The Turn Toward the Pastoral


from Neil

One of Todd’s posts below is titled, “The Good Ol’ Days: Then or Now … or perhaps both?” The balancing of “pre-Vatican II” with “post-Vatican II” goes on and on with little sign of resolution. Perhaps we should look a bit more closely at just what we mean by “Vatican II,” and then we might be able to start evaluating the last forty years in a more useful way.

The Franciscan historian Joseph Chinnici has suggested that our “guiding metaphor” should be the “turn toward the pastoral.” When Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962, he announced, “The substance of the ancient teaching of the depositum fidei is one thing; the manner in which it is presented is another. This latter must be taken into great consideration; if necessary, with patience. Everything must be measured in the form and proportion of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.”

John XXIII’s “pastoral” distinction between “the substance of the ancient teaching of the depositum fidei” and the “manner in which it is presented “wasn’t meant to erase Church history, even as it did signal a clear move away from “severity” and “condemnation.” In a discourse from November 4, 1962, John XXIII even appealed to that most characteristic of Tridentine figures, St Carlo Borromeo: “As a great example, S. Carlo carries for us a precious encouragement. It is natural that the novelties of time and circumstances suggest various forms and attitudes to the exterior transmission and reclothing of doctrine itself: but the living and always pure substance of evangelical and apostolic truth in perfect conformity with the teaching of Holy Church often permits here with advantage the application of ‘ars una: specie mille.’ Particularly when it is a question of the bonum animarum. …”

Well, how did this “turn toward the pastoral” take shape in the United States? We can look to a few classic statements by two key bishops – Joseph Bernardin and John Quinn. In 1977, a year troubled by controversies over sexuality and the 1976 Call to Action conference, Archbishop Bernardin, then president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, addressed the US Bishops during their May meeting on “Pastoral Sensitivity & Fidelity to the Gospel.” He noted that Dei Verbum clearly said that the bishops were to be guarantors of the faith, given “the task of authentically interpreting the word of God.” But Dei Verbum also said, “Holding fast to this deposit, the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the apostles, in the common life, in their breaking of the bread, and in prayers, so that in holding to, practicing, and professing the heritage of the faith, there results on the part of the bishops and faithful a remarkable common effort.” The bishops, then, were not to place themselves “in a position of arrogant isolation” from the faithful. Bernardin continued:

“It is our task, then, in union with our people to listen, to learn, to discern, to judge. We must not become alarmed or overly defensive when what we hear is not in accord with our own thinking or conviction. At times we must encourage and affirm their efforts, at times we must correct, at other times we may have to withhold judgment until we see the situation more clearly. Always we must go about our ministry with patience, with love, with compassion, with a genuine respect for those whom we serve, with a willingness to forgive and to do everything possible to heal.”

“Ars una: specie mille” indeed. In December of that year, Archbishop Bernardin addressed the fall meeting of the US Bishops on “The Most Important Task of a Bishop,” namely, to proclaim Jesus Christ. Bernardin said that “one specific difficulty we bishops face at present is that we often seem locked in a defensive posture.” Bernardin’s remedy for this episcopal isolation was, first of all, “direct, personal contact with all groups and individuals: those to whom we feel instinctively well disposed and attracted – those who are friendly to us, willing to listen to us and learn from us – and also those whom we may find alienated and hostile. As pastors we cannot cut ourselves off from any who retain some affiliation, however attenuated, with the church, some willingness to hear Christ’s message and enter into a relationship with Him.” To be sure, Bernardin insisted that the whole Gospel be proclaimed, but in a pastoral way – “we must be sensitive to the needs and concerns of people as they perceive them.”

Archbishop John Quinn, then presidence of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke at the international Synod of Bishops in 1980 about the most difficult issue of all: contraception. Again, we see a recourse to the “pastoral.” Quinn spoke out of “acceptance of the teaching of the Church,” but was quite aware that many did not share his acceptance. Quinn counseled resolving the problem by Vatican initiation of a “formal dialogue with Catholic theologians” that would proceed with reverence and honesty, and be conducted according to the Ignatian principle, “It should be presupposed that every good Christian will be ready to give a good meaning to what he finds doubtful in the person he is speaking with rather than to condemn him.” Quinn’s super-dialogue would begin with a “listening phase,” work to a “meeting of minds” on contraception, and ultimately result in a “means of ongoing communication of a direct nature between theologians and the Holy See.” Quinn also suggested that future encyclicals should be, well more pastoral – “as comprehensible as the daily newspapers are to the general readership.” Pope John XXIII’s “pastoral” had become, in the American accents of Archbishops Bernardin and Quinn, a call to listen, to learn, to discern, and to judge. John XXIII had thought of Borromeo; Quinn would appeal to St Ignatius Loyola and the Benedictine tradition.

So, when you try to balance “pre-Vatican II” with “post-Vatican II,” first ask yourself: Does Bernardin’s outline of the bishop’s pastoral mission and Quinn’s description of Ignatian dialogue characterize our episcopacy today at all? Did the “turn toward the pastoral” ever really happen in America? And, if your answer is negative, is that the real root of our problems?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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