In contemporary Catholic discourse in the West, there is a great deal of discussion about being pastoral. Unfortunately, these discussions are minefields in many cases. Why is that?
Well, it's a long story. There have long been debates among Christian Bishops about how to best emulate Christ the Good Shepherd in their role as pastors of the Church; that is nothing new. What does seem to be new is the width of the gulf between the basic principles of the two largest camps in that debate.
In the post-WWII era, debates about how to be pastoral stopped being a matter of attempting to figure out how best to uphold Christian moral teaching in difficult circumstances (and living out Christian moral teaching has always been difficult). That was a complicated debate in and of itself. But the debate has since shifted to far more complex terrain.
Now, debates about how to be pastoral are a matter of attempting to persuade the other side that we should (a) change Church teaching, (b) leave it unchanged but ignore it in practice, or (c) uphold it in practice even when it's difficult. Positions (b) and (c) seem to be the most popular now, though there was a time when (a) had a stronger following.
At that time, pastoral was used by many of those who favored option (a) or (b) as code for another word that starts with the same letter: permissive. As a result, those who favored option (c) tend to treat the word "pastoral" with some suspicion. That's understandable, given the circumstances, but it can tend to prejudice them against the views of others who use the word pastoral in a way that's not euphemistic.
As I've mentioned before, I wasn't around for the debates that occurred at the time, though I do see them re-hashed today by some who were around while they were more lively. So I don't have quite the same emotional stake in the matter as those for whom these were immediately pressing debates at the time when option (a) looked like it had a good chance at succeeding.
Currently, it looks like both the folks who preferred option (a) and option (b) are working to get option (b) implemented across the whole Church in the short term in the name of "being pastoral", and it very much looks like what they actually mean is: being permissive. They understandably warn against pastors being too harsh with people and not bothering to understand individual situations in their complexity.
I tend to agree with them that those are important warnings. They are not wrong to warn against those failings, but it does not follow from the failings of those who are too harsh in holding their flock accountable that we ought to stop holding the flock accountable for following Christian teaching, either in specific cases or in general.
That would not be pastoral, at least not in any sense of the word that actually goes back to its roots. In a Christian context, a pastor is called a pastor because pastors are the shepherds of the flocks given into their charge, and they are called to emulate the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
We know from the Parable of the Lost Sheep in the Gospels that Christ the Good Shepherd goes out to the lost sheep and brings it back to the rest of the flock, carrying it gently and tending its wounds so that it can be healed.
Those who prefer option (a) are like shepherds who bring the whole flock to the rocky terrain where the lost sheep was injured and are optimistic that the wounds of the lost sheep will be healed by its fellow sheep in community with one another. They warn against option (d), which is to go out and treat the lost sheep so roughly that it doesn't want to come back to the flock and runs away again.
Those who prefer option (b) are like shepherds who don't want to take the whole flock to the rocky terrain, but are willing to set up a separate pen for the lost sheep who are on that rocky terrain and let more and more of the flock wander there, gradually creating a second flock. They also warn against option (d).
Those who prefer option (c) are like shepherds who go out to the lost sheep and bring it back to the rest of the flock. They may disagree over how best to handle the lost sheep when trying to bring it back to the flock, but they don't move the whole flock to be with the lost sheep, nor do they build a separate pen for the lost sheep.
Those who choose options (a) and (b) can be correctly said to be doing many things, but being authentically pastoral isn't one of them. I think it's fairly clear that those who prefer option (c) are the ones who are emulating the Good Shepherd Himself, however imperfectly.
They are, in fact, being pastoral in the Christian sense by calling the lost sheep back to the flock, by going out to find the lost sheep in order to restore the lost sheep to the whole flock (rather than establishing a different flock on different terrain).
I sincerely hope that all our bishops and priests can be authentically pastoral, laying down their lives for the flock that's been divinely established, just as the Good Shepherd Himself did. In this way, the sheep can hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and know it is Him.
Related: The War of the Pre-Vatican II and Post-Vatican II Traditionalists
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