Catholic Theology and Pastoral Practice: The Problem and a Way Forward

While I have certainly said it before, it bears repeating over and over again—at least until the world of Catholic theological enquiry looks a good deal different. Theological literacy – rigorous, critical, and relevant – is absolutely vital to the whole body of the Church. By this, I do not mean, of course, that everyone’s theological opinion should count equally; clearly, individuals can draw wrong conclusions. I do mean, however, that any theological model for the Church that depends on authority alone, or dogmatic tradition alone, is certainly bound to fail.

Eusebius reported in the Ecclesiastical History that when the Arian controversy was raging, people could be found arguing Trinitarian theology on the streets as much as in the halls of power. Translated into contemporary terms, this means that the caretaker, the shopkeeper, and the medic have as much invested in points of theological debate as the bishop or the professional theologian. And indeed, whether we acknowledge this or not, whether we are aware of this or not, whether we are prepared to accept this or not, the fact is that by asserting a specific dogmatic tradition instead of concentrating on preparing the spiritual ground for acceptance of that tradition, the Church’s theological guardians are depriving the people of the vital exercise of their intellectual and spiritual faculties.

As someone raised within the Anglican Church, and theologically trained in a liberal intellectual environment, I consider myself to have been particularly blessed. For to wrestle with all the existential questions posed both by the world and by opposing theological positions, yet still to choose a catholic and orthodox position, is to be forced to contend more realistically with where it is people are at. People are not born with an innate sense of the full nature of the Incarnate Logos. People are not born with an instinctive understanding of why the Church’s ministry takes the form it does. People are definitely not inclined to grapple with issues of life, sex, and gender from the same perspective as that of the Church. Such being the case, then, how can the Church possibly expect modern human beings to subordinate all their questions to a simple, absolute, authority-driven, dogmatic answer? I know that I, for one, cannot, even as a priest who believes firmly in the superiority of the collective intellect of the Church over my own, subjective mind.

I think that in order to understand where modern people are coming from, to acknowledge that their questions have value, and to have the confidence to till the soil of their souls in preparation for the truths of the Faith, as opposed to cutting off discussion and demanding that they submit to the dogmatic articles of the Church, requires going out on a limb. It is a limb, though, that is vital to fostering a genuine and personal faith, and to showing respect for the authentic experience of God’s children. But why should this be the case?

There is both a psychological and a theological answer to the question.

The psychological resides in the fact that people have a fundamental desire to be known. This is an egocentric impulse, to be sure, but it is nevertheless real and therefore of no use whatsoever in dismissing as mere vice. In fact – and this leads us to the theological – it was precisely this impulse that led God the Father to send His Word into the world. He took on flesh at least in part so that humanity might know itself to be known. The implications of the Incarnation go much further, of course: revealing to us an immutable vocation to meet people where they are at, and not leave them floundering in frustrated desire while the professionally-religious stand above making unattainable moral pronouncements all while inadvertently refusing to equip them with the spiritual cognition that makes moral truths not just attainable, but desirable. In my experience of the Catholic Church, however, it seems far too often to be a source of pride for priests to know little about the contemporary world (in terms of its cultural reference points and functional features), for priests to proffer ready answers to moral questions, and for priests to take refuge in the offering of Masses as an alternative to proffering real pastoral care. It should be obvious, though, that none of these approaches corresponds to the psychological or theological realities presented by people in the midst of their lives.

It may sound, at this stage, as if I am denigrating the Mass as an effective means of interceding for the people of God, but if so, I must protest. The Holy Mystery of the Lord’s Body and Blood is nothing to be denigrated or taken lightly. And it is precisely on this basis that I would argue we should not use its celebration as a substitute for the rest of the priestly ministry. Our Lord went about teaching and healing, forgiving and revealing, and only once, as the consummation of all this work, offered Himself on the Altar of Calvary. The story of the Incarnation could have been an awful lot shorter had Jesus simply set out a list of moral instructions, walked past those who were reaching out to Him, and gone to the Cross. He did, however, choose to share in exactly the same flesh as His compatriots, to eat with them, to drink with them, to celebrate with them, to suffer with them, and, on every possible level, to get to know them. It is incumbent on those who are ordained into His ministry to do likewise.

Which brings us back to where I began. Theological literacy – rigorous, critical, and relevant – is absolutely vital to the whole body of the Church. Yet within the Catholic Church, this premise is undermined from the top down. As long as priestly formation begins with the study of philosophy in a very particular, Thomistic context, at the feet of those who learned within the same context; as long as theology is studied in a very particular dogmatic context, at the feet of those who learned within the same context, there will be little possibility for priests themselves to wrestle with existential questions faced by the majority of their faithful.

If I were to return to my own, liberal (in the true sense of the word) theological formation, I would be negligent were I to forget how it forced me to contend with the challenges presented by the modern world, and so taught me to respect where my fellow human beings were coming from – not least because there is nothing to separate them and me. The Anglican content of that formation, specifically, saw me steeped in a pastoral tradition that all Christians preparing for ministry would do well to imbibe: represented, above all, by the pastoral lectures of Bishop Edward King, but also by the writings of Jeremy Taylor, Thomas Traherne, John Keble, and Edward Pusey, to name but a few. It would also be incumbent on me, in my reflections, to acknowledge the examples of theological generosity afforded by my seminary principal and the director of studies. For these were men who, although adherents of different theological perspectives to my own, afforded me the opportunity to work things out for myself without trying to subvert my development, all while challenging me to go beyond my rather immature propensity for easy answers. It was an apt preparation for engaging in effective, relevant pastoral ministry, even while it engendered in me an awareness of the need for theological rigour.

If I were to describe the crisis in Catholic pastoral ministry in a concise way, it would be to say that whereas the story of the Incarnation can be described as an exitus et reditus, far too many priests emphasise the latter at the expense of the former. The Word left His place with the Godhead and assumed flesh. This was the exitus – the procession of the Word – when He took on flesh and walked among us. Then the Word returned to His place at the right hand of the Father – the reditus – when He offered the Sacrifice, once and for all, and continues to do so as the Lamb and High Priest. If we are called to serve as icons of Christ, then, we are failing miserably if we do not put the same amount of effort into the whole of the ministry: the whole of what Christ himself undertook. Which, I think, exemplifies the rub between self-described traditionalists and much of what Pope Francis has had to say. Whereas Pope Benedict was focused on the reditus – and for good reason – Pope Francis has been concerned with the exitus. And this makes the dogmatically-oriented nervous.

The people of God are hungry for the truth, and in the midst of their experience and their struggles, will not be satisfied with the easy platitudes of a theological dogmatist looking beyond his pastoral interlocutor for an escape to the sacristy. Nor should they be. The people of God need to be – deserve to be – met with empathy and understanding; they need to be communicated with as equals. Above all, the people of God need to be equipped to arrive at theological conclusions consistent with Tradition, and not simply told to submit to its dictates.


One response to “Catholic Theology and Pastoral Practice: The Problem and a Way Forward

  1. “Above all, the people of God need to be equipped to arrive at theological conclusions consistent with Tradition, and not simply told to submit to its dictates.” The heart of evangelism. Thanks.

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