What does “pastoral” even mean anymore?

It is evident from the Scriptures that pastoral ministry, like prophetic ministry, is not based only on the feelings and sensibilities of the flock. It is based firstly on fidelity to the will of the Chief Shepherd.

(Image: Pawan Sharma/Unsplash.com)

One of the foremost signs of the degradation of a culture is the degradation of its language. Language is the color of thought, and enables us to communicate as best we can the things we see, conceive, and imagine. Words and their meanings can change and adapt over time, but a certain stability or continuity is always needed so that language can convey what it must between peoples and generations. When that stability or continuity is upended by highly motivated actors, the resultant chaos can result in an inability of people to conceptualize and grasp a problem, so that they cannot name the problem, because that is antecedent to solving it. The exorcists tell us that knowing the name of a demon gives a certain amount of leverage over it.

A study of heresiology shows us how a basic knowledge of Christian heresies can be a strong aid in helping us to know what true orthodoxy is. These are just some examples of how, truly, it pays in almost every case to “know your enemy”; or at the very least, to be able to step into the conceptual world of another person or frame of mind.

Many writers and cultural commentators in the past twenty years have lamented the fact that the so-called ‘free world’ is increasingly engaged in a project of dis-education. It is a fact that the average eighth-grader today, when tested, does not demonstrate the same capacities of a child in the same grade nearly fifty years ago. Literacy seems to have peaked in much of the Western world, if we take that to mean the brute capacity to interpret the phonographic symbols we call letters and words.

Yet reading and listening comprehension appears to be increasingly rare. It is interesting for me to hear parents, even very liberal ones, complain about the indoctrination occurring in government (public) schools—not so much because they disagree with transgenderism and critical race theory, but more so because, in an already jam-packed schedule, they would rather have their children learning skills applicable to the real-world. Or, at the very least, skills that will make them truly “well-educated”. To them, it seems like a quasi-luxury to have their children learning about sex and drugs when they could be learning about math and science.

Indoctrination, even when you agree with it, can never substitute for true education, because indoctrination does not expand the mind or the heart of the learner. True knowledge, when shared, naturally opens up new questions and new approaches. This is the root of the richness of human thought on everything from biology to theology. Indoctrination, in contrast, is the equivalent of highly processed food: super-palatable but barely satiating to the inquisitive. And just as the body gets fat and indolent on a diet heavy in such foods, so too does the mind get ‘fat’ and lazy when it simply repeats the ideology of its handlers.

Some critics may say that the Church, in her catechetical mission, is no better. Of course, I highly disagree, for two reasons. First, dogma and doctrine for us are both launching points and guard rails. They serve to give us sure and secure points, based on reason and revelation, from which we may grow to understand the mystery of God and his work in time. They also serve to keep us from making serious errors, which imperil our souls. Second, when the Church makes dogmatic formulations in response to heresies, these almost always tell us, in the strictest sense, what may not be said of God. They do not tell us the full extent of what may be said of God. They do not so much exist to constrain the soul or mind as to redirect them toward their proper end. Words have meanings which help us to understand these ends better; or at least, they should.

In recent days, indeed, in the past half-century, perhaps no other word or concept has been so abused by the Church as that of the term “pastoral”. “Pastoral” seems to me to be one of those words which, like “racism” or “diversity”, has taken on a life of its own. Because this word has “gone rogue”, I believe it to be somewhat dangerous, because like the adjective doubleplusgood in an Orwellian dystopia it is vague enough to be shaped by bad actors, yet good sounding enough to conceal their true intentions.

Let’s start with the basic etymology, though. “Pastoral” in the most fundamental sense means that which concerns the pastor, which in Latin simply means “shepherd”. Nothing more, nothing less. That which is “pastoral” is ultimately that which pertains to the work of guiding sheep or other livestock. Therefore, that which pertains to the flourishing of the flock seems to be the chief goal of ‘the pastoral’. So, chiefly, for a shepherd to do the work of “shepherding” means to provide for the legitimate needs of the flock and to protect it from danger.

This basic consideration I believe should form all future discussion on the topic. Moving from the basic etymology to Church affairs, this must mean that the chief duty of those who claim to be pastors ought to be to provide principally for the spiritual needs of their flock, and to protect them from dangers to their salvation. I would modify this just slightly to say that we should not understand this duty as solely spiritual, but principally spiritual. This is because both of the reality of humans as embodied beings, and also the high value Our Lord places on the Corporal Works of Mercy. Therefore, it seems reasonable to say that the pastoral pertains principally to the spiritual order, all the while not excluding consideration given to the temporal welfare of the flock.

“Pastoral” is a word which has come under considerable abuse in the past eight years, roughly contemporaneous with the election of Pope Francis. Clergy constantly have been admonished to have the “smell of the sheep” and we have been urged toward “accompaniment” and “presence” to our people. All these things, much like the word “pastoral”, seem good on the outside, but they conceal a paradigm shift in what these actually mean in practice. As with most things, it’s important to observe not what people say when they use these words, but more so to observe what they do.

In the past eight years, virtually all talk of “pastoral” ministry has been used in regard to sinners and sin. We must accompany and be present to adulterers, people who are active homosexuals, and those who worship idols, yet claim that these rites and lifestyles are somehow compatible with Christian worship and identity. Certainly Our Lord was ‘present’ to all these kinds of people, as were the his Apostles. Yet at the same time, there was a definite limit, as is reflected in both the Gospels and the Epistles of the New Testament, as to how far this accompaniment could go. St. Paul could, with equal fervor, appeal with such tenderness to his spiritual charges as “little children”, even comparing his pain at their sinfulness to that of a mother in labor (Gal 4:19-20), all the while calling them “stupid” (Gal 3:1) at another point for their falling into error.

It is evident from the Scriptures that pastoral ministry, like prophetic ministry, is not based only on the feelings and sensibilities of the flock. It is based firstly on fidelity to the will of the Chief Shepherd.

The abuses of the word “pastoral”, especially after the promulgation of Traditionis Custodes, once again have taken center stage, as bishops worldwide attempt to grapple with the meaning of the motu proprio. On a local level, “pastoral” seems to be for many that which causes the most amount of public contentment, most of the time. In other words, if the parish or institution is generally happy with its leadership, and the leadership is not of such a nature as to provoke strongly worded letters and complaints, one’s “pastoral ministry” is generally considered a success.

Granted, priests, like anyone else, can be gruff and insensitive in the accomplishment of even worthy objectives. Conversely, even the most empathetic and sensitive priest may struggle to get certain malcontents (and I believe it is true, if we were to do a study, that 1% of complainers generate 90% of complaints) on board with good initiatives. Most perplexing above all are those priests who are criticized for not being “pastoral” by their bishops when they are doing precisely what the Church says she wants. For just one example, the Church says in her official documents that Latin and Gregorian Chant should be preserved, and the latter should even have “pride of place” in liturgy. Yet when certain priests do just that, that is often considered “unpastoral”.

This leads to a question: “unpastoral” according to whom? I recall once hearing a priest of the Byzantine Rite complain, “When I was ordained, I was eager to shepherd the sheep of Christ. As I have grown older, I have discovered I am increasingly shepherding the goats.” Lest the reference be lost, the priest was referring to the “goats” who are the damned in the Last Judgment, as depicted by Christ in Matthew 25. It seems to me that there is a question few people are asking: to whom, exactly, are we supposed to be pastoral? If this were the world of agriculture and cattle, it seems reasonable to assume that we should direct sheep in a different way than we would, say, raise chickens. A goat, if it could complain, certainly would if it was guided in a way more proper to a sheep.

“Pastoral”, then, when applied to ministry, is vague and ineffectual if it does not take into account the persons shepherded, and the goal to which they are led.

Another angle to look at here is not just what is valued in regard to pastoral, but also what is prioritized. It seems that initiatives which are charitable or collectivistic tend to receive the adjective “pastoral” to describe them more so than the cultic or the individual. For example, to work with migrants, refugees, and immigrants in many circles seems to be a form of ministry and work which merits to be called “pastoral. It this case, it seems that “pastoral” is synonymous with “compassionate”.

I too have had this experience in my own ministry. If one opens the parish to immigrants and migrants, one may be called “pastoral”, and perhaps rightly so. But if one asks the inconvenient question whether these migrants know the Hail Mary or the Our Father, such considerations seem somehow insensitive.

It reminds me of Dorothy Day’s famous quip: “When I give the poor food, they call me a Saint; when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.” I would say something similar: when I give an immigrant food, I am called pastoral. When I ask why they have no faith, I am called a xenophobe. Why is that? I know that, as a member of the clergy, my first and foremost duty is the spiritual welfare of those in my charge. Why is it that helping to obtain someone’s green card is more pastoral than making sure people are in valid, successful sacramental marriages?

A further problem we face in using the word “pastoral” is the concomitant and related abuse of the word “service”. All too often, it seems that we view service not as self-gift, but as product output. The “pastoral” pastor in most of the Church seems to be the person who keeps the external ‘machinery’ of the Church humming: a full bank account, timely diocesan assessments, and able administration of buildings. The pastor should be the one who manages all temporal affairs while providing for the people’s ‘needs’, precisely as they view them.

This approach is especially dangerous in tandem with the rise of “moralistic-therapeutic Deism“. Religion, in this conception, has two purposes: to make people get along, and to make people feel good. When it infects the clergy, it invariably corrupts the word “pastoral”. “Pastoral” work involves being as nice as possible while trying to make people be nice to each other. It also means making people feel good about themselves, most of the time. Returning to the point on self-gift, a priest and his people can be intensely narcissistic and self-serving in their “service”, in how they placate and soothe each other in order to get what they want out of the other. The priest wants a good collection, the people want a person who tells them how wonderful they are. Even the jargon of “servant-leadership”, so in vogue in the 1980s (and having an unfortunate reemergence at present) struggles to define what exactly it means, just like the word “pastoral”. This is, in summary, precisely what happens when we substitute means for ends, and ends for means.

To resolve this problem and to put flesh and bone on what “pastoral” means, our first objective should be to study closely the lives and words of Christs, the Apostles, and the Prophets.

Secondly, we must be clear about what exactly we truly want to achieve as a Church. In other words, who are we? Are we the bride of Christ, the ark of salvation, or are we a social club?

Thirdly, we must return to theological ontology. How do we steer our collective behavior more closely to resemble our common theological commitments, rather than our common convenience? We may find that at the root of the abuse of the word “pastoral” is that insidious vice we call acedia. That is to say, acedia slips in when we have lost touch with the roots of our faith and that charity which compels us to do that which Christ commanded, and to find joy therein. As the spiritual masters have often observed, it is common in people who are immersed in the vice of acedia to be extremely attentive to process, but extremely negligent in purpose. Acedia has a nasty way of appearing to be busy outside, while being dead inside.

The same is true in the abuse of the word “pastoral”. What amounts to the pastoral can be exteriorly very good, or at least neutral. But it can become deranged when we forget what it is for. Until we remember why we are pastoral, the ‘how’ of being pastoral will continue to elude us.

(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared, in slightly different form, on the Scutum et Lorica site.)

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About Aquae Regiae 11 Articles
Aquae Regiae is the Nom de plume of Fr. Michael, a Catholic priest in the United States. He is the founder and main editor of Scutum et Lorica. He has two earned Masters Degrees in Divinity and Arts.


  1. Pope St. John Paul II had something not “vague and ineffectual” to say about what is pastoral and about the rights of the faithful (Veritatis Splendor, 1993):

    “…A separation, or even an opposition, is thus established [by conceding existential “exceptions” to what is “intrinsically evil by the moral law”] in some cases between the teaching of the precept, which is valid in general, and the norm of the individual conscience, which would in fact make the final decision about what is good and what is evil. On this basis, an attempt is made to legitimize so-called “pastoral” solutions contrary to the teaching of the Magisterium, and to justify a “creative” hermeneutics according to which the moral conscience is in no way obliged, in every case, by a particular negative precept [as in ‘thou shalt not’]” (n. 56).

    ”…the Church’s Pastors have the duty to act in conformity with their apostolic mission, insisting that THE RIGHT OF THE FAITHFUL [italics] to receive Catholic doctrine in its purity and integrity must always be respected” (n. 113).

    • YES! When we receive anything “pastoral” from our Bishops, my heart shudders.

      I liked your comment, Andrew; in fact I agreed to the point of re-reading Aquae Regiae’s article , to check the only thing with which you (and I) disagreed:’that the abuse of the term “pastoral’ mainly dates back only eight years’. I was surprised to find that, at the beginning of a previous paragraph, I overlooked the following, written by the author: ‘In recent days, indeed, in the past half-century, perhaps no other word or concept has been so abused by the Church as that of the term “pastoral”‘. My confusion stemmed from my eagerness to finish reading the article.

      I found that as I read Aquae Regiae’s excellent article my heart was ‘on fire’ (as with the disciples from Emmaus, listening to Jesus); and it was confirmation that I was reading the words of a true Shepherd.

      Thank you for your comment Andrew. It prompted me to think and re-read this wonderful article.

  2. This is a great article; I disagree only with the assertion that the abuse of the term “pastoral” mainly dates back only eight years. It has suffered serious abuse for 20-30 years. I’ve always hated when people coo about a priest or bishop– “He’s sooooo pastoral.” Meaning: He’s such a nice, inoffensive guy and won’t ever challenge anyone, except perhaps a conservative.

  3. The term “synod,” Francis regularly points out, means “walking together.”
    And this can only be accomplished by walking in humility before the Inviolate Word (Will) of God as given within the Gospels.
    So, in our brokenness, these words it could be said are applicable today

    “Son of man, you dwell in the midst of a rebellious house, who have eyes to see, but see not, who have ears to hear, but hear not, for they are a rebellious house”

    At this moment in time what the church needs is renewal rather than reform so
    “In the desert prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”

    As in make an honest road (Way) and serve the Truth in humility and in doing so
    give hope to all of mankind. Then “Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain”

    This can only come about through knowing the Holy Spirit for then we shall manifest humble hearts before our Father in heaven and each other as
    “Then the glory of the Lord shall be
    revealed, and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

    And recently said “Paint a picture according to the vision you see and with the inscription: “Jesus, I Trust in Thee. I desire that this picture be venerated first in your chapel and then throughout the whole world”

    Throughout history, God has made His Will know to mankind through his Saints, Spiritual leaders, and Prophets. And at crucial times His Will has been revealed in a way that cannot be misunderstood by His people. The Divine Mercy Image that the Church displays to the laity today is an affront to God, instigated by nationalistic pride and those who would pacify the powerful, it has nothing to do with Trust. As The true Divine Mercy Image is an Image of Broken Man. If this image were to be accepted in humility, it would renew the face of the church, by manifesting holy people who hold themselves accountable before the inviolate Word (Will) of God, to each other and mankind.

    So make ‘straight His ‘Way’ commencing in Rome by recapturing (Staging) the original ceremony by displaying the present self-serving blasphemous Divine Mercy Image(s) an image of Clericalism, then remove (Destroy) it publicly and re-place it with the true image an Image of Broken Man and in humility venerate it in a symbolic way that cannot be misunderstood by mankind, then re-enact this action with the help of the bishops throughout the whole Church (World).

    If this were to happen a Transfiguration would occur within the Church at this moment in time that would resurrect the true face of Jesus Christ our King a face that reflects Truth and humility before all those she is called to serve in Love/Truth and Compassion (The Way the Truth and the life). From this base one of humility before God, the Church can then proceed to tackle many of her ongoing problems/dilemmas.

    The true DM Image One of Broken Man is a missionary call instigated by our Lord Himself to the whole Church, to evangelize through the action of Humility, a disarming action in its honesty, that embrace all in its simplicity, as we encounter and welcome our brothers and sisters who stand and seek direction at the crossroads (Difficulties) of life.

    At Pentecost, The Spirit of God inspires the Apostles and sends them on their mission; while all the Baptized are asked to do the same. As those who receive the Holy Spirit are also empowered to give witness to Jesus Christ in the world, while He the Holy Spirit sanctifies our hearts in creating a dwelling place for Himself (The Divine Presence) to reside within us.

    Please consider continuing via the given link below

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  4. Part of the problem is the “sea change” that took place regarding the perception of the role of organized religion with the advent of the “New Things” of socialism and modernism two hundred years ago. Socialism was, in fact, first known as “the New Christianity” or “the Democratic Religion” and was propounded by the New Christian prophet Henri de Saint-Simon in his 1825 book, “Le Nouveau Christianisme.”

    Saint-Simon’s fundamental principle was that the whole of society should be dedicated to promoting material well-being, especially that of the poor. The world should be put under the control of an Industrial Hierarchy that would rule the world as a materialist theocracy, with humanity itself turned into God.

    Émile Durkheim took up this idea with his concept of solidarism — corrected later by Fr. Heinrich Pesch — and created what Fulton Sheen called a “religion without God” in which “God” is a divinized society and religion, as Joseph Schumpeter noted, devolves into the group’s worship of itself.

    The Saint-Simonians founded the Church of Saint-Simon (Blessed Frederick Ozanam’s first published work was a pamphlet harshly critiquing them), appointed tow co-popes, and eventually split into an Occult faction and a purely socialist faction. The term socialism was, in fact, coined by a Saint-Simonian, Pierre Leroux.

    The ideas infiltrated the mainline churches, with the Catholic Church being a special target. This called forth the first social encyclical, Mirari Vos, in 1832, which spoke of “novelties.” Two years later, in the second social encyclical, Pope Gregory XVI referred to the ideas as “rerum novarum,” New Things, which Pope Leo XIII reiterated in 1891, in his encyclical On the Condition of the Workers which the socialists and modernists immediately reinterpreted as a new socialist manifesto.

    Since then, Catholic social teaching has effectively been held hostage by trying to reconcile orthodox theology and natural law theory with modernism and socialism. Confusion over whether being “pastoral” means caring for material or spiritual needs is merely the fruit of the New Things. The idea that each has its proper place is today a completely alien idea to most people.

  5. “Language is the color of thought…”

    Beautiful. Strikes me as the most profound thing I’ve read on the subject in some time (apart from Scripture and Magisterium). Certainly struck me as hard as Prof. Yost’s remark that “language structures thought” in Anthro 101.

    Thank you.

  6. When in doubt turn to the Apostle. Paul earned that glorious title forever by being all things to all men to save at least some, although never anything other than the living reflection of Christ. A man who surrendered himself to Christ that Christ might live in him. Reductionist in the finest sense. At times in search of a solution, here being pastoral – analysis borrowing from Freud can be terminable and interminable. Terminable means sufficient [not always easily perceived] knowledge and faith which Aquae Regiae, Fr Michael well knows. Gruffness I was accused of in NM by Latinos admirable candor by New Yorkers for exact same demeanor. My lesson was that we can’t analyze to death rather learn from Paul, extremely intelligent and knowledgeable of the faith expressed in letters, and extremely passionate. Passion is what’s lost in overly intellectualizing. Garden variety heretics, the kind that live in rectories are usually bland. Heresiology is worth a study for sake of fine tuning our orthodoxy. Those heretics, like Luther, Zwingli were usually fiery. But it’s the garden variety that are causing immense damage simply by being non committal and insufferably bland leading the sheep to wander away. Paul was the fiery type when fire was wanted and the sensitive lover when impassioned for the welfare of his sheep. Insofar as fire the anomaly of Savonarola, burned a heretic, shortly after declared Servant of God. Fire is the sign at Pentecost of the Spirit, the exact fire so desperately needed today.

  7. Awesome article! To me,this is the greatest crisis of our times; the greatest threat to Christianity and the salvation of souls.So many glory their “pastoral” ministry and the praises they receive for their “pastoral” care, while doing very little for salvation of souls.Along these lines “love of neighbor” have taken on a new meaning.For example, feeding the poor have become more necessary for salvation than Confession and the Holy Eucharist.Taking the Covid Vaccine is considered a great sign of our love of neighbor while scandalizing them with idol worship,disgusting Nativity displays,attacking those faithful to the Gospel and the Commandments,ignoring, even praising those who publicly deny/reject the Doctrines of CHRIST, inviting them to receive Holy Communion.And the list goes on.Though these evils have been within the Church from its beginning,one cannot deny that it has escalated,and even become an accepted norm,from the beginning of this current Pontificate. It would take a Divine Intervention to undo the grave harm this Pontificate have inflicted upon the Catholic Church and Her children.

  8. I agree with Andrew Saucci. Just want to say that it goes back 50 years ago at least. I will soon be 90 years old. Back in the late 60″s and into the 70’s I was publicly defending the laity in the Worcester, MA. diocese against dissenting bishops, the catholic paper, the whole diocesan office and two catholic colleges teaching dissent against defined church teaching. The sheep were being fed poison food. And I have lived to see it repeated again over the past years to this day.

  9. My initial response to the title – I have no idea. All I can say is that as soon as I hear the word “pastoral”, I’m gone.

  10. I went to visit my parents in Germany in the mid eighties. Pastoral, was the word of the year and came with the slogan: We are Church! (wir sind Kirche). At the present the Church in Germany is about to collapse. We are church, sounds nice, get active. Pastoral should mean to lead people to the lofty heights of holy Truth of Christ. But it was perverted to: the people decide, the people needs first, make the people happy. Unfortunately, many pastors fell into this diabolical trap, tend to the people’s needs, don’t say anything that disturbs them lest they stay away. God help us

  11. When God formed man from the dust of the earth, he breathed the breath of life into him, and man became a living soul in the likeness of God. When Adam sinned, he severely ruined his paradise and his unique relationship with God. However, God did not abandon man. He made his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and the rain to fall upon the just and the unjust, and his plants still provided us with food. Besides that, he gave us Moses and the prophets to help keep us on the straight and narrow path. Our Creator was our infinitely great Pastor who cared about our physical and spiritual needs – the whole human soul.
    Then there was the plan to redeem us, to welcome us into his heavenly home with sin being forgiven and remembered no more. Jesus, the Son of God, implemented this plan and made those gifts available to us. In his teachings, Jesus revisited the teachings of old and gave the meaning with his beautiful parables. But our Lord also, out of love for people, healed the sick, fed the hungry, made blind people see, spoke with Samaritans, and ate with sinners and prostitutes. Jesus cared for our souls, even the lost ones.
    We believe that God made us to know him, to love him, and to serve him in that order. In today’s modern world that does not really know God the idea of serving God and our neighbours has been shunned. It is all about satisfying our wants and pleasures. They are too proud to serve others. But, it is precisely in this environment, that the Church needs to show love. It is only in showing the love that comes from our Lord, will the self-servers begin to appreciate God. I believe this may be what Pope Francis has in mind.

    • Then why does he so frequently express his ego-enhancing self-serving hatred for so many Catholics who actually act upon the corporal works of mercy, calling them, at the least pharisaic, and at other times using curse words not suitable for use in a family publication? Why does Francis ignore the repercussions of such things as the broken first families left behind when his “pastoralism” seeks to make appear magnanimous by endorsing a man abandoning his family to run away with another woman to start another family?

  12. In our current times I think the word “Pastoral” has a “permissive” connotation when it comes to people within the church who are living lives outside the bounds of Catholic teaching. A proper understanding should be moving the sinner towards repentance and normalizing their relationship with the church. I’m not sure how successful the “Pastors” are these days in affecting that goal.

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