Here’s Elizabeth Scalia telling a story of a person who really did feel she did not have a place in the Catholic Church. Those who criticize “the pastoral approach” need to be reminded of the genuine cases of those who are excluded by what they perceive as an overly rigid, self righteous and condemning Catholic Church. Some of the attitudes against “the pastoral approach” do remind me of the Pharisees who tut tutted that Jesus “eats with tax collectors and sinners.” Wasn’t Our Lord accused of being soft on sin and taking the rules and regulations of his religion with a pinch of salt? Weren’t those who accused him of this the very ones who plotted his death? I’m therefore wary of being too down on “the pastoral approach” lest we fall into the other trap of putting rules and regulations before the compassion and forgiveness that is truly needed.
The fact of the matter is, a risk is required in redemption. The rules and dogmas must be upheld, but they must also be broken. But they must be broken from the inside out. In other words, the rules and dogmas must be lived out in a dynamic way that reveals their limitations not because they’re wrong, but because they are not big enough. This is what Jesus said when he told his disciples they must be “more righteous” than the rule abiding Pharisees. We need the rules and the dogma, but we also need the pastoral approach. The two balance each other. The rules guide the pastoral approach. They provide the map for the journey.
OK. Put it another way: the rules and the dogma are the trellis. The pastoral love for the flock is the vine. A trellis is strict structure. It is dead wood constructed for a purpose. The vine is a fruitful, life giving organism, but without the trellis the vine just grows along the ground never giving fruit and being little more than a weed. With the trellis (and with the pruning of discipline) the vine grows up to the sun and bears a rich harvest. Of course the trellis is necessary, and we need vintners who spend their time building and maintaining the trellis. But we also need the “workers in the vineyard” who focus on the crop and on the vine because at the end of the day the purpose of the whole enterprise is the harvesting of grapes and the production of good red wine.
The risk of the pastoral approach is that it will be misunderstood. People will think we are saying, “Neither to I condemn you” and forgetting to say “go and sin no more”. People will assume we are condoning sin. Sinners will think we are condoning sin. This is the risk, but it is a risk worth taking because Jesus himself took that risk. We must pursue the pastoral approach with great compassion and vigor while never forgetting the rules and regulations which guide our work.
What’s the way forward? The way forward is to continue doing what (in my experience) most Catholics do anyway: we roll up our sleeves and plunge into the mess. We all live in the middle of the mess. Each one of us struggles to reconcile the high calling of the gospel and the impossible demands of our faith with the realities of life. We all struggle with sin and imperfection in our own lives. We all struggle with family members, friends and parishioners who are not Catholic or who reject aspects of Catholic life. How do we love them and accept them without sacrificing the principles of our faith? How do we uphold our beliefs while offering acceptance and love to those who reject our beliefs?
The mess we are in is the mess in which the prodigal finds himself. It’s the mess of the pig pen. It’s the mess of the human condition, and it is there, the story tells us, that the prodigal “comes to himself”.
It is there that he finds the only answer: “I will arise and go to my Father.”