Saving Souls, Not Dogma, is the Heart of Pastoral Church Life

Pope Francis pictured with youths at home for former street children in Manila.

Catholicism is undergoing an epochal transformation. For more than a millennium dogma has been the hard core of church life, defining who is in and who is out. Partisans have fought over the correct way to define Christian belief; they condemned their opponents and persecuted them as heretics.

In this new era, the pertinent standard is the good of souls. With evangelization as the goal, boundaries are more porous. Openness to dissenters and critics, welcome for sinners and outreach to people on the margins of society are becoming the defining pattern of Catholic life. The challenge is to re-appropriate the heart of the Gospel: “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save the lost” (Matt. 19:10).  The shift away from dogma as the center of church life to pastoral care has a lot to do with Pope Francis’ personal pastoral style, but the trend was already underway in the last years of Saint John Paul II’s pontificate.

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Saint John Paul, who himself took some hardline doctrinal stands, nonetheless, understood the egregious sins often “committed in service of the Truth,” that is orthodoxy. During the Day of Pardon in 2000, in the company of the Roman Curia, he asked God’s pardon for those offenses. In his homily, he urged, “Let us ask pardon for the divisions which have occurred among Christians, for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken towards the followers of other religions.”

Alongside John Paul, imploring God’s forgiveness, stood Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the then enforcer of orthodox belief (No accident of casting in that solemn moment!). Looking backwards, their humble repudiation of so much of what had been deadly serious in church life anticipated the greater change the church has begun to undergo from a heavily dogmatic to a more pastoral church.

John Paul also smoothed the way in downgrading the role of dogma in Catholic life with his martyrial ecumenism. Since the late Reformation both Catholics and Protestants had held that right doctrine rather than courageous behavior determined who was a true martyr. But St. John Paul took time out to pray at the tombs of Protestant martyrs, and he included Protestants slain or their faith among those honored in the Jubilee of the Martyrs in 2000.

John Paul’s acts of devotion affirmed that the baptism that unites Catholics and Protestants weighs more heavily in the Christian life than the doctrines that historically had divided them. Virtue outshone truth. Putting errors of the church’s second millennium behind us, John Paul was modelling not a new, but a different type of Christianity in which asking forgiveness and reconciliation are more important than being right.

Fourteen hundred years ago, Pope Gregory the Great exemplified this style of episcopal leadership and elaborated on it in his Regula pastoralis, “Pastoral Guidance,” better known as “Care of Souls (Cura animarum).” Originally a handbook for bishops, Gregory’s treatise quickly became a standard for priests and spiritual directors as well.

The Unique Good of Souls. Like Pope Francis today, Gregory emphasized the role of bishops as pastors in contrast to their status as “nobles” in the church. Their principal concern should be the good of the souls entrusted to them. Like Pope Francis in “The Joy of the Gospel,” Gregory insisted on knowing the faithful in all their diverse conditions. The first axiom of pastoral practice, Gregory believed, was that there is no one set solution to every case.

Each case has its own unique characteristics which the pastor must take into consideration. “Efficacious pastoral action requires,” Pope Emeritus Benedict comments, “that [the bishop]…adapt his words to the situation of each person.” From “[Gregory’s] acute and precise annotations” on individual character and the peculiarities of context, Benedict notes, “one can understand that he really knew his flock and spoke of all thing with the people of his time and of his city.” 

Discernment, even for “the good.” In directing souls, the pastor must help people understand the particular temptations of their condition and penetrate the layers of self-deception in which vice poses as virtue.

Here we might think of Pope Francis’ assessment of the temptations of pastoral workers in “Joy of the Gospel” and his many exhortations against regarding priesthood or episcopacy as entitlements to privileged living. “Through warmth, patience, listening and spare advice,” writes Thomas Oden summarizing Gregory, “the pastor helps his parishioner to overcome his self-deception” and grow in virtue.

Encouraging Behavioral Change. We shouldn’t be misled by certain trends in pastoral theology and spiritual direction that seem to make the spiritual life begin and end with introspection. The purpose of self-knowledge is reform of life, progress in virtue and commitment to the common good. True pastors balance sensitivity for the Christians in their care with attention to improvement in their conduct and growth in their social engagement, particularly with the poor.

Social action as both Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis have taught is a core component of evangelization. According to “Joy of the Gospel,” mature Christian behavior today includes the inclusion of the poor in society, the promotion of peace and civic, ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. At its most intimate Christian maturity also demands a conversion of lifestyles to a simpler, more generous way of life. 

Humble, Considerate Leadership. Christ is the model of Christian leadership, for Gregory as for Francis. Jesus mixed with people of every sort; he searched out the lost, and he welcomed sinners. “Whatever authority is given in the pastoral office is paradoxically validated when it is accompanied by the sign of humility,” writes Oden, “signaling that it shares in Christ’s own empathy for human fallenness.”  Bishops, priests and spiritual guides must not rejoice “to be over [persons] but to do them good,” wrote Gregory. Pope Benedict following Gregory also underscores humility as the key virtue in pastoral leadership.

These four guidelines for pastoral ministry apply as much to bishops and pastoral ministers today as they did in Gregory’s time. Pope Francis has been modeling this kind of servant leadership. It will still be sometime before the college of bishops can be expected to adopt the pastoral role as their primary identity and the episcopacy is transformed.

The full emergence of a pastoral church does not depend on bishops alone, however, nor even on the time Pope Francis has to re-shape the episcopacy by his appointments. It also depends on the expectations of the whole people of God. They have to aspire to spiritual growth and welcome challenges in the name of the Gospel. The people also have to demand spiritual leadership and fulsome pastoral care from their bishops and priests.  

In the hiatus between the two sessions of the Synod on the Family, one way to begin is to demonstrate the people’s desire for dialogue with bishops on the pastoral care of families. In particular, they need to voice their desire for attention to the unexplored afflictions suffered by families outside the narrow, but much ballyhooed, circle of divorce, remarriage and same-sex marriage.

These pastoral concerns include the growth of singleness among adult Catholics, single-parenthood, the delay of marriage due to poverty, violence and abuse of children and women, the emergence of combined households, the care of the divorced and the children of divorce, the multigenerational family and care of the infirm elderly, the impact of inequality on family strength, the spiritual growth of couples and families. When bishops and the synod attend to these issues, then we will know today’s church is advancing along the path to becoming a pastoral church.

Drew Christiansen, S.J., the former editor of America, is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Development at Georgetown University.

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Martin Eble
3 years 2 months ago
The seeking of reform of life, progress in virtue and commitment to the common good without dogma is known as "politics". Catholicism is, has been, and will remain dogmatic because the very first thing that commitment to the common good requires is a true understanding of what the common good is. A full understanding of the common good is impossible without revelation, and the Catholic Church received, preserved, and transmits that revelation. HOW we present that truth is open to amendment, and certainly the proverb that we attract more bees with honey than vinegar is worth keeping in mind.
Frank Lesko
3 years 2 months ago
Martin, you express quite well the prevailing model described in this article. It goes something like this: "A church needs a foundation in doctrine/dogma in the sense of intellectual belief, and on that foundation Christian life happens. Variations in style, practice and charism are all possible and are seen in some sense as secondary to having the right beliefs." I think the relationship is more symbiotic: Belief informs our practice and our practice communicates, deepens and develops our beliefs. Remember, Jesus is the Way as well as the Truth. You learn by doing and your beliefs are demonstrated by your actions. I liken it to the way Scripture and Tradition have a symbiotic relationship bouncing off each other, informing each other, even correcting each other in the sense of each providing a lens to see the other. Too often, Christians group themselves along lines of belief. What if we group Christians along lines of practice? Take something like the peace movement--very united in practice, not always united in dogma, but at the same time, the practice of peace does bring about a sense of who humans are and our place in the cosmos--an implied theology is there. The same is probably true of other movements, such as the charismatic movement, or missionary movement(s).
Martin Eble
3 years 2 months ago
The prevailing model described in the article happens to be that of the Catholic Church. The reason why right beliefs trump style, practice, and charism is that great style and charism worshiping a Turnip really serves no purpose, but lousy style worshiping the one God pays off. There is an old maxim "lex orandi, lex credendi", but first we have to get the "lex" right.
Charles Erlinger
3 years 2 months ago
"The purpose of self knowledge is reform of life, progress in virtue and commitment to the common good." Nowhere does the author say that these efforts should be conducted without doctrine, but even if he had done so, the labeling of these efforts as "politics" seems strange by any standard, given the definition of politics as: Politics (from Greek: πολιτικός politikos, definition "of, for, or relating to citizens") is the practice and theory of influencing other people. More narrowly, it refers to achieving and exercising positions of governance — organized control over a human community, particularly a state. Furthermore, politics is the study or practice of the distribution of power and resources within a given community (a hierarchically organized population) as well as the interrelationship(s) between communities. Progress in virtue, so far as I can tell, has as its starting point prudence, which has to do with truth on a natural level and faith on a supernatural level, both of which have to do with truth, which, supposedly, doctrine is also concerned with.
3 years 2 months ago
A double whammy today for me. Meditated on St. Maximus the Confessor's letter in the Office of Readings for Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Lent relating the image of the "lost sheep." " So too, when he found wandering in the mountains and hills the one sheep that had strayed from God's flock of a hundred, he brought it back to the fold, but he did not exhaust it by driving it ahead of him. Instead, he placed it on his own shoulders and so, compassionately, he restored it safely to the flock." Then I read Drew Christiansen's article. A good shepherd searches out the "lost" or perhaps the ostracized, unwelcome, marginalized, misjudged, and once encountered does not demand they work their way back or in but shoulders them to a point where no longer exhausted from wandering they are ready to fit right in. Now that's my image of the pastoral church.
Sandi Sinor
3 years 2 months ago
Jesus had a lot to say about those who focused on "law", most of it not very positive. Orthopraxy trumps orthodoxy in the gospels.
Anne Danielson
3 years 2 months ago
Ours is a Living Faith. Love Is an action word.
Martin Eble
3 years 2 months ago
The myth that "orthopraxy" trumps orthodoxy in the Gospels is unsupported by the Gospels themselves. Matthew 5:17 is a great beginning point. Jesus was not an opponent of the law, He revered it, loved it, obeyed it, and brought it to fruition. He showed the intention of the OT laws, which had been ossified by minutia, and in fact made some restrictions even stiffer. See, for an example, the elimination of the Mosaic writ of divorce in Matthew 19:7. Usually we hear about "orthopraxy" from people who are about to or already disregarding some law that they find difficult. Good works (orthopraxy) follow from good faith.
Anne Danielson
3 years 2 months ago
"Humble, Considerate Leadership. Christ is the model of Christian leadership, for Gregory as for Francis. Jesus mixed with people of every sort; he searched out the lost, and he welcomed sinners. “ True, but in welcoming sinners, he never condoned our sin. Christ desires that we desire to overcome our disordered inclinations so that we are not led into temptation, but become transformed through Salvational Love, God's Gift of Grace and Mercy. The Sacrifice Of The Cross, Is The Sacrifice of The Most Holy, The Blessed Trinity. The Eucharist Is The Source and Summit of our Catholic Faith. One cannot be in communion with Christ and His One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church if one dissents from The Deposit of Faith which Christ Has entrusted to His Church in the trinitarian relationship of Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and The Teaching of The Magisterium of His Church. In order to remain in communion with Christ and His Church, every Catholic, including every Catholic Pope, must assent to that which a Catholic must believe with Divine and Catholic Faith. "You cannot be My disciple if you do not abide in My Word...No One can come to My Father except through Me." Jesus The Christ Pastoral care must be grounded in The Truth of Love, from The Beginning.
John Campbell
3 years 2 months ago
Frank Lesko: Yes. Richard Rohr also uses " Yes ... and" similarly. Your "correct each other" over time is the same as what I have prosaically described as "alignment". We want belief and practice to be universal and in alignment. Our reality is, we stumble awkwardly toward alignment, sometimes following practice, sometimes received doctrine. Thank you.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 2 months ago
When Jesus said He was the Way, the Truth and the Life, I do not think he was ranking one over another. I fear this article could be interpreted as suggesting that the Truth is somehow secondary to the Good or even in opposition to the Good, which it could not be. Even this week, we have the excommunication of Bishop Williamson, and the same for Fr. Greg Reynolds 18 months ago. In the last Synod, there was discussion of finding a way to minister to the divorced in a way that did not contradict the indissoluble dogma on marriage. None of these things would be happening if dogma was being put aside or was seen as not critical for the Church's mission. I do think a key change in the last 100 or so years is a deeper understanding of human psychology, the frailty of the average believer in grasping the fullness of rational arguments, the futility of physical coercion in changing hearts and minds, and the importance of religious freedom and the conscience. With the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, I think it would be worth some time to examine the specific doctrines of Luther and Calvin and compare them with the teachings of the Catholic Church and the modern Presbyterian and Lutheran churches. The latter have drifted far away from their Founders and unfortunately, some of that drifting is away from the Truth.

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