Pastoral Theology for a Post-Modern World: The Pastoral Theology of Pope Francis

Following is the text of a speech delivered by San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy at the 2018 assembly of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests meeting in Albuquerque June 25-27, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

We are living in a wonderful moment in the life of the church. The authentic renewal of the Second Vatican Council remains the foundation and the challenge for those who seek to deepen the theology of the church and bring it into the life of the world. The call of Pope John Paul II for the church to constantly witness to Christ and the challenge of Pope Benedict to confirm the truth in an age of relativism guide the Catholic community in its discernment and its action. The call of missionary discipleship frames the vocation for every Christian woman and man. and the depth and the mystery of God’s continuing presence in all of the created order assures humanity that the final note of our existence is not pain, suffering and despair, but the fullness of joy and peace which lies in the love of a God who has brought to us every blessing which exists.

We are privileged to witness this moment in the church’s life, and to recognize that it is a moment of explicit theological renewal that will contribute enormously to the spread of the gospel in this new millennium. For we are seeing an emerging pastoral theology at the very heart of the life of the church which both links us to the pastoral action and ethos of the Lord himself and yet is highly attuned to the challenges and cultures of the Twenty-First Century. This pastoral theology calls for pastoral action to take its rightful place in framing the life and belief of the universal church, in concert with the traditional theological enterprises of dogma, scriptural studies, moral theology, ecclesiology, liturgical and spiritual theology.

Indeed, the emergence of this pastoral theology in the present pontificate bears striking resemblance to the renewal of theology in the years preceding the Second Vatican Council. During the postwar period the growth of scripture studies informed by historical-critical method, the recovery of the historic liturgical life of the church as a font for the deepening of contemporary sacramental celebrations, and the sustained reflection on the nature of the church itself were part of a broad theological inquiry that allowed the bishops of the council to reflect upon the challenges of the church in the modern world armed with robust insights central to the proclamation of the gospel in the Twentieth Century.

Similarly, the growth of a comprehensive pastoral theology that we are witnessing today parallels the flourishing of ecumenical and moral theology in the post-conciliar period, and the continuing expansion of the church’s social doctrine formed within a truly global church.  These were movements of intense theological richness for the Catholic community in the Twentieth Century, and continue to yield crucial insights about the fullness of the salvation which has been bestowed upon us by the Lord Jesus Christ.

But in a very real way, the pastoral moment that we are witnessing today in the life of the church is different from any of these prior theological renewals, for each of them took place within a recognized field of specifically theological reflection. The challenge of pastoral theology is not only to delineate the substance of its insights into the gospel and the life of the church, but also the challenge to demonstrate that it is a significant branch of theology at all.

For most of the history of the church, pastoral theology did not exist as a distinct branch of theology. There were splendid pastoral teachings in the Catholic theological tradition in every age, of course, but these writings were not considered a distinct branch of theology. It was in the period after the reformation that a specific Catholic pastoral theology emerged as a major element of the reform of the priesthood and ecclesial life.

But the nature of even this post-reformation pastoral theology was very limited. It was to a significant degree a derivative branch of theology, confined to the application of the fruits of the other branches of theology to the practice of the salvation of souls. Moreover, pastoral theology was envisioned as primarily the work of priests. It was also instrumental in nature.

In his teachings, Pope Francis points to an understanding of pastoral theology which is far more robust. This pastoral outlook demands that all of the other branches of theology attend to the concrete reality of human life and human suffering in a much more substantial way in forming doctrine.

It states that the lived experience of human sinfulness and human conversion are vital to understanding the central attribute of God in relation to us, which is mercy.

It demands that moral theology proceed from the actual pastoral action of Jesus Christ, which does not first demand a change of life, but begins with an embrace of divine love, proceeds to the action of healing and only then requires a conversion of action in responsible conscience.

The pastoral theology of Pope Francis requires that the liturgical and sacramental life of the church be formed in compassionate embrace with the often overwhelming life challenges which prevent men and women at periods of their life from conforming adequately with important gospel challenges. And the pastoral theology of Pope Francis rejects a notion of law which can be blind to the uniqueness of concrete human situations, human suffering and human limitation.

In these enormously important ways the vision of pastoral theology embraced by Pope Francis is a rejection of the tradition which sees pastoral theology as primarily derivative and the application of the other branches of theology. Rather, the use of pastoral theology in the teachings of Pope Francis points to an interactive role between pastoral theology and the historic disciplines of the Catholic theological tradition. In this way, pastoral realities are a significant font for theological reflection and development in all areas of our doctrinal life.

Just as importantly, the pastoral theology of Pope Francis rejects the traditional prism which focused pastoral theology on the work of priests, or even on a more generalized notion of pastoral ministry in the internal life of the church. In a very real way, the architects of pastoral theology in the writings of Pope Francis include the whole body of the faithful in relationship with God, and the datum of pastoral theology is the lived experience of the faithful in the concrete call of their discipleship.

There are three fundamental foundations for this pastoral theology.

The first foundation is the assertion that not only the activity, but the very nature of the church involves at its heart pastoral action to heal the hearts of men and women who are suffering.

Pope Francis outlined this ecclesiological assertion in his beautiful description of the church itself as a field hospital: “I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds. And you have to start from the ground up.” “This is the mission of the church: the church heals, it cures….the mission of the church is to heal wounds of the heart, to open doors, to free people, to say that God is good, God forgives all, God is the father.”

One of the most beautiful elements of the Second Vatican Council was its magnificent theological images of the church: the church as the salvific sacrament of Christ’s unity and mission, the church as the pilgrim people of God journeying together in this earthly life, the church as the mystical body, with its complementarity among members and headship in Christ. Each of these images conveys powerfully key elements of the sacred identity and ministry of the community which Jesus founded to sanctify the world.

So too the image of the church as a field hospital stands as a powerful testimony to the nature and role of the community of faith in the world. It speaks to the centrality of God’s action in the life of the church, an action which begins as Jesus did, by healing women and men in their brokenness, thus opening them up to receiving the grace of God in their hearts even as that grace is made manifest.

The image of the church as a field hospital points to the reality that the church is never remote from the human experience, never self-referential if it is to be faithful to its mission. Rather the church must always be enmeshed in the real lives and sufferings and challenges and joys of the people of God and the whole of humanity.

The image of the pilgrim people of God emphasized the common journey in grace of those in the church. The image of the church as sacrament emphasized the nature of the church as a reflection of the transforming power of God in the world. The image of the mystical body emphasized the complementarity of all within the life of the church, and the subjection of all to the person of Jesus Christ.

The image of the field hospital emphasizes the explicitly pastoral identity of the church reaching into the lives of men and women precisely in their greatest suffering to reveal the multiple dimensions of the saving love that comes from God. The image of the church as a field hospital has none of the elegance or beauty of the image of the mystical body or church as sacrament. The image of the field hospital is earthy, rough-hewn, much like the stable in Bethlehem where our lord revealed himself to the world. Most importantly, the image of the church as a field hospital testifies vividly to the pastoral dimension that lies at the heart of the church’s identity and its mission in the world.

The second foundation for the pastoral theology that Pope Francis is pointing to lies in the recognition that the church should mirror the pastoral action of the Lord himself. It is the pattern of Jesus Christ who walked the earth which we are to incorporate into every element of ecclesial life. This enduring truth is the foundation for a series of pastoral imperatives that Pope Francis has presented to the church during the last five years.

One of the most important of these imperatives is the call to accompaniment. In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis beautifully expresses both the depth of commitment and the openness that must suffuse pastoral life and action in the church: “We will have to initiate everyone — priests, religious and laity — into this art of accompaniment which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other.”

When the Lord encountered Zacchaeus in the tree, he was encountering a man despised for his theft and victimization of others. But Christ’s piercing compassionate embrace, conveyed in the call to eat at the house of this sinner, was sufficient to transform this hardened sinner. In patterning the church’s life after the ministry of Jesus Christ, the starting point is the drive to see and treat every human person as God sees them, an incredibly precious soul, individual in its nature and identity, yet equally treasured by the lord.

A second pastoral imperative of the pastoral theology of Pope Francis urges us to model our pastoral action on the three steps that formed Jesus’ encounter with those who were suffering or estranged in the gospel. First the Lord embraces the person, then he heals them. Then he calls them to reform. Each of these elements of the saving encounter with the lord is essential. But their order is also essential. Christ first reveals the overwhelmingly merciful and limitless love of God. Then he moves to heal the particular form of suffering that the person is experiencing. And only then does he call the person specifically to a change in their life.

This pattern must become ever more deeply the model for the church’s proclamation of the faith and healing action in the world. This must be the imitatio Christi for a pastoral church in an age that rejects formalism, authority and tradition.

The call to change one’s life to conform more fully with the gospel is essential to Christian conversion and the achievement of true happiness in this world and the next. But that call must be encased in the tender, healing face of a church which ministers as Christ did, in order to take root in the present age.

As a consequence, the pastoral church must be a non-judgmental church. There is no sin which Jesus mentions more frequently in the gospels than the sin of judgmentalism. For it is a sin so easy for all of us in our humanity to fall into. It is a mystery of the human soul why men and women feel better about themselves when they can point to the faults of others. It is a mystery, but also a reality, both for our humanity and the life of the church. Thus we must imitate Christ, who consistently spoke of the standards of the gospel without compromise, but did not reject men and women for their inability to live the fullness of that gospel. We must banish judgmentalism from the life of the church, and replace it with the constantly affirming love of Jesus Christ. And in doing so, we will become the truly inclusive community that the church, both by its charter and its intrinsic mission, was always called to be.

The final foundation for the pastoral theology that Pope Francis is delineating for the life of the church is the assertion that the church’s pastoral identity and action must be rooted in the life situations that men and women actually experience in the world today.

It is impossible to build up a pastoral church without explicitly investigating the signs of the times and then integrating the results of that investigation into the very core of the church’s mission today.

Thus it is essential that pastoral theology be explicitly and thoroughly inductive in its method.

The church of Latin America has contributed enormously to this dimension of the church’s life by its adoption of the see-judge-act methodology as a pathway for understanding every element of the life and work of the church in the world.

This method is rooted in the world as it is, rather than in the world as it is imagined to be.

The see-judge-act methodology begins theological reflection with the reality that confronts us, then ponders the implications of that reality for faith and the gospel, and finally promotes action in concert with those implications.

As the final document of the Latin American bishops at Aparecida states “this method enables us to combine successfully a faithful perspective for viewing reality, incorporating criteria from faith and reason for discerning and appraising it critically, and accordingly acting as missionary disciples of Jesus Christ.”

It is this commitment to inductive method informed by faith and theological reflection that was at the heart of Amoris Laetitia and Laudato Si’.

The lived reality of men and women and children and families was the starting point for the church’s reflection on marriage and family life, not merely the application point for pre-made theological reflections.

Similarly, the degradation of the planet which undermines so many elements of human dignity and the future of the earth itself, was the starting point for a Catholic theology of the environment, not merely an insertion point for the rich Catholic tradition on creation.

It is through this inductive pathway that the whole of the Catholic community becomes in an active sense architects of pastoral theology.  For the sphere of pastoral theology is the very encounter of God with men and women in their ordinary lives, their dreams and hopes, their sufferings and wounds, their joys and accomplishments.

Pastoral theology seeks to recapitulate and replicate the saving encounter of Jesus Christ with the saint and the sinner that resides in every human soul, touching every dimension of human existence in the real world.

We are privileged to be living in the pastoral moment of the post-conciliar church. We are gifted with the image of the church as a field hospital, focused precisely on the specific wounds that weigh down the men and women of our age, as well as ourselves.

We are called in our identity as priests of the church and disciples of Jesus Christ to form an ecclesial community patterned on the pastoral action of our Lord and savior when he walked on our earth. And we are called always, always to root our mission of healing and conversion in the lived experience of those whom we love as our sisters and brothers in Christ.

It is frequently said by those who have opposed elements of the pastoral mission of Pope Francis that doctrine cannot be superseded by the pastoral. It is equally important to recognize that the pastoral cannot be eclipsed by doctrine.

For the pastoral ministry of Jesus Christ stands at the heart of any balanced understanding of the church that we are called to be. And pastoral authenticity is as important as philosophical authenticity or authenticity in law in contouring the life of the church to the charter which our Lord himself has given to us.

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