Why Doctrine and Pastoral Practice are Indivisible
by James Kalb
There has been a great deal of talk in the Church lately about a supposed opposition between rules and reality, theology and life, doctrine and pastoral considerations. Some of the talk has gone to extremes, suggesting that rules, doctrine, and organized thought matter little in comparison with the pastoral needs of the immediate situation.
Such talk, like other extreme positions, can sometimes be useful to make a point, but made habitual the approach would destroy order and rationality by substituting the Deed for the Word. Within the Church it would lead to a combination of willfulness and tyranny, since those in authority and those on the spot could do whatever seemed good to them at the moment, while in relation to the world at large it would deprive the Church of her specific mission, which has to do with things that rise above immediate goals, and reduce her to a humanitarian NGO with unusual rituals and a quirky way of talking about things.
The Church’s pastoral approach and ways of thinking should of course be based on reality, but what reality? Are we speaking of the reality of people’s situations as they interpret them, or perhaps of secular trends or sociological studies? Or are we rather speaking of the realities with which the Church has always been most concerned, for example the reality of what men and women are, of what marriage is, and ultimately of the Most Real Being?
With respect to marriage, for example, it seems that the key point is not rules proposed by Pharisaical doctors of the law, but the reality marriage brings into being, the physical, social, and spiritual union of man and woman, which is the basis of the family and therefore as real, permanent, and undeniable as the relation between parent and child or brother and sister. To detract from that reality would not only promote falsehood but attack the position and dignity of ordinary people in their family connections. For the rulers of the Church to do so would be a betrayal that would help the wealthy and powerful reduce the people to an aggregate of production and consumption units, with no connections among themselves that need be respected. Why would that be pastoral?
Still, talk that sometimes suggests practical antinomianism, like most talk among experienced people in responsible positions, points to genuine issues. There is always a gap between the formal teachings of the Church and the actual or at least practical beliefs of her members, including many hierarchs. That gap seems unusually wide today, but even with the best will it could not simply be abolished, since there is always a tension between theory and practice.
It’s an awkward tension to deal with, in part because it’s so resistant to clear understanding. As someone said, in theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is. That means theory can’t see the issue, so it can’t comment on it, but practice can’t explain it either, because practice acts rather than explains.
The awkwardness becomes all the greater in a religious setting. Religion must be practical, because it must transform life, but it can’t be merely pragmatic, because it transforms it by reference to realities that go beyond what is visible. It tells us that this-worldly ways of grasping reality fall short, and we must supplement them with faith, “the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not.” Doctrine articulates faith, and makes it usable as a path to truth, so the Church must take it very seriously even in the face of difficulties. As Paul said, she must preach the Word in all patience—reprove, entreat, rebuke—even out of season.
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