Doctrine and Pastoral Practice Together Win Souls


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In the the aftermath of recent the Synod of Bishops on the Family, a disturbing mentality, one that wreaks havoc on a proper understanding of the life of the Church in the world, has bubbled over.

This view sees Catholic doctrine and law in opposition to pastoral practices. It sees Church teachings and canon law as standing outside or, at worst, antithetical to living the compassion of Christ and as such, seeks to reject as unpastoral or unmerciful canonical disciplines, such as denying Communion to the divorced and civilly remarried Catholic.

During the time of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther adopted this mentality of pitting Gospel against law, faith against works, and spirit against authority, all leading to a break from the Church. After Vatican II, this mentality was seen in the erroneous presumption that if something is “doctrinal” or “canonical” it is not “pastoral” or “merciful.” It gravely confuses what “pastoral” truly means. In the end, this view sees canon law and doctrine only as necessary evils to be tolerated until they get in the way of a perceived mercy.

In the Church’s view, “pastoral” does not mean anti-doctrinal or anti-canonical. It certainly does not mean license to do something that is illicit simply because a situation is judged to be difficult.

To be truly pastoral is nothing less than compassionately actualizing the teachings of Christ and his Church in a particular situation. To be truly pastoral is to hold firm to the teachings and canonical disciplines of the Church and to allow them to be instruments by which the truth of Christ is made known.

Like a doctor who has a duty to counsel his patient against actions that may be causing harm to his health, a person who seeks to be truly pastoral has a duty to inform those in difficult, sinful situations that their actions are endangering their souls. In these situations, the intention is never to demean or embarrass the person but rather to bring about a conversion of life consistent with truth.

Many in the Church are suffering due to marriage and family situations. Unmarried couples living together ad husband and wife, civilly remarried couples, and couples in same-sex relationships have a desire to know Christ’s truth.

Truly pastoral practices seek to bring this truth about marriage and family into their particular situations, lovingly calling for a conversion of heart. If an action or a communication would lead a person to believe that conversion is not necessary, it cannot be a truly pastoral action but rather becomes a scandalous action, that is, one that leads others to an erroneous belief about truth or the Church’s safeguarding of it.

It is important to recall that the Church has repeatedly addressed the erroneous mentality of placing doctrine and canon law against pastoral practices. They are not and should not be in contradiction.

Pope St. John Paul II, in his introduction to the Code of Canon Law, expresses that canon law is not a substitute for faith, grace, or charity, but rather its purpose is to create such an order in the Church that these can flourish. Thus, the purpose of the laws of the Church is to put belief into practice.

For example, since marriage is indissoluble, divorced and civilly remarried Catholic is in an objective state of sin and cannot receive Our Lord in the Eucharist. Pastoral practice demands not only acting in accord with these beliefs but also continuing to help charitably those in such situations to understand why this is so and to come to a true conversion of heart.

Likewise, at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in 1985, convened to assess the implementation of Vatican II, the synod’s final document identified the pastoral vs. doctrinal mentality as mistaken, saying that “the false opposition between doctrinal and pastoral responsibilities must be avoided and overcome. In fact, the true intent of pastoral work consists in actualizing and making concrete the truth of salvation, which is in itself valid for all times.”

The 1985 synod document then clearly added that “it is not licit to separate the pastoral character from the doctrinal vigor of the documents (of Vatican II).” It seems that nearly 30 years later, the same erroneous doctrinal vs. pastoral mentality that the 1985 synod emphatically corrected continues to incite dissention from the teachings and laws of the Church.

Pope St. John XXIII also took this error head-on. In his opening speech to Vatican II, he said the task of the Council was not to change doctrine but to “safeguard” and “transmit doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion.”

Truly pastoral practices hold firm to the truths and disciplines of the Church while applying them effectively in concrete situations that present themselves. It seeks doctrinal penetration and not doctrinal abandonment. Placing doctrine and canon law in opposition to pastoral practices and mercy demonstrates an inability or unwillingness to recognize that these help to actualize the love of Christ and not prevent it.

Naturally, doctrine and the laws of the Church must always be presented in the most loving fashion. However, there is nothing pastoral in denying the teachings of the Church nor is it compassionate to break the laws of the Church.

Though the Extraordinary Synod on the Family is now over, this erroneous mentality that places the doctrinal and canonical against the pastoral and merciful continues and must be challenged vigorously, particularly as questions continue about the possible reform of the annulment procedures and as preparations begin for the 2015 Ordinary Synod.

All bishops, priests, and even the lay faithful must work, gently but firmly, to correct this destructive error and to affirm especially the truth about marriage and the family.

Benedict Nguyen is a canon and civil lawyer and is the

communications director and director of the Office Sacred Worship

for the Diocese of Venice, Florida. He also serves as

an assistant professor of pastoral theology for the

Institute for Pastoral Theology of Ave Maria University.