures. Even so, Church and society haven’t normally left it at that. To the contrary, they’ve been quite concerned about ordinary people, who after all constitute the great majority of their members—in most ways practically all, since very few people exhibit heroic sanctity and virtue in all respects.

So a pastoral Church would be concerned about the weak and wavering who nonetheless want to adhere to her. That is the whole point of having pastors. With that in mind, such a Church would insist on giving people what is specifically hers to give. She would teach clearly; catechize; ensure the solidity of Catholic schools, scholarship, and publications; and insist that her teachers accept her teachings. She would provide good examples through the conduct of her clergy, and enforce at least minimal standards on everyone.

If she concerned herself with the environment, she would concern herself most of all with the environment for Catholic life. Do institutions and accepted patterns of life and outlook guard life, including infants in the womb and those nearing the end of their lives? Do they respect and foster families and community networks, which, after all, is a basic obligation of social justice? Do they educate young people toward the best things in life? Do they facilitate means of livelihood that are productive, don’t involve cooperation with evil, and leave time, energy, and attention for other even more basic aspects of life?

If she decided to deal more specifically with a particular issue, for example, by holding a Synod on the Family, she would emphasize most of all the Catholic family and its current problems, for example, how it can maintain itself in an era of careerism, consumerism, cohabitation, contraception, daycare, early childhood education, media overload, gender ideology, and family policy that increasingly refuses to accept the specificity and importance of the family as an institution.

What she and her rulers would never do is subordinate her efforts to those of global managers, even though some goals—avoidance of starvation and ecological disaster—are the same, and others like healthcare sound similar if they are left sufficiently vague. The world’s rulers are enormously powerful, much more so than in the past. They want to restructure all social relations in accordance with a vision of things that is radically at odds with the Catholic one, and the success of their projects would lead to something we would never want to live with.

We are called to be wise as serpents as well as innocent as doves, and he who sups with the devil should have a long spoon. So a pastoral Church would above all maintain her independence, based on her own understanding of the human good, care little for popularity in the media, and nothing for her standing as a contributor to current social projects. It is not those things, but Christ and the salvation of souls that are her highest law. In times of trouble, she should specially rally around those standards.


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