instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Fielding questions

A lot of thought is being given these days to the Christian's particular duty as steward of creation. I think we would do well to also give some thought to the Christian's particular duty as steward of language. It is, after all chiefly through language that the revelation of God's Word is preserved and transmitted -- which, as you know, is the purpose of the Church. If we fail to pass on to the next generation the words with which to preach the Word, the next generation will not be Christian.

That's the puffed-up introduction to my real point: We should not allow the language the Church uses to preach the Gospel to be debased by those, including those within the Church, who want to use that language to preach something other than the Gospel.

Today I'm thinking in particular of the word "pastoral," which some Catholics seem to use to mean something akin to "gentlemanly" as Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman understood it:
Hence it is that it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain.... The true gentleman carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast;—all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make everyone at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome.
That doesn't sound so bad, and indeed, "It is well to be a gentleman," but the gentleman's civil virtues "are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness."

A fortiori, they are no guarantee for prudent leadership of those souls entrusted to a man by the Church. There are times, I submit, when a good pastor does inflict pain, just as there are times when a good doctor inflicts pain. There are times when a jar or a jolt in the mind of those with whom he is cast is precisely what is needed. People shouldn't feel at ease in their sin or at home in their error. The Gospel by its nature is irritating and wearisome to those unwilling to fully embrace it.

Yet we have Catholics who insist that irritated laity is proof of a priest or bishop who is insufficiently pastoral. Well, that's not quite true. Only if the right sort of laity are irritated about the right sort of things is it proof of an unpastoral shepherd. If the wrong sort of laity are irritated, it's good on yer, Excellency!

Such politicization of the language the Church uses to describe her shepherds is harmful to her mission. It is literally scandalous, as it can cause others in the Church to tune out all considerations of the "pastoral" nature of hierarchical offices. Catholics who use "pastoral" to mean "compliant with the wishes of Us" are training others that it doesn't mean "working for the good of those in one's care." And they won't be very happy, as recent events demonstrate, when they hear those others say, "What are you complaining about? He's perfectly compliant with the wishes of Us!"

If the word "pastoral" is debased to the point that it no longer means pastoral, then how can Catholics talk about the need for pastoral priests and bishops?