Last January in this space, I predicted that 2020 would be the Year of the Domestic Church. At the time, I had no idea how prescient that would be. Since then, the pandemic has forced the Church to reexamine the role of the family in Catholic life.
This year, I’m going to tempt fate and make another prediction. In light of the Biden presidency, I believe that 2021 will be a year of unprecedented pastoral challenges. The Washington Post recently published an article titled, “Biden could redefine what it means to be a Catholic in good standing. Catholics are divided on whether that is a good thing.” Answering this question will be the quintessential pastoral challenge.
But will this really be such a challenge for our leaders? Surely this is squarely in their sphere of competence? Unfortunately not. A recent poll by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown found that almost 70% of priests feel poorly prepared to deal with the pastoral challenges they encounter. If the average pastor doesn’t feel qualified to manage the pastoral challenges of parish life, just imagine how ill-equipped our leadership is to untangle the pastoral Gordian Knot a Biden presidency presents.
The pastoral challenges of the coming year include much more than the question, “How do you solve a problem like Joe Biden?” They extend to challenges with the lived faith of rank-and-file Catholics. For instance, pastors at all levels have largely dealt with the widespread dissent on the Church’s teachings regarding personal morality by saying, “Everyone knows what the Church teaches” and trusting that if they just keep encouraging Catholics to worship together, the Holy Spirit will work out the rest. Never mind that this approach is akin to parents saying, “We’ve told our kid not to wander into traffic” and then turning their backs as their child toddles off toward the street.
If this wishful attempt at pastoral nonengagement ever worked, it won’t anymore. With Biden in office, the personal has become political. If our leaders remain silent in the face of “First Catholic” Biden’s radical pro-abortion agenda, his attacks against religious liberty and conscience protections, his active undermining of Church teachings on marriage and gender, and his completely perverse understanding of what constitutes health care — for example, birth control, gender-reassignment surgery, abortion, etc. — the laity will hear the message loud and clear that as long as they pray and pay, we really don’t need to obey.
The Church will completely abandon its ability to effectively call anyone to conversion on any issue. After all, if actively promoting the murder of infants as a social good and universal human right doesn’t warrant a cogent pastoral response, why should immigration or the death penalty? If piety and personal conscience are really the only things that matter, what’s the use of Church teaching on any issue — conservative or progressive? If all these issues are part of a seamless garment of life issues, either it all matters or none of it does. Without decisive pastoral engagement of the issues raised by a Biden presidency, in four years, Catholicism will be little more than a personal affectation.
All of this is why, in the coming months, I would like to use this space to explore what it means to be authentically pastoral. I have some experience in this area. I am a certified trainer in pastoral intervention by the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education. I am the founder of CatholicCounselors.com, a Catholic tele-mental health practice providing over 14,000 hours of pastoral counseling services each year to Catholic couples, families and individuals around the world. I was the chair of a graduate program in pastoral studies. I have written over 20 popular books integrating Catholic theology with counseling psychology, and I host a daily, call-in, Catholic advice program that is syndicated across North America on EWTN and SiriusXM 130. Wrestling with the questions I’ve posed here is my life’s work.
“Being pastoral” is not just a synonym for “being nice” or “making accommodations.” It’s much more complicated. To be authentically pastoral means having the skills to facilitate the psychological, emotional, relational and spiritual integration of the person. Being pastoral means being capable of compassionately engaging human brokenness through the lens of what God, through his Church, calls us to be. It requires a deep prayer life, a clear head and a warm heart. Any pastoral intervention that neglects any of these dimensions is both defective and potentially damaging to the person, the person’s social context or even the wider Church.
There is more involved in being pastoral than relaxing doctrine or going easy on people, and there’s also more to it than shouting rules at people and calling it a day. I look forward to exploring these issues with you in the coming months. In the meantime, join me in praying for a truly pastoral new year.
Dr. Greg Popcak is the founder and director of CatholicCounselors.com.