Doctrinal versus Pastoral: The False Dichotomy
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Doctrinal versus Pastoral: The False Dichotomy

Doctrinal versus Pastoral: The False Dichotomy

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph 4:15)

There is no tension between doctrinal orthodoxy and pastoral sensitivity. Quite the opposite: the latter requires and presupposes the former. To suggest otherwise is, at best, misguided and, at worst, mendacious. Yet, in recent months some “progressive” voices inside and outside the Catholic Church have again attempted to resurrect this false dichotomy.

Curiously, such a mindset is often aware of the “inconvenient truth” that no one, not even the Roman Pontiff, has the authority to change the dogmas of the Catholic Church. Therefore, they seek to drive a wedge between the Church’s pastoral practice and her doctrine. A “pressing pastoral situation” is often wheeled out as justification.

This project, however, fails on three counts. First, it misrepresents the teaching of the Church and, in particular, the documents of the Second Vatican Council. Second, it misrepresents the relationship between the Church’s dogma and her pastoral practice. Third, it misapprehends the nature of dogma itself. We must take our lead from Pope Francis himself in rejecting such erroneous and unhelpful notions.

''The false dichotomy between dogma and pastoral reality has as its root cause a lack of faith. The teachings of the Church are not an arbitrary imposition that infringes the legitimate freedom of individuals; nor are they a merciless burden imposed upon the weak.''

The Teaching of the Second Vatican Council

God reveals Himself to us in Jesus Christ, and, in order for the intelligible content of that revelatory event to be passed on from one generation to the next, there must be a correspondingly intelligible formulation and statement of that content. The formulation of Revelation’s content into statements is what we mean by a dogma. Dei Verbum is the Council’s document on Revelation. From it emerges a rich and subtle teaching on the nature of Revelation, and this, of course, has implications for how we understand the Church’s dogmas. It teaches:

In His goodness and wisdom God chose to reveal Himself and to make known to us the hidden purpose of His will by which through Christ, the Word made flesh, man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature. Through this revelation, therefore, the invisible God out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends and lives among them, so that He may invite and take them into fellowship with Himself. This plan of revelation is realised by deeds and words having an inner unity: the deeds wrought by God in the history of salvation manifest and confirm the teaching and realities signified by the words, while the words proclaim the deeds and clarify the mystery contained in them. By this revelation then, the deepest truth about God and thesalvation of man shines out for our sake in Christ, who is both the mediator and the fullness of all revelation.

Note first of all that the intelligible content of the faith is affirmed: “the teaching and realities signified by the words”. And hence the necessity of dogma is validated. However, the document goes on to stress that the person and activity of Christ is not to be separated from the message He bears. “This plan of revelation is realised by deeds and words having an inner unity” (italics added). Though we human beings must use concepts to grasp the content of our faith, in the end God does not reveal a series of ideas: He reveals the “mystery” of Himself in the person of Christ, who is “the fullness of all revelation”. With this teaching Dei Verbum definitively shuts the door on the idea that Revelation, and consequently dogma, can be reduced to a series of disembodied ideas. Given the“inner unity” of their relationship, the falseness of any attempt to divide theory, or dogma, from the realm of activity, ie the realm of lived pastoral reality, is clearly evident.

Moreover, God’s Self-Revelation in Christ is not some sort of inert reality that we just impartially observe. It is dynamic: it accomplishes something. The purpose of Revelation is that “man might in the Holy Spirit have access to the Father and come to share in the divine nature”. Revelation, and its subsequent formulation into dogma, changes the final goal of our lives. But this new goal, coming “to share in the divine nature”, is not tacked on to the end of our earthly existence as an afterthought; rather, this new goal changes the whole trajectory of our earthly lives. Already in this life, it points us towards heaven. And this comes about through a real novelty in our lives here and now: a new and personal relationship.

Recent Popes have been at pains to stress the personal nature of Revelation. Pope Francis in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, quotes his predecessor with approval. “I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: ‘Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.’”

As we have seen, our faith does have an intelligible content, but it cannot be reduced to a mental yes to a series of ideas. It is a living relationship with a person. This is why the Council teaches that in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ “the invisible God out of the abundance of His love speaks to men as friends and lives among them”. Every relationship with another person that is in any way real has an influence on how we live our lives. When one becomes a parent or a spouse, certainly one gains a great deal, but one also has to give up old ways of living and patterns of behaviour. In a similar way, when we enter into relationship with God who reveals Himself to us in Jesus Christ this will have real consequences for the way we live our lives.

The Second Vatican Council teaches, and the continuing Magisterium of successive popes bears witness to, the indissoluble link between God’s revelation, our final end and the way we live our lives here and now as us Christians. Dogma, doctrine, call it whatever you will, is indissolubly linked to the pastoral reality of the Church’s life.

Blessed John XXIII’s opening address to the Second Vatican Council has been mentioned already. In that same address he put it quite succinctly:

The greatest concern of the Ecumenical Council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously. That doctrine embraces the whole of man, composed as he is of body and soul. And, since he is a pilgrim on this earth, it commands him to tend always toward heaven.

The Relationship Between Dogma and Pastoral Practice

In fact the word “pastoral” contains within itself an intrinsic link to the doctrines and dogmas of the Church. Its origins are to be found in the Latin term pascere which means “to feed”. In the 21st chapter of John’s Gospel, Christ uses this verb three times, telling Peter to feed His sheep. This raises a question: on what should Peter feed the Lord’s flock? Catholics will immediately think of the Eucharist. While this true, there are reasons why one might legitimately expand the meaning of pascere a little.

In Ephesians, when St Paul is talking about the various ministries in the Church, he gives a list in which he seems to place “pastors and teachers” in the same category (Eph 4:11). One should not perhaps make too much of this, but it does seem to imply that the pastoral dimension of the Church extends to teaching as well, that is, to the feeding of our minds with sound doctrine. This insight has a particular and pressing resonance for all those who have any sort of teaching role in the Church. And it is worth remembering that this applies not just to ordained bishops and priests, but also to catechists and teachers and, in a most particular way, to parents.

Ideas, theories, doctrines have a momentum of their own. Wanted or unwanted they have an impact upon our lives for good or for ill. To take just one example, five hundred years ago, during the Reformation, there was a debate over just how broken human nature truly is. Certain extreme Protestants held that human nature is entirely corrupted by sin. Catholics, by contrast, held and still do hold that “human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded” (CCC 405). At one level this is an abstruse argument about the finer points of theological anthropology. But follow the arguments to their logical conclusions and they have powerful implications. If human nature is totally corrupt then everything that flows from this nature, our ability to think, our capacity forlove and friendship, our sexuality – all of this is totally corrupt and depraved and to be avoided. But if, as the doctrine of the Catholic Church has it, human nature is wounded but not totally corrupt, then these human realities of reason, affection and sexuality, while they are affected by the wound in our nature and so must be redeemed, remain essentially good. Far from being scorned and rejected these expressions of our human nature are to be valued and cherished.

Doctrines and dogmas, if we really believe them, inevitably affect our self-understanding, our values and our grasp of the world around us. Trying to divorce doctrine from life, dogma from pastoral reality, is unworkable. Either we must simply give up believing the dogmas in any sort of real way, or our approach to life will become schizophrenic.


The false dichotomy between dogma and pastoral reality has as its root cause a lack of faith. The teachings of the Church are not an arbitrary imposition that infringes the legitimate freedom of individuals; nor are they a merciless burden imposed upon the weak. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ – that institution which, despite the failings of her human members, Christ founded and which he continues to will. And, in the words of Blessed John Henry Newman, we “hold in veneration… her teachings as His own”. The teaching of the Church is the teaching of Christ. This is not an encumbrance or an impediment; it is, as He promises, “the truth which will set you free” (Jn 8:32).

Turn on the news of an evening or pick up a newspaper and we are assaulted by the plethora of social ills that afflict our society. And, of course, our hearts go out to those who are suffering in whatever way. But there is not one of these problems that will be solved by a Gospel bowdlerised for so called “pastoral” motives. Only Jesus Christ in His fullness, undiluted by our ingenious “pastoral” accommodations, can alleviate the sufferings of our brothers and sisters. We have an obligation to offer the fullness of what we have received.

The notion that doctrine and pastoral practice are in conflict cannot stand. In has no precedent or place in Church teaching. It is untrue and unsustainable. We and the world need the truth in its fullness. We need Christ, who is “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6).

Faith Magazine