Pastoral Orthodoxy

A few weeks ago, Pope Francis released his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) in response to the recent Synod on the family. Some were hoping that the document would move towards normalizing and validating sexual relationships that are contrary to the Gospel. Some were hoping for a stronger denunciation of these relationships.

But besides a few misleading headlines, neither side seems to have gotten what they desired. The Holy Father reaffirmed all of the Church’s doctrines of regarding marital ethics. But it also called for a renewed effort to reach out to those who are not living in accords with those ethics. Francis challenges the Church to meet people in their real-world situation and to not paint all non-ideal relationships with the same broad brushstrokes.

To many, this latter point seems antithetical to the Christian message. Are we not always to speak the truth, even when it is difficult?

I think that problem occurs because of a perceived divide between the orthodox and the pastoral.

The orthodox position appears to be that opening the doors of acceptance to those in these non-ideal relationships will lead to confusion at best and tacit approval at worst. If the divorced and remarried (without benefit of annulment) or the cohabitating couple are invited into the community, are we not also accepting their heterodox lifestyle? Those on the side of the orthodox would answer yes. They take as their model John the Baptist who spoke out boldly against Herod Antipas for his adultery. It ended up costing John his life, but he spoke to Herod as an act of mercy to try and get the king to turn from sin. If we do not speak boldly, do we allow the deadly sin to fester and destroy the souls in those heterodox relationships?

The pastoral position appears to be the opposite. The doctrines of the Church are seen as harsh and alienating. They are pharisitcal rules that get in the way of Christ’s embracing love. All of us are sinners and the Church welcomes all sinners. Jesus ate with the tax collectors and the prostitutes, so why should we not call those in heterodox relationships to the table of the Lord? We need to meet people where they are and love them as they are because that is what Jesus did. If they never change from these relationships, they still need to know that they are completely loved and accepted.

I admit freely that I am oversimplifying both sides a bit unfairly. But I do so to highlight the basic opposing ends from either position and the danger they see in the other.

But the choice is not whether to be orthodox or pastoral. The choice is whether you choose to be like Christ or not. For Jesus was both orthodox and pastoral.

It is so strange to me that people fail to see how the Church needs to be both orthodox and pastoral or else it will devolve into inquisitions or sentimentality.

Jesus is always on the side of truth. He said to Pilate “the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:37) When He told His followers that they had to eat His Flesh and drink His Blood, Christ did not soften His teaching in order to get them to stay. In fact rather than imploring them to remain, He simply says to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” (John 6:67)

We can only love people in truth, because people do not desire a fake, superficial emotionalism. Or rather, even if they desire this sentimentality, it will not feed the hunger in their soul. Only real love, true love, can do this. And that love will and must be tied to truth itself. Orthodoxy provides that solid touchstone of truth that can give solid ground to the starving soul.

But to many people who are not living according to the Gospel, the touchstone appears more like a treacherous smashing stone, ready to destroy their lives and happiness. I remember once a girl at a youth group who began to be involved with some friends who were dabbling in Satanism. When the leaders of the youth group began to warn her from them, she said, “If you tell me not to see them, I will never come back here to youth group.” She had such a strong emotional connection with her wayward friends that she was willing to turn her back on the truth of the Gospel.

For many people who are living in heterodox relationships, they feel the same way. They see the Church’s teaching as something that is opposed to something good and beautiful in their lives. A couple that cohabitates and bring forth children from this relationship may see the orthodox position as a condemnation of their partner and their children. This is, of course, not the case. But when it comes to matters of deep emotion, there can be a disconnect between the ear and the heart. For example, the Church has always condemned artificial means of conceiving children outside of the marital act. I know of someone who had a baby through IVF. Looking at her child running around she said, “I can’t believe someone would think God doesn’t love her.” The Church has never said that God doesn’t not love children from IVF, only that the means of producing them is illicit. But the emotional connection makes the Church’s teaching feel like a personal attack.

So what is to be done?

As always, we should look to Jesus. In the Gospel of John, Jesus was sitting at a well where He spoke to a woman drawing water by herself at noon. It was very unusual for a Jewish man of that time to speak one on one with a woman like this, so much so that the disciples are shocked when they see it. Jesus speaks to her about giving her rivers of Living Water for Eternal Life. It is only after treating her like an equal and speaking to her about things that will give her real happiness. Is it only after this that He brings up that she is living in an adulterous relationship with a man. But even as He raises this point, Jesus brings the conversation back to belief in Him.

What we see here is, I believe, a model of what Pope Francis is setting out. For those who are living outside the orthodox marital model, we need to reach out to them with pastoral care. Christ did not start by speaking words of condemnation, for there is no condemnation in Christ. If someone you love is not living in the way Christ commanded, they may take a very defensive posture when speaking to them about the faith. That is why we must be like Christ and connect to them on a primarily human level. We must reach out to them as persons and have great understanding and empathy for their thoughts and feelings, even if those feelings are not in line with orthodoxy. To empathize with someone is not to condone nor condemn their choices. I can feel empathy for the ruined life a person struggling with addiction without approving of the addiction.

Pain does not have to come from a place of virtue in order to be real. And when those living heterodox lives are suffering, we can share in their suffering with our love.

But we would do them a disservice if our pastoral outreach ended with mere empathy. Christ did not come to give empathy but salvation. And Christ said that “the truth will set you free.” (Jn 8:32) Jesus spoke to the woman at the well because He loved her and wanted her happiness. To live in sin is to live in darkness and death, even if the person living in that sin does not recognize it. It would have been cruel if Jesus abandoned her to her adulterous relationship. If He had never brought it up, she could never be healed of it.

Those of the extreme pastoral position are correct when they say that Jesus loves us where we are and as we are. But what is often left out is that He loves us too much to let us stay there.

The love of Jesus is not empty sentimentality. It is as hard as cold iron and furious as a raging blaze. And in that fire we are refined like silver. The goal of the pastoral must always be to bring the person back into the orthodox.

When dealing with matters of the heart, you walk into a maelstrom of conflicting and contradictory passions. Navigating them takes a flexibility and a daring. Pastoral care is like being the captain of a ship in the storm. You have to change course on a moment’s notice to avoid utter ruin. Sometimes you have to make twists and turns that lead further from home. But orthodoxy is the lighthouse that signals the way to our real home.

Pastoral care is the means.

But orthodoxy is the end.

Copyright 2016, W. L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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