What being “pastoral” means

Published December 31, 2003

The Catholic Difference

At a recent meeting to debate Catholic reform in the United States, I said (as I’ve often said before) that I’m less interested in changing the process by which bishops are chosen than in amplifying the criteria that guide the process. Another participant asked what those criteria should be. I cited one criterion I had mentioned in The Courage To Be Catholic – one way to spot a likely bishop is to find a successful local pastor whose parish has grown and flourished.

This prompted a prominent Catholic editor and commentator to jump in and ask whether I wasn’t changing my mind: “In this pontificate, it’s been a question of ‘fidelity, fidelity, and fidelity’ in choosing bishops. Aren’t you suggesting that we go back to the [pre-John Paul II] model of the ‘pastoral’ bishop?”

It was a telling question, which said more about my colleague’s presuppositions than about my position. For the question seemed to assume that “pastoral” and “faithful” are mutually-exclusive opposites: you choose one or the other.

But that can’t be true. In my vocabulary (and in John Paul II’s recent apostolic exhortation “Pastors of the Flock”), “pastoral” means “faithful and compelling teacher.” A faithful and compelling teacher listens and learns. A faithful and compelling teacher understands that some Catholic truths take longer to absorb, and then live, than others. A faithful and compelling teacher suffers with his people as they wrestle with the more demanding truths of faith. Above all, though, being “pastoral” means being a priest or bishop who can teach the truth, with charity, but without compromise.

The tendency to juxtapose “pastoral bishop” and “faithful teacher” reflects many confusions, not least a confusion about what makes for true spiritual growth. It also reflects the tendency to think of every contested question in the Church as an “issue” – a matter to be resolved, finally, by a political compromise. But what the media and the Catholic culture of dissent often define as Catholic hot-button “issues” aren’t “issues” in that sense. The Church’s teaching that natural means of regulating fertility are morally superior to artificial contraceptives; the Church’s inability to ordain women to the ministerial priesthood; the Church’s conviction that homosexual sex is disordered sex – these are settled matters of Catholic doctrine.

A truly pastoral bishop will understand that these teachings are hard to grasp in a unisex culture that often defines freedom as personal willfulness. At the same time, while helping his people grow into a full embrace of these truths, a genuinely pastoral bishop won’t begin by suggesting that these really aren’t settled matters, after all. That’s not being “pastoral.” That’s not treating intelligent, educated lay Catholics with respect. The truth, the Lord tells us, is liberating.

St. John Fisher was the only Catholic bishop in England not to truckle to King Henry VIII’s determination to make himself Supreme Head of the Church in England. Fisher’s commitment to the truth of Catholic faith cost him his head, on June 22, 1535. Some thirty years before, shortly after his own ordination as Bishop of Rochester, Fisher composed a “prayer for holy bishops.” It might as easily have been called a “prayer for pastoral bishops.” Here, in all its rich, pre-Elizabethan language, is John Fisher’s prayer:

“Lord, according to Thy promise that the Gospel should be preached throughout the whole world, raise up men fit for such work. The Apostles were but soft and yielding clay till they were baked hard by the fire of the Holy Ghost. So, good Lord, do now in like manner with Thy Church militant. Change and make the soft and slippery earth into hard stones. Set in Thy Church strong and mighty pillars that may suffer and endure great labors – watching, poverty, thirst, hunger, cold and heat – which also shall not fear the threatenings of princes, persecution, neither death, but always persuade and think with themselves to suffer with a good will, slanders, shame, and all kinds of torments, for the glory and laud of Thy holy Name. By this manner, good Lord, the truth of Thy Gospel shall be preached throughout the world. Therefore, merciful Lord, exercise Thy mercy, show it indeed upon Thy Church.”

Is that “pastoral?” I think so.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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