Praying for a more pastoral approach

By Rob Gasper

Certain words and phrases like “social justice,” “pastoral,” and “felt banner” set off alarm bells when heard by traditional-minded Catholics. In a previous two-part series (part 1, part 2), I discussed that social justice is not something to be feared, yet when properly understood, should be embraced wholeheartedly as part of Catholic doctrine. But, what about pastoral? According to the magisterium of the media and the blurry wishful thinking of some progressive Catholics, a pastoral approach is often portrayed as something soft and taffy-like—a bendy, amorphous, and woefully inclusive tolerance based on “mature thinking” and accommodation to whatever -isms happen to be in vogue. 

As a case in point, the media and some progressive-minded Catholics seized upon a few sentences of Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano’s address at the fall bishops’ assembly, while ignoring the bulk of the speech, and reported that the Nuncio called the bishops to become pastoral bishops as Pope Francis intends. The National Catholic Reporter’s Michael Sean Winters was more fair in his coverage, but reported that Archbishop Vigano was “divided against himself” in calling for the bishops to be both pastoral and, at the same time, to take a confrontational tone against the culture. But was the archbishop truly divided against himself? Or does pastoral mean something other than the media and progressive Catholics think it means?

The word pastor comes from the Latin word meaning shepherd. Jesus, in the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John, proclaimed that He was the good shepherd and explained his “pastoral approach” as follows:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:11-16)

Jesus extended His ministry of shepherding the flock to St. Peter, calling him to tend and feed His sheep—and the Church takes up this role through the successors to Peter and the Apostles to this very day.

The Church has always understood the pastoral ministry to be primarily a mission of love and sacrifice, teaching and leading the faithful and defending them to the point of death against the wolves of this world. St. Augustine described the pastoral role of the bishops as follows: “Disturbers are to be rebuked, the low-spirited to be encouraged, the infirm to be supported, objectors confuted, the treacherous guarded against, the unskilled taught, the lazy aroused, the contentious restrained, the haughty repressed, litigants pacified, the poor relieved, the oppressed liberated, the good approved, the evil borne with, and all are to be loved.” (St. Augustine, Sermon 340)

Based on this understanding, there is no disconnect between Archbishop Vigano’s call for non-ideological and pastoral bishops and his explanation that doctrine must be taught and guarded while the culture must be confronted. That is all part of the pastoral job description.

In conclusion, traditional-minded Catholics need not fear calls for pastoral bishops and a pastoral Church and, in fact, should embrace and pray for more pastoral leadership in these troubled times. We must not settle for truncated and hijacked definitions, but instead seek to understand more fully the deep and powerful gifts the Lord has left us.

Rob Gasper is a senior research analyst for American Life League and is the editor of ALL News.