The Second Vatican Council famously spoke (though actually quite infrequently) of “scrutinizing the signs of the times.” Some people like to emphasize that it was a “pastoral” Council. (I doubt these people have spent time with the documents of previous councils.)
Similarly, Pope Francis has spoken about being “pastoral,” including a Synod focused on “Pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelization.”
At a recent discussion of the Synod, a young man said something I’ve heard too often. “Why even talk about being pastoral?” he asked. “Doesn’t that just risk watering down our theology?” A few other young people seemed to share his opinion.
We are now surveying the seventh chapter of the Aparecida document. We find there a call to “pastoral conversion”:
7. The Mission of the Disciples in the Service of Full Life
a. Living and Communicating the New Life in Christ to our Peoples
b. Pastoral Conversion and Missionary Renewal of Communities
c. Our Commitment to Mission Ad Gentes
But here we find this “pastoral” idea thoroughly contextualized in terms of “mission.” “Pastoral conversion” is about “missionary renewal.”
I hope it’s clear that talking about “mission” and being “missionary” has nothing whatsoever to do with watering down our theology. It has to do with communicating our theology.
When I prepare a class, or a post for this website, or a parish presentation, I have to think about two things. First, what is it that I want to communicate? What do we believe? Call this part “theology” or “doctrine.”
But second, I have to ask myself, “how do I get that across to my audience”? If I’m teaching my students from the Summa theologiae, for example, I have to think about what information I need to add: they don’t know the Aristotelian philosophy Thomas is deploying; they don’t know the bigger outline of the Summa, and the other parts of the Summa to which Thomas is referring; they don’t know the Tradition; often, they don’t fully share Thomas’s rich Catholic faith. I have to say more, in order to explain to them what Thomas is teaching.
I hope it’s clear, this has nothing whatsoever to do with “watering down” what Thomas, or the Church, teaches. It has to do with actually caring whether other people understand that teaching. That is the true meaning of “pastoral”: not watering down, but figuring out how to explain it to people in a particular context, including showing them what it would mean to apply it to their actual lives. This is about loving an living our doctrine, not about watering it down.
As I have mentioned before, Pope Francis, and the Aparecida document before him, corrects St. John Paul II’s use of the phrase “pastoral formation” in his letter Pastores (pastors/shepherds) dabo vobis. Instead, Francis prefers to say, “missionary formation.” Not because being pastoral doesn’t matter, but because we need to see why it does matter.
Chapter Seven of the Aparecida document argues for “moving from a pastoral ministry of mere conservation to a decidedly missionary pastoral ministry.” By “mere conservation,” I think they mean, “we understand what we are saying, and we don’t really care if other people understand.”
Again, the “pastoral” orientation Aparecida is calling for is not toward relativism, not toward accepting the ways of the world. Aparecida is, to the contrary, confronting the practical relativism that doesn’t care about mission. No matter how much we say we believe in objective truth, if we treat Jesus as only our savior, and his moral teaching as only for us, we are practical relativists. Mission is about living like we believe in truth.
“The Church’s ministry cannot ignore the historic context in which its members live. These social and cultural transformations naturally represent new challenges to the Church in its mission of building the Kingdom of God. Hence the need, in fidelity to the Holy Spirit who leads it, for an ecclesial renewal that entails spiritual, pastoral, and also institutional reforms.”
The reason for reform, the reason for considering our historic context, is not to accommodate to the world. It is about rising to the challenge. First, we need to think about how to talk, how to explain what it is we believe.
But then, too, we need to think about how to live it, how to show our neighbors our faith, and how to show them what it would mean for them, here and now, in this historical context, to embrace Jesus Christ.
“Pastoral conversion” is really a matter of “missionary renewal.”
What do I need to do to communicate the faith to the people around me?