Monday, 19 August 2013

It's only pastoral ...

Shepherd boy a19029819

Pope Francis has unquestionably introduced a dramatic change in what the pope does or does not do. He travelled back from the conclave on the bus with the cardinals who elected him, he asked the crowd in St. Peter’s square to bless him during his first moments as pope, the next day he went to pay his bill in the hotel where he stayed before the conclave, he phoned his newsagent back in Buenos Aires to cancel his newspaper subscription, he skipped a concert organized in his honor, he has been inviting vatican staff to join him for daily morning mass, he has had summaries and excerpts from his impromptu homilies published shortly after he delivers them and he even gave an almost hour and a half long interview in which he answered unscripted questions. None of this is news and one could begin to take it for granted, since Francis has been behaving in this immediate, open way from the get go and with complete consistency. Nonetheless, I would like to dwell on his behavior for a moment to talk about a particularly persistent throw-away label that keeps being applied to Francis’ words, in an attempt to contain, limit and at least implicitly make light of them and suggest that they ought to be taken with a pinch of salt.

That label is “pastoral.”

You’ll come across statements like: “up until now he has only shown the pastoral and – some would concede – populist aspects of his personality” (Andrea Gagliarducci), “The homilies are pastoral in nature, often using homespun language to make his points.” (John L. Allen Jr.), “[Pope Francis’ first,] pastoral-sounding message was another indication of how different a style [he] is approaching his papacy” (Natalie Baker) or “Pope Francis seems to be taking a more pastoral and conversational tone” (Bob Shine).

And the implication is invariably that Francis’ words are a bit of hand-waving, populist simplification for the great unwashed and that what he really means cannot be inferred from them and has to wait for a proper, systematically-theological, logically-rigorous1 and magisterially-triplicated exposition, delivered under precisely prescribed conditions. His “pastoral” words are just a bit of fun for the punters, but nothing that serious minds need concern themselves about. Their “meat” will appear in encyclical form in due course.

To be honest, I find this tremendously misguided and divorced from the Christian faith, which is nothing other than an attempt to imitate, relate to and share with others the person of Jesus. The above attitudes are akin to their owners turning up at the Sermon on the Mount and knowingly whispering (whilst winking and nudging [they do deserve credit for multitasking]) to one of its listeners (let’s say a cheese-maker, to pick a random occupation): “Don’t worry about all that meekness or righteousness jazz … What the fella really means is more like Heidegger’s “in-der-Welt-sein” and it only applies to you in substance and not form anyway.” I can also see them tutting at Jesus’ simile about the eye of the needle (“Since several angels can be in the same place, this hardly represents any constraint at all.”), or his speaking about virgins running out of oil (“He doesn’t mean oil per se, but any of a plurality of incendiary fuels, including, but not limited to, oil.”)

All of Jesus’ teaching was pastoral, a lot of it was private and none of it was peer-reviewed, double-checked or nihil-obstat-ed. If anything, the pope’s pastoral teaching is of the highest importance, with later systematized, structured and cross-referenced expositions being of subordinate nature. Just like no theologian would dream of pooh-poohing the Gospel and preferring even the most sublime systematic theology to it, so the spontaneous, impromptu ad-libbing of Pope Francis too should receive preferential status over other forms of expressing the faith.

1 Please, don’t get me wrong: I have nothing whatsoever against the systematically-theological and logically-rigorous. On the contrary, you could say that I consider it the worst form of thought, except for all others.