What Pope Francis can teach Pastors about being “Pastoral”

I have all but given up reading or watching the news. In our modern world of 24hr whatever you want, I have better things to do than hear the same thing over and over again. That being said, I do try and follow what is going on in the realm of religious news. In particular I follow the goings on of the Catholic Church because, for better or for worse, they are the largest and most visible expression of Christian faith.

Perception can become Reality… for some.

There are two levels that I would like to address what is happening in the meeting of Catholic bishops from around the world. The first level is that of perception. There is no doubt that while those of us who are Protestant do not agree with many of the customs, traditions, and theological positions of the Catholic church, we have to reckon with the reality that many people watch the Catholic church, as an institution, and make judgments about all Christians based on what they do. Regardless of how you may feel about it, perception can become reality in the minds of some. People will make decisions about Christians based on a limited sample no matter how hard you try to show them otherwise. It tends to be the most visible or the loudest voice that is heard.

Pope Francis

I don’t like this, but I have to understand that we live in a world swayed by public opinion polls and sentimentality. Just watch the political ads that cross your TV/Mobile Device screen these days. You either need to be afraid of something or someone, or you should hate something or someone. If we can manage and direct the perception, then we feel that we can control how people will respond or react to what we are doing.

In this sense Pope Francis understands how perception works. He recognizes that the image of the church has not being doing well. So, he is trying to change it. He comes across as a simple man, wise because of his age, and concerned with nothing more than being a simple priest. This is the perception he desires for the world to see. There is nothing wrong with this. He has the right to do this, as well he should. What I want to say is that we should not be fooled into thinking that he does not know or understand the effect this will have on the institution he has been tasked with leading. If the Roman Catholic Church is to continue to do what it has done for centuries, it has to deal with the way it is seen by people, both within and without. Because of this, the current Pope is seeking to change the perceptions held about the church.

Understanding how people view you (and in this case the organization you are a part of) are vital to any success you desire to achieve. The Pope understands this and is working to change who people view the Catholic church. I would say he is managing to do that.

Words have meaning… even when you use them differently

There is a second level that I would like to turn toward now and it is the semantic level, or the level of the meaning of words. What exactly does the Pope mean when he says he wants the church to be more pastoral? Let’s look at a quick definition of semantics before we continue.

Semantics (from Ancient Greek: σημαντικός sēmantikós, “significant”) is the study of meaning. It focuses on the relation between signifiers, like words, phrases, signs, and symbols, and what they stand for, their denotation. …

Semantics is the subfield that is devoted to the study of meaning, as inherent at the levels of words, phrases, sentences, and larger units of discourse (termed texts, or narratives). The study of semantics is also closely linked to the subjects of representation, reference and denotation. Wikipedia: Semanitics

As we can see above, semantics is the study of meaning as it conveyed in “words, phrases, signs, and symbols.” What this tells us is that everything used to convey meaning must be analyzed to better understand what is being said. Individual words have particular meanings, but when grouped together in particular ways those meanings can be altered because of the new relationships between the words.

So, let’s take a look at what is happening when we hear that the Pope wants the Catholic church to be more “pastoral.” Pope Francis has maintained that he desires for the church to reach out to people in a more compassionate ways. The language he has used for couples who cohabitate, who are divorced, and even his impromptu comments relating to homosexuals reveal something of how he is defining this idea of being pastoral. He goes on to say that the church should not be mired in the arguments and squabbles of theology. That these endeavors remove the pastor from the pew and pauper. The problem here is that the way the Pope’s desires are articulated leads to a wedge being driven between the very doctrines of the church and the desired practice of pastoral care.

To put it simply, one of the most pastoral things a pastor does is teach, model, and uphold the teaching of the church to which he belongs. This is true for the Catholic Church and it is also true for any other church. To say that the teaching of the church is keeping the pastors from being pastoral leads to one of at least two conclusions. One, the teaching of the church is wrong, and I don’t think that this would be the course they would take. Or, two, the implementation of the teaching is wrong. In essence something has been missed or has not connected to make what is being taught livable in the lives of the common believer. This does seem to be the approach they are trying to take. (But, I would not be surprised if the first eventually becomes true as well.)

Herein lies the problem as I see it. There is no balance in the process. Those who agree with a shift in policy are saying the teaching must be modified in some ways. Those who do not are not seen as trying to be faithful, but rather as rigid and intrenched. The process has become adversarial rather than collegial. Only time will tell as those involved begin to share what they gleaned from the meetings at the Vatican.

What happens now?

What is interesting is that the changes we are seeing do not appear to be driven by any theological motives or considerations, but seemingly by pragmatic ones. Surveys have been conducted and now conversations are being had but, to what end? What happens if at the end of the process doctrine is jettisoned because you can’t be both pastoral and doctrinal at the same time?

I am not trying to be alarmist, pessimistic, or obtuse. I just find the events unfolding in Rome to be both interesting and perplexing. The tone of the Pope’s reign seems to be that doctrine and practice are mutually exclusive ideas. If this is what he means when he says he wants a more pastoral church then there is seismic shift coming of cataclysmic proportions for the Catholic. If this is NOT what he means then Pope Francis must be more careful and more clear with what he does mean by pastoral.

As pastors we must be wise in our words and careful in our conduct. What I have learned as I watch the unfolding tenure of the Pope is that what you say, how you saying, and why you say what you say matter. They matter to the people you are called to lead. But, and maybe of equal importance, is they matter to the people who are watching you and your church.

My hope is that as pastors we would see the inextricable link between doctrine and practice; between our teaching and our living. These are not mutually exclusive ideas. You cannot do one without the other and remain faithful to who you claim to be.

It will be interesting what comes out of the present synod and the one to follow next year. I for one will be watching.

About the author

Victor Scott

I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, and author. I am an avid Cubs fan and a lover of Chicago-style Deep Dish pizza.

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