Monday, February 6, 2012

The Pastoral Fallacy

Fifth Ordinary Sunday Year B

A parishioner came up to me after mass. She was referring to some catecheses that I had done during the mass in preparation for changes that will take place in the celebration of sacramentals. “We are like monkeys”, she remarked without offering any explanation. I was perturbed and when pressed for an explanation, she said, “Well, we parishioners are like monkeys. When one priest tells us to do this, we do it. When another priest tells us to do something else, we do it too. And now you are telling us to do it this way, we’ll just obey and do it as you please. Monkey see, monkey do!”

It was not difficult to understand and appreciate the frustration she was experiencing. Lay people are sometimes confused by the myriad of interpretations and styles of applying pastoral policies, liturgical practices and catecheses that come from different well-intentioned priests who felt that their actions had the peoples’ best interests in mind. Ill-equipped with the necessary information, most lay persons find themselves at loss and sometimes even feel victimised at what appears to be the whims and fancies of their pastors. Much easier to just obey without much reflection – ‘monkey see, monkey do.’

I must confess that as a priest I too have been guilty of moving with the flow, in practising unthinking imitation of the current trend or a mainstream norm. During the formative years of my priestly ministry, both in the seminary and in my first years as a priest, I received many valuable advices from senior and more seasoned priests. These values continue to be guiding beacons in my own pastoral ministry. However, I’ve also received other forms of advice, which seemed reasonable at the material time, but now after deeper reflection, I have discovered the somewhat fallacious character of their argumentation.

One such piece of advice is that we can dispense with the rigours of the law on the grounds of ‘pastoral reasons.’ No one, however, actually explained what it meant to be ‘pastoral.’ It obviously implied that we had the people’s best interest and welfare in mind. Now, there is nothing wrong with acting pastorally. That’s simply our vocation and ministry as priests. We are ‘pastors’ or ‘shepherds’ of souls. Therefore it would be incumbent on us to act pastorally with deep concern for the welfare of our flock.

However, over the years I have gradually discovered that the so called ‘pastoral approach’ has less to do with the pastoral needs of the people and more to do with my own self-preservation. ‘Pastoral reasons’ became the catch-all principle that absolved me from all responsibility and culpability when it came to bending or even breaking the rules. Eating meat of Friday because we were presented with a more delicious meat selection on the menu became permissible on the grounds of pastoral reasons. Cutting down the rigours of liturgical rubrics in terms of gestures, use of shorter Eucharistic text on Sundays, introducing innovations that fitted in with personal preferences became justifiable on the grounds of pastoral reasons. Deception and disobedience were legitimised by pastoral reasons. As to what were these ‘pastoral reasons’ about, there was often little depth in identifying the real grounds. At the end of the day, the pastoral fallacy had finally become my excuse for justifying laziness and sloppiness and for promoting bad liturgical and pastoral practices.

Ultimately, the argument in favour of the people’s need is just a thin veil for protecting one’s own need – a need to be popular, a need for a an easy comfortable life, a need to be recognised for one’s own individuality.

Jesus resisted and exposed the pastoral fallacy in today’s gospel. Many people sought him out because he was healing the sick and delivering many from the power of the devil. Jesus was doing wonderful work and helping so many people. He would have certainly been tempted to continue doing this good work with the excuse that he was doing it out of compassion for these people. But was this the will of God? Was this his mission? We often think that temptation comes in the form of being attracted to do something which is bad. This is not always the case. According to St Ignatius of Loyola, the master of spiritual discernment, the devil tempts bad people with bad things but he also tempts good people with good things. Jesus could have been tempted to continue his works of healing and attending to the needs of the crowd, but this would only be an excuse to become more popular. Staying to meet the needs of the people would only be an excuse for meeting his own need for recognition and love. But he understood that his mission lay elsewhere, even though this may proof to be unpopular to his disciples and to the crowds.

Today, the readings provide us with three important criteria for making a decision.

The first criterion is that the will of God must always be our starting point of reference. It is not enough to do what is good, even if it is for the good of the other. The starting point cannot just be the needs of the other; the starting point cannot just be our assessment of what is convenient or expedient; the starting point cannot just be based on the opinions of the masses, even if it may be that of the majority. Ultimately, we must always choose to do what God wants of us. This criterion points to God’s mission and vocation for us. Sometimes, doing what God wants of us can be unpopular and may even go against our personal likes and interests.

The second criterion is that of prayer. Note that Jesus went off into the hills to pray early in the morning. How can we possibly know the will of God unless we are also persons rooted in prayer? Prayer is the life-giving link between God and his people. Prayer provides us with a moral compass and direction for life. Prayer ensures that we are not lost in the mess of activism nor allow ourselves to be distracted and tempted by the competing voices of the world and self. Prayer helps us to purify our motives and intentions so that we may not deceive ourselves into believing that we are acting in the interests of others, whereas it is our own interests which are being advanced.

The last criterion is the salvation of souls. Today, very little is often said about salvation, what more salvation of souls. Too often, the Christian message has been reduced to some ‘feel good’ gospel which provides a mixture of pop psychology and spirituality for our earthly lives. Heaven seems to be foregone conclusion whereas hell has been relegated to a myth. But, if one were to recall the answer to the second question contained in the old Penny Catechism, one will be reminded that salvation is man’s ultimate purpose – we are created by God “to know Him, love Him and serve Him and be with Him in Paradise forever.” The last canon of the Code of Canon Law, canon 1752 has often been cited as the ‘pastoral canon’ which allows dispensing with any of the requirements, rules, restrictions, prohibitions and responsibilities laid out in the Code. Any simple reading of canon 1752 will tell you that this canon has no intention of doing this. If one were to peruse this canon, one may be surprised to see that the word ‘pastoral’ or ‘pastoral reasons’ does not appear at all. Among other things, the canon does say this: that “the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes.’ St. Paul in today’s second reading affirms this truth by telling his readers that he deliberately chose to be “all things to all men” so that “some may be saved.” It is not enough to choose to help people who are in need. We may just be providing a temporary solution. It is not enough that we are able to provide some human solution to poverty, because we will always have the poor in a society which remains unconverted. Ultimately, the objective of salvation must come to play in every important decision that we make. Salvation must be the ultimate criteria for us offering to help those in need, the sick, the poor, the despondent and the lost. No form of human altruism can be an adequate substitute for salvation.
Very often we are tempted to forget this important mission of ours – to preach the gospel of salvation and give glory to God in all matters. We are more concerned with what others think of us – so we do the things that make them like us. We are more concerned with what makes us happy – even if that happiness is only temporary – whether it is in the form of riches, popularity, power or convenience. If our life purpose is based on these factors rather than on the will of God, we will soon find ourselves disillusioned and tired.

We are certainly more superior than simians and not just because we have far greater intelligence. We are created with purpose for a purpose – to do the will of God, to discover him in prayer and work for our salvation and the salvation of others. That’s certainly more than ‘monkey see, monkey do.’

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