Pope Francis and UU Pastoral Ministry

"The church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently."  Pope Francis.

What is "the church's pastoral ministry?"

Among we Unitarian Universalists, "pastoral" usually means "personal."  The care, and support, and  comfort that a minister offers to an individual, or a family.

But I don't think that Francis meant that "personal" ministry in the statement above.  Catholics use the word "pastoral" differently, and to describe a whole kind of ministry that we Unitarian Universalists are not quite conscious of.

"Pastoral" is, of course, connected to shepherding and sheep.  Catholics see their pastoral ministry as guiding their flock, shepherding their people, toward a deeper and more lived faith.  The church is trying to lead people in a process of changing.

We come closest to describing this work as "spiritual development", but that phrase often describes a self-directed process taken by individuals.

Yet, Unitarian Universalism is trying to change people, lead them somewhere.  We are not explicit about this because we carry an anti-authoritarian gene that makes talking about where we are trying to lead people feel so creepy, so Catholic, if you will.

So what comes through is a "transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently."  

There is nothing between the abstract principle (doctrine?) and the directive.

For example: "We believe that all life is in an interconnected web of existence and therefore, you need to recycle."  The pastoral ministry of the church (in the Catholic sense) is in the missing step between the principle and the directive: why and how this is my movement toward right relationship with the cosmos, myself, my fellow creatures and God to take this care with what I no longer need.

Francis said in the same discussion:

"The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow."

I am engaging in speculative translation now, trying to imagine what this would mean for us who have a different relationship to what Francis calls "the Gospel".

It is the word "proposal" that grabs me. Note that he does not say "The Gospel is simple, profound, radiant" and that from this Gospel the moral consequences flow. He is talking about the act of proposing the Gospel to a person.

In our corner, we are everyday engaged in the work of proposing our understandings to people. Right now, our understandings are most commonly summarized in the 7 principles, but we propose them to people and invite them into covenant with us in their spirit.

Here is where the Catholic style pastoral ministry comes in: How can we make what lies at the heart of these principles a living thing in you? How do we grow together into that? How do we deepen in faith?

Our default, unexamined pastoral ministry is still belief and doctrine based. We say, in effect, "We believe these things (inherent worth, interconnected web etc.") and if you believe them, then join us. And if you believe them, then live them, or else you fall afoul of that walk/talk dichotomy."

Stated baldly, like that, it is repellent. We know that there is some process of growth and change between the doctrine and the directive, but we do not have a good common language to describe that process: I would say that we are weak on our pastoral ministry, our leadership of a process of personal change.

And so, many experience liberal religion and Unitarian Universalism as moralistic and judgmental about a certain set of  behaviors and a particular set of words.  And yet, that is not our intention, and not how we deal with each other, in fact.  I think it is because we conceive our pastoral ministry as only personal and individual, and not as the primary ministry of the church to the people as a whole.  As a result, it is hidden and opaque.

Perhaps, Pope Francis has some wisdom for us as well.


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