The “pastoral approach” is sometimes seen as code for a priest turning a blind eye to breaking church law - and that's not what Pope Francis is advocating.
Every pastor knows the difficulties of applying the Church’s teaching on human relationships to the real situation on the ground. The thorny issues of artificial contraception, cohabitation, divorce and remarriage, same-sex unions, adoption, and new fertility technologies have presented the Catholic Church with dilemmas and difficulties never dreamed of in a pre-modern age.
This week, the Vatican has issued a global survey on these issues and others to prepare for a synod of bishops in 2014, followed by another in 2015. The synods will formulate “working guidelines in the pastoral care of the person and the family.” Lorenzo Baldisseri, head of the synod of bishops, told reporters that the meeting’s theme “reflects very well the pastoral zeal with which the Holy Father wishes to approach the proclamation of the Gospel to the family in today’s world.”
The “pastoral approach” is sometimes seen as code for a priest turning a blind eye to breaking church law. If a priest allows a divorced and remarried couple who have not had a decree of nullity to receive communion, he may say he has done it “for pastoral reasons.” When a priest overlooks a couple’s cohabitation and allows them a splashy white wedding with all the trimmings, he may defend his decision “for pastoral reasons.” A priest might attend a same-sex marriage ceremony saying he is supporting the couple “for pastoral reasons.”
If the wider public thinks this is what Pope Francis and the Catholic bishops mean by “a pastoral care,” they will be mistaken. The simple fact of the matter is that there is very little Pope Francis and the bishops can change about Catholic teaching on marriage and family life. Catholic teaching on sexuality is firmly tied to the teaching on marriage and the teaching on marriage is derived from natural law, Sacred Scripture and the teaching of Jesus Christ himself.
The Pope will not suddenly say that living together outside of marriage is okay, or that same-sex marriage is suddenly permissible, or that it is now fine and dandy for Catholics to be remarried after divorce. What Pope Francis and the bishops will be able to do is to recommend guidelines for better ways of communicating the Catholic teaching, better and more pastoral ways for helping people understand and work with the Catholic disciplines and more effective ways to work out what has always been true – that the Catholic teaching and disciplines about human relationships have always been there to help people towards true wholeness, health, and happiness – not to punish them or reject them.
Whenever I have to deal with the realities of human relationships, I explain that Catholic teaching on marriage is simple in theory but complicated in application. The right pastoral approach is not to let every one off the hook and give them the kind of welcome that simply condones their illicit behavior. Instead, the good pastor welcomes all and works patiently with them to explain Church teachings and walk with them back to full communion with Christ and his Church.
The “pastoral approach” that simply condones behaviors that go against Church teaching is usually done from a good motive. The well-meaning pastor doesn’t want to turn people away. He wants to offer people the welcome of Christ and the mercy of the Father.
What such well meaning pastors often overlook is that in condoning the rule breaker’s behavior through kindness, they are insulting others and being unkind to them. So, for example, when a pastor turns a blind eye to a couple who have been living together before marriage, he gives a public slap in the face to all the faithful couples who waited until marriage to live together. When that well-meaning pastor administers communion to a divorced and remarried couple and thinks he is being kind, he overlooks the fact that he has just insulted and scandalized all the other couples who went through the long and often painful process of seeking a decree of nullity before they came back to communion.
The problem for the Church’s pastors is complex and enormous. It is good to know that Pope Francis is calling the bishops together to find a solution. The solution they find will have to uphold Church teaching on the one hand, suggesting positive ways forward in pastoral care, while avoiding the easy answer of simply saying “anything goes.”
Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is The Romance of Religion, published by Thomas Nelson in February. Visit his blog, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.