Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Mechanical Religion vs. the Cure of Souls

Rogier van der Weyden, The Seven Sacraments
Altarpiece, ca. 1455
I am reading, with delight and interest, Oliver Sack's biography, "On the Move." I recommend it for a number of reasons, but for me the most important insight is how being a good physician is not a mechanical application of medicines and therapies to a set of symptoms and a diagnosis, but rather involves a personal contact, listening to people's stories, and personal relationship over a long period of time.  In an age where medicine becomes increasingly bureaucratic and impersonal, and where medical education is more a more like technical training, it serves as a useful reminder that medicine is an art, intrinsic to which is the unique relation between persons.  Every patient is different, and needs to be treated as such, and as a person, with whom the physician is in relation.

In ministry there is a very similar problem to the problem of a mechanical approach in medicine.  In my experience it takes two forms, which often coexist.  The first is religious legalism.  This is the idea that a set of laws, regulations, or ideological principles are the backbone of religion, and must be applied without regards to persons.  I can cite two good examples of this.  

The first is the annulment process in the Roman Catholic Church.  I know of a case where a couple were civilly divorced.  One of the spouses filed for annulment, and the first official contact that the other spouse had from the Roman Catholic Church was a written notification of this petition, with a very invasive questionnaire.  No attempt was made herein to provide pastoral care to the respondent, and when the spouse asked for help with pastoral aspects of the case, he was told that this was purely a matter of canon law, and received no help or referral for pastoral aid in dealing with the broken relationship or the consequences on the offspring.  

The second case comes from a liberal congregation, that was noted for its "inclusivity" and "openness to all."  A visitor to that congregation, not really desiring political discourse, nonetheless found himself at a church event where the conversation turned rather sharply to politics.  When he was so foolish as to make a rather mild criticism of the democratic party's stance on an issue, it was made clear to him that his departure from strict political orthodoxy made him decidedly unwelcome.

The other way in which a "mechanical" approach to church life manifests itself is in attempts to grow or maintain congregations using consumerist or salesmanship tactics, usually masquerading under the name "evangelism."  This is so all-pervasive in our church life, that I think we have ceased to notice.  Evangelism comes to mean getting more warm bodies in pews, and getting them to give so as to support the institution.  The tools employed to do this are from marketing psychology.  They also treat people, not as persons, but as things to be manipulated for our own purposes.  Needless to say, many people sooner or realize that they have been had, and it may turn them off to church for life.

In contrast to these mechanical approaches to religion, the concept in pastoralia that corresponds to the concept of medicine as a personal relation is the idea of "cura animarum" the "cure" or "care of souls." The cure of souls sees priests as a spiritual physicians.  Like physicians, priests have medicines and therapies, and like those of physicians these have no automatic or mechanical application.  Good pastors must know their sheep, and listen to their stories.  They have principles, they have possible diagnoses, but there is no one size fits all, and preconceived categories do ever entirely match the reality—each case is unique.

Pastoralia, pastoral theology and its application, is an art.  It requires, not training, but education, and a "liberal" theological education at that, namely one that teaches priests to think theologically for themselves.  Further, it requires of priests self knowledge and spirituality maturity, especially in prayer.  The better priests learn to attend to God in prayer, the better they can attend to, listen to, their parishioners.

There is in pastoral ministry no substitute for the personal relation between priest and parishioner.  Each case is different, each story unique.  Thus, priests who attempt to impose their preconceived idea of how the case ought to look, whether on a parish or on individual parishioners, are doing their flocks a disservice. Since pastoral care is a a personal relation, the most important thing a priest can bring is a genuine love for his flock, that is genuine charity and desire for their welfare.

Further, as in physical medicine, the priest is not in charge.  It is God who is the healer, and he sets the terms.  After charity, comes humility, the humility to realize that I am not God, and that if I desire to lead others to God, frequently I must get myself, my own ego, my own projects, my own definition of priestly success, out of the way.

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