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The Term “Pastoral” as a Talisman Word

One of the expressions we hear most in recent years is “pastoral.” “Pastoral reasons” are used to justify some initiatives in the ecclesial sphere, as we have seen in Fiducia supplicans. “Pastoral motifs” are also behind many changes in liturgy and sacred music. It almost seems that pastoral care has become a sort of passepartout to be able to let anything pass. Moreover, one of the most important centers for liturgical renewal, the French Centre de Pastorale Liturgique, founded in 1943, included this word in its name, thus indicating a theme for action.

It is indeed true that pastoral care is an important element in ecclesial action. It is the way in which dogma and the consequent theology are translated into concrete actions in favor of the faithful. It is the way that doctrine is translated for the world. If we reflect on this, we have a clear understanding of how doctrine (dogma, Scripture, theology, tradition…) precedes pastoral care and informs it. That is, pastoral care is the concrete development of doctrinal elements. In the liturgy the “pastoral” that has been applied in many points has denied the true doctrine, seeking an uncritical encounter with the world which has not produced any positive results, but rather has made the liturgy unrecognizable.

I often say that it is precisely those who care about Vatican II and its authentic spirit who should protest forcefully against the way in which the liturgy has been disfigured, yet these protests always seem too feeble to me. What we have witnessed and what we still witness is not the good use of the pastoral but its perversion. It is using the word “pastoral” as a “talisman word” as Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira observed. The word is utilized to justify every possible thing.

Having said this let us look at what is said in Fiducia Supplicans 12:

One must also avoid the risk of reducing the meaning of blessings to this point of view alone [i.e. conformity to God’s law], for it would lead us to expect the same moral conditions for a simple blessing that are called for in the reception of the sacraments. Such a risk requires that we broaden this perspective further. Indeed, there is the danger that a pastoral gesture that is so beloved and widespread will be subjected to too many moral prerequisites, which, under the claim of control, could overshadow the unconditional power of God’s love that forms the basis for the gesture of blessing.

But what is meant by all this? That a “pastoral gesture” can be separated from obedience to God’s law? It is obvious that the pastoral concern of the Church must be directed towards everyone so that no one feels excluded, but this is for the purpose of their own conversion, without making the sinner believe that the sin in which he finds himself is somehow approved by the authority of the Church. The best mercy is certainly justice, it is knowing what is right and what is not, and this applies to me (a sinner) as to all those who find themselves fighting with sin. Pastoral care should be a way to escape from sin, not to leave the sinner inside it.

In this way (and this seems even more terrible to me), a dichotomy seems to be created between pastoral care and doctrine, that is, pastoral care can bless what doctrine rejects. As said above, we have seen this at work in the liturgy and sacred music, where under the pretext of “pastoral reasons” many things have been denied that were actually requested in the documents of the Council, for example, the use of Latin, Gregorian chant, the organ, and much more.

This ambiguity (and I say this precisely in a pastoral sense), is not good for the faithful who are led to believe that what is actually wrong is right. As mentioned, it is one thing to pay attention to human suffering and misery of all kinds, but it is another thing to fail in one’s role of announcing the Truth to man about himself and his relationship with God.

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