28 February 2014

Is Pastoral just a code word for "feel-good theology"?

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, isn't it really the case that pastoral theology has more to do with making people feel good than it does with being faithful to doctrine and moral theology? Bishop D. Sanborn has remarked, accurately in my estimation, that when the supposed Pope Francis speaks of concerns being pastoral he really means that the Church will be more concerned with a feel-good "theology" than the truth of the faith. I know you won't admit this but isn't it the case that putting pastoral concerns first means putting truth second?]] (cf, The Revolution Speeds Up for the context in which these comments were made. Link supplied and added after this post was written.)

Thanks for your questions. When you speak of Bishop Sanborn I take it you are referring to the sedevacantist bishop, is that correct? I am not going to write a lengthy response here, not least because I don't think Bp Sanborn's conclusions (assuming you have quoted him accurately) merit them (if accurate, they are a caricature and are disingenuous and lack nuance and subtlety), but also because you have indicated ("I know you won't admit this. . .") your own question is somewhat less than an honest one. More importantly though, there is plenty of material available on Vatican II and what it meant in terms of pastoral theology or its demands that all theology be pastoral at its heart. If you really are interested you can read up. Similarly, Pope Francis' positions on the pastoral needs of the Church (and that the Church BE pastoral in the whole of its existence) are significantly more nuanced and demanding than the caricature Bp Sanborn proposed and you cited; these are available to anyone really interested in what is a more demanding and complex truth than the version referenced. Still, the question of the pastoral nature of all theology is one I raised very recently and it is an important one; it is for that reason I am responding briefly here.

I think a better notion of "pastoral" is something like, "putting the truth Christ embodied at the service of people, " or "making the Good News of the Gospel of God in Christ available to our world in both word and deed." In such notions truth is not sacrificed for some sort of merely feel-good theology; instead it is recognized that people need the truth and the power of making true which lives at the heart of the Church and her Gospel if they are to be truly human and live in the peace of God. This truth is not an abstract reality or end in itself but a servant of authentic humanity and the glory of God. It is truth embodied and expressed in the form of love -- love for God, for ourselves in Christ, and for all that are/is precious to God. Remember that God is truth and love; God is the source and ground of both of these. Pastoral theology is a theology which allows that God to address,  accompany, and empower those who need this God to be complete and, in fact, holy.

The greatest symbol of theology as essentially pastoral is the Incarnation. There the Word of God is enfleshed in a way which allows human beings to meet God with a human face and to be forever identified as "God-with (and for)-us." This messianic and salvific EVENT is the very definition and paradigm of pastoral theology --- a theology (speech about God) which also actually allows God to dwell with us in real and powerful ways. I don't see how we can speak of this as putting the truth second or being more concerned with a "feel-good theology". And yet, in the Christ Event God reveals himself exhaustively to people who need this event to really meet a God that heals, reconciles, and empowers.  This Christ Event is the model and climax of God's self emptying  --- a kenosis which is meant to meet human need (and in fact, the need of all creation) in the way all truly pastoral theology does. Note well that the truth is not sacrificed in such a theology; it is allowed instead to speak fully, to challenge, and to console persons in concrete historical circumstances. Further, one needs to ask if a theology is not pastoral at its very heart, then really, what good is it? Is God glorified by a theology which does not serve pastorally? Is he glorifed by a theology which fails to allow him to be "God-with (and for)-us"? Hardly.

Remember then, that Dogmas do not exist for their own sake. They are explicit summaries of divine truth in limited human language which allow us to come to a fuller faith, a more profound and complete trust in the God revealed in the Christ Event. Neither does the Church exist merely to enshrine some eternal principles or an abstract truth ABOUT God. Instead God's own life is a "for others" reality and Christians serve THAT truth, that way, and that life. Doing so, that is, making this God real and known in space and time is ALWAYS a pastoral project or it is an abject failure. The Scriptures remind us that, "They will know we are Christians by our love." Genuine love, the very heart of being Christian and itself always the result of God's grace, is itself quintessentially true and pastoral; it verifies or makes true that within us which is untrue and distorted and at the same time it makes us capable of loving. Can you imagine a love which is not essentially pastoral, which is not also aimed at others and at their increased well-being? Can you imagine a love which is like that of Jesus that is not also as challenging as it is consoling? I cannot and, from what I can tell,  neither can nor does Pope Francis.