The Pastoral Mystery of the Church

The Pastoral Mystery of the Church

Church history is persistently a contentious affair, especially when it comes to debates about doctrine. From the Gnostics to the Modernists, these disputes get a lot of coverage in various histories of the Church. While our times have their own doctrinal disputes, we are faced with a pastoral crisis more than a dogmatic one. In the face of modernity, there is uncertainty about how to minister to those in the flock, those wandering from the flock, and those outside the flock. But there is a deeper confusion: we do not understand what it means to be pastoral. I will give a few examples. One is generic. If someone were to say of a bishop that he was taking a “more pastoral approach” most of us would think a few things: he is downplaying doctrine and dogma, taking a looser line on ethics (especially sexual ethics), and minimizing religious differences with others (and so minimizing the importance of being a Catholic). Another example, more concrete: for some “traditionalists,” the Second Vatican Council can be ignored because it was pastoral. Pastoral means not being dogmatic and is thus historically situated and “it is time to talk about something else.” A final example, after a recent interview with Pope Francis in America Magazine, the editor Sam Sawyer, S.J. criticized Pope Francis for failing to be pastoral when he explained why the Church ordains only men.

In each example, the pastoral is separated from doctrine and morals, a way of being loving and tolerant is detached from truth and ethical admonition. The pastoral bishop does not emphasize doctrine, truth, or morals and the pastoral council does not address them either. Explaining doctrine or ethical norms is a failure to be pastoral. Fundamentally, this is a failure to understand what Pope Francis calls pastoralidad or “pastorality.”[1] My aim in this essay will be to understand pastorality (the pastoral dimension of the Church) and the ways pastors should live this out. I will follow Pope Francis’s lead on this. He tells us in his America Magazine interview that we should look to “St. Augustine, in his treatise De Pastoribus,” which is “the best profile of a bishop.” De Pastoribus (On Shepherds), alongside the accompanying sermon De Ovibus (On Sheep), offers us a patristic guide on how to be pastoral that should shape the ministry of those in Holy Orders but also that of all Catholics. Pastorality, in an Augustinian vein, highlights the unity of pastors and their flock without eliminating the unique role of pastors. This unique role, fundamentally, is moral and doctrinal in that the good shepherd gently but persistently guides his flock from error to communion. This communion is the pastoral reality of the Church, which, in eschewing doctrinal indifference, dogmatic separatism, or coercive practices, lives as the Body of Christ in imitation of the Head of the Body who is the Good Shepherd.

We Are All Sheep; Some of Us Are Shepherds.

To understand Augustine’s sermon on pastors requires that we understand why he gave the sermon to his sheep. He did so to give an account of good shepherds to the flock so that they themselves will discern whom they ought to follow. There are bad shepherds. Being able to identify them is part of the wise practice of being wise sheep. Doing so also helps sheep be pastors to their own families, neighbors, and friends. In preaching about pastors, Augustine shows a willingness to give public accounts of ecclesial failings. He gives his sermon on pastors “because there are shepherds who are willing enough to hear themselves called shepherds but not all willing to carry out the duties of shepherds.” Augustine preaches on pastorality because of the failures of pastors, which range from not living according to the Gospel to failures to call out sin when it happens. For Augustine, sheep and shepherds will both give an account of their lives and their leadership to God. This accountability to God does not negate, but rather grounds, our accountability to each other. “Your conscience is open to God; your conduct is open to your brother,” Augustine preaches to pastors. To be a Christian is to be called to give an account for both, for the former to God, for the latter to others. To be a pastor is to owe a double account because of the double duty of the office. “We bishops, apart from being Christians, as which we shall render God an account of the manner of life, are also in charge of you, and as such will render God an account of our stewardship.” Augustine’s willingness to render that account to the faithful is a testimony to his transparent leadership and his commitment to the unity of the commandment of love. Loving God necessitates loving neighbor. Owing God an account means owing each other an account.

Furthermore, the shepherds are not alien to the sheep. While his reflection on shepherds precedes his reflection on sheep, this does not mean that there is an ontological priority. In his homily De Ovibus he proclaims, “Because we are Christians, we are sheep with you.” Likewise, in De Pastoribus, “Two things about us must be clearly distinguished: one that we are Christians, the other, that we placed in charge.” The reality of the former is the essential identity from which the secondary identity arises. Because we are all sheep, some of us can be called to be shepherds. Ordination confers the role of governance, but it does not take the shepherds out of the flock. Thus, we can trust there will be good shepherds if there are good sheep “because good shepherds are made out of good sheep.” Most essentially, we are all sheep of the one true Shepherd and so “whether the Lord is speaking to the shepherds or the sheep, we have to listen to all of it with fear and trembling.” Pope Francis rightly reminds pastors that they must smell of their sheep. Augustine reminds pastors that they already smell like sheep because they are sheep.

Where Do We Speak From?

Keeping pastors grounded in their flock is essential to a right pastorality. But this does not negate governance. As an example, the German Synodaler Weg’s error is acting as though the pastors being sheep eliminates the governance of pastors. But, clearly, this is not the case for Augustine (or any of the Fathers for that matter). If the sheep-nature of pastors is a synodal principle, this cannot be detached from its accompanying hierarchical principle. As Augustine tells his flock, “Two things about us must be clearly distinguished: one that we are Christians, the other, that we are placed in charge. Being Christians is for our sake; being in charge is for yours.” Augustine holds these principles together such that neither is negated. But as he does, he shapes what “being in charge” means. The first claim he lays out for his fellow pastors is that “the sole reason people are put in charge is to consider the interests of those they are in charge of.” A pastor who pastors for their own good is a wolf in shepherd’s clothing, but so too is one who does not lead and therefore does not serve. To lead your fellow sheep is to serve them.

There is a deeper reality that shapes pastoral governance as grounded in our shared existence as sheep. Since all are sheep, all are called to obedience, fidelity, and docility to the Good Shepherd. It is not just the sheep who must “pay, pray, and obey”; pastors need to as well. The authority of pastors is not self-constituting; rather, they always speak on behalf of another. To be a pastor requires one ask: where do you speak from? As an example, if I write an opinion piece on American politics, I speak from myself. Of course, I aim to speak the truth, but I always speak from myself to others. Pastoral discourse is different. To speak pastorally is always to speak from Christ. For “he himself will help me to say true things, if I don’t just say my own thing.” A true pastor never aims to say his own thing. His authority is derived from the authority of the whole Christ in Jesus and his Body the Church, not from his own self-expression.

This is a matter of nourishment. When we say our own thing, we feed people from ourselves. This has a role in life. But in ecclesial life, the food we need is the truth (encountered in Word and Sacrament). In the pastoral dimension, the person who speaks from himself only feeds himself. Thus, Augustine preaches, “If I do say my own thing, I shall be a shepherd feeding myself, not the sheep; but if what I say is His thing, then it is He who is feeding you, whoever may be speaking.” A pastor speaking from himself feeds himself because he feeds his pride. Convinced of his own private views, he proclaims them. The flock just becomes a mirror for his own self-aggrandizement. He thus fails to be a shepherd because he fails to be a sheep. Refusing to follow Christ, he follows himself into perdition. In contrast, the pastor who speaks from Christ feeds others because he allows Christ to feed them through his words. The same truth he feeds on, he offers to his fellow sheep. In contrast to self-originating speech, to speak from Christ means to speak doctrinally and dogmatically. In so doing, the pastor expresses the truth that belongs to all within the flock rather than a truth that originates with him. A good pastor expresses what the totus Christus believes and so maintains his fidelity to Christ the head of the Body of Christ.

Augustine considers the possibility of non-pastoral preaching in which one preaches for his own self-aggrandizement. “If we bishops start saying that sort of thing, we shall no doubt draw far bigger crowds into our congregations.” Such preaching may offend “only a few and win the favor of the many,” but it is not pastoral. If we speak our own ideas, even if they are popular, and do not “speak the words of God, not the words of Christ but our own, we shall be shepherds feeding ourselves, not the sheep.” Again, Augustine insists on preaching God’s word (the Verbum) and so preaching the verba of that Verbum, expressed through the totus Christus of the Church.

Augustine is specific about what “the sort of thing” a non-pastoral pastor preaches. Their pastoral failure is not preaching on the morals of the Church. They do not call out sin or identify error. He preaches:

Far be it from us, therefore, to say to you, “Live how you like, don’t worry, God won’t destroy anyone; only keep the Christian faith. He won’t destroy what he has redeemed, he won’t destroy those for whom he has shed his blood . . . Go along, celebrate them [gladiatorial games and pagan festivals] without a care in the world. Great is the mercy of God, which can pardon everything.

We cannot just live how we like. We must live as Christians, knowing God’s mercy and so living according to God’s justice. The task of shepherds is to feed their sheep true teaching (doctrine) and to redirect their sheep when they err (moral admonition). A pastor who tells his flock not to worry about such things fails his flock.

Pastorality, for many today, means toning down the Church’s uncomfortable moral teachings—usually Catholic Social Thought or sexual ethics. For Augustine, this is an abandonment of true pastorality. The good pastor never abandons their fellow sheep to sin or doctrinal error. A pastor never gives up on them, and always seeks to feed them. Speaking to his flock, he proclaims:

I will call back the straying sheep, I will seek the lost one. Whether you like it or not, that is what I am going to do. Even if the briars of the woods tear at me as I seek, I will squeeze myself through all the thickets, I will search out all enclosures, according to the strength my terrifying Lord gives me, I will roam everywhere in my search. I will call back the stray, I will seek the sheep that is perishing.

Augustine, smelling of the sheep, plunges into briars, thickets, and enclosures searching for the straying sheep. Half-jokingly he advises his congregation that they can avoid his persistent seeking. “If you don’t want to have to put up with me, don’t stray, don’t perish.” A good shepherd does not let his sheep wander in doctrinal error and sin. When they wander, the good pastor seeks the errant and helps them back to the way. To reference the America editorial again, the pastors seeking the errant does not just mean laying down rules for people to blindly follow. It is “laying out a theological framework for understanding.” Where Fr. Sawyer saw in explanation and teaching a failure of pastorality, Augustine would see the heart of a pastorality that respects the sheep’s capacity to comprehend that theological dimension. It is an expression of our Christian obligation to “always be prepared to offer an explanation [apologia] to anyone who asks you to explain [logos] the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15).

This persistent pastoring is not only for the benefit of the straying sheep. The one sheep falling into sin or heresy is in trouble, but the ninety-nine who see him wander will think such erring does not matter if the shepherd ignores it. “If I treat your error as a matter of indifference, the one who is strong will notice, and assume that going off into heresy doesn’t matter.” Pastoral correction of the sinful or heretical teaches those strong in the faith that virtue and truth matter. It affirms them in their Christian life. Augustine is willing to travel through briars and thorns for two reasons. A pastor should love their sheep and there are, in this life, grave moral and doctrinal matters.

To fall into sin or to believe wrongly about God are no small matters. Acting like it is a small matter is unfair to those who err and those who have not yet erred. When we treat them as small matters, we do not just fail the straying, we lay a trap for those who have not yet strayed and who may think “God’s here and God’s there, what’s the difference?” To be pastoral is to know that there is a difference between pasture and briar patch, between the Church and the world. The pastor who lets people wonder off, lets them “go off among beasts that ravage them and are longing to glut themselves on their deaths.” Pastorality is about “life and death, blessing and curse” (Deut 30:19). Good pastors see this and guide their flocks to the former and from the latter.

Good shepherds combine love and concern with conviction for the seriousness of right action and right belief. They are shaped by a love that leads them to cast aside worldly popularity. They pursue with abandon because they love with abandon and so will not abandon anyone. If we fail to preach this way, Christ will still do so. To those who think pastorality means keeping quiet about untimely or unpopular teaching, Augustine responds “it’s our business not to keep quiet; it’s the sheep’s business, if we do keep quiet, to listen to the words of the shepherds from the holy scriptures.” Should the shepherds fail in their task of pastorality, we sheep must cling to the Good Shepherd’s teaching expressed by the Apostles as the foundation of the Church. Christ never abandons us, always admonishes us when we go awry, and lovingly bears our wounded selves on his shoulders. Should our pastors abandon us, our Pastor never will.

Gentle Governance

Governance is not an excuse for harshness. We worship a God who is “infinitely gentle, infinitely merciful, infinitely mild.” We ourselves must be gentle, merciful, and mild. Having been forgiven, we are called to forgive. Having been given time to reform our ways, we should give people time to reform theirs. Having received the grace of mercy, we should be graciously merciful to others.

Pastorality is a way of being dogmatic in the right way. Being dogmatic for Catholics is definitely a good thing. Holding to the scriptures, the creeds, the councils, and the catechism is a part of our salvation. Truth matters. But there is a way of being dogmatic—marked by judgment, pride, and exclusion—that is wrong and fails to be pastoral. True pastorality, as Francis describes it, is God’s style of “closeness, compassion, and tenderness.” Likewise, Pope Benedict teaches that “truth needs to be sought, found and expressed within the ‘economy’ of charity, but charity, in turn, needs to be understood, confirmed, and practiced in the light of truth” (Caritas in Veritate §2). Dogmatism without pastorality is truth without love; pastorality without dogmatism is love without truth. Ultimately a non-pastoral dogmatism and a non-dogmatic pastorality are neither pastoral nor dogmatic.

Augustine’s portrayal of the pastor in the briars and thickets is an expression of God’s style of closeness, compassion, and tenderness, which is always “caritas in veritate” and thus the opposite of a false compassion that leaves the sheep in sin or a false tenderness that does not identify doctrinal error. These are counterfeit forms of closeness, which pretend to be close to the sinner or heretic, but actually abandon them. Such closeness is neither close to the sinner nor to the Good Shepherd, who is ever gentle and ever calling us “go and sin no more” (John 8:11). It is not close to the sinner because it lets him wander away. It is not close the Good Shepherd because it is alien to Christ’s way of lovingly calling the sinner to repentance.

But we can also be distant from the sinner by driving them out from our communion. Augustine consistently condemns the temptation to drive others out of the Church for being sinners. A non-pastoral dogmatism excludes from the Church those who wander and sin. Augustine rejects “judgment and sentence” but does not reject “a timely word of correction.” Pastorality is tolerant not because it does not correct but because it corrects without excluding. Non-pastoral dogmatism describes a pastor who is bothered that Christ “is not yet carrying out the separation” of sinners and saints.

Such a pastor wants to be the one who separates but “He that sowed the field is tolerating the mixture. If before winnowing time you want the grain to be purged . . . you will be winnowed yourself, very unpleasantly indeed.” The flock is made up of sinners and saints—or more often, the saint one day is a sinner the next and the sinner one day a saint the next. Pastorality does not mean excluding, it means building people up in their sanctity and correcting people in their iniquity. It does not mean driving out the sinner to create a Church only made up of saints or acting as though sins aren’t sins. The pastor who thinks it is their role to winnow will find themselves winnowed, very unpleasantly. The pastor who never corrects will find themselves corrected, very unpleasantly.

Pastorality Is the Way of the Church

Part of the gift of the contemporary Church is that we no longer have the power to coerce. The Church has become pastoral again and so is more truly the Church. As Augustine says of pastors, “How much more profitable, then, is the weakness that is made perfect than the strength that pushes the sheep around, that flaunts itself in order to shut them out.” We have neither the power to push people into or out of the flock. What we have is the witness of our words, of our lives, and of our loves. It makes sense that Vatican II, the pastoral council, is also the ecclesial council. Contra some traditionalists, Vatican II always remains relevant as the council that definitively teaches on ecclesiology and pastorality (to say nothing of liturgical theology and anthropology). Contra some progressives, Vatican II necessitates preaching dogmatically and upholding the Church’s moral teachings.

In the wake of Vatican II, we may be tempted to set aside the pastoral and pine for power again. Or we may be tempted to set aside the pastoral by forgoing the hard work of preaching doctrine and morals. It is for this reason that Vatican II is so difficult for traditionalists and for progressives. It called for a robust preaching of the truth of Christ that neither pushes people around nor abandons them to the briars and brambles of sin and heresy under the auspices of kindness or being popular by getting with the times. In Vatican II, we see the Church’s self-understanding as a pastoral reality. It thus expresses how to act in a truly ecclesial way. The ecclesial way is the way of pastorality because it is the Christlike way. To truly understand the pastoral is to understand the Church and so to understand Christ. Of course, this can be reversed: to imitate Christ is to be ecclesial and so pastoral.  

This links to one of Augustine’s great insights: the Church is the totus Christus and so in understanding the Church we understand Christ. Christ is the Good Shepherd, and so he is the paradigm for what it means to be pastoral. Fundamentally, pastorality means living and acting as a community in imitatio Christi. The style of God (closeness, tenderness, compassion but also correction and admonishment) is and must be the style of the Church. Pastorality as infinitely merciful and so willing to correct error is the Body of Christ acting like the Head of the Body. When we are pastoral—whether we be pastors through ordination (with governance) or are pastors through baptism (without governance)—we live out the Christocentric reality of the Church. To be pastoral is to be one in Christ and so “all the good shepherds are one in the one Shepherd.” Too many of us—lay, ordained, traditionalist, and progressives—have forgotten this. I hope that I, a sheep amongst sheep, have offered a reminder of the pastoral reality of the Church and so have acted in some small way as pastor to both sheep and shepherds.

[1] The term arises in Francis’s interview with America. Both the Spanish and English words are neologisms.