Like a Tree Planted by Rivers of Water

Theology’s Tradition of Dogmatic Teaching and Pastoral Preaching


With issues that arise in any given culture for the Church, the theologian cannot separate the tradition of dogmatic teaching from pastoral mission.

The first Psalm calls the man, who takes his delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night, blessed. We usually don’t think of taking delight in law. In fact, the word “law” carries for many people connotations of restriction or oppression. Many a modern man would sooner take delight in self-perceived autonomy, perhaps meditating on his personal freedom, day and night. When the Church imposes laws, her members may receive them with an unfortunate distaste. Whether they come from inside the Church, or outside, the litany of ideologically charged opinions and attacks on various teachings of the Church can exhaust a pastor in treating these more sensitive issues with his flock. Examples come easy: from life issues (abortion, stem cell research, IVF, or euthanasia) to sexual ethics (contraception, marriage, and divorce) to basic Christian customs and habits (prayer, fasting, almsgiving, chastity, or temperance) will all be carried to the priest in droves over his lifetime. Because of the nature of these topics, and how they affect so many, the pastor (and subsequently the Church herself) can be accused of being intolerant, out of touch with the times, or even uncompassionate. We are told that we expect too much of the members of Christ’s body, and are imposing burdens impossible to bear. If the Church is the bride of Christ, should she not be the place that welcomes sinners just as he did? How then, can the people of God be expected to be like this “blessed” man who delights in law?

As the faithful witness to the various handlings of circumstances by so many pastors and leaders in the Church, there can arise a feeling that there must be some sort of dichotomy in which approach is pastoral, and which is doctrinal. Whatever is doctrinal is seen as excessively conservative, and at odds with progress, existing only to restrict freedom; whereas, the pastoral position is one of compromise, which allows for almost any behavior for the sake of the individual’s expression of self. This unfortunate paradox in the minds of so many causes a divided focus between dogma and love; between the “teaching Church” and the “pastoral Church;” between theology and mission.

Of course, the Church’s tradition has never seen it this way and, certainly, cannot permit this disparaging distinction. The teaching Church is the pastoral Church. The Church that cares for souls is the same Church that corrects error, and defends objective truth revealed by God. The Creed is clear that the Church is one, so there may never be some split in the Church based on its diverse functions. In his recent address to the Second International Congress of Theology at the Catholic University of Argentina, Pope Francis underscored the significance in the understanding that there is never a separation between theology and pastoral ministry. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI—who likened tradition to a “living river” which relies on its ever-present origins, and cannot be counted as simply a collection of “dead things”—Pope Francis noted that the Gospel is most alive in the currents of tradition that arise in every culture throughout the world.

Because of the immense diversity in the world, a people in one country will reflect on life in a different manner than those in another; and the people of the same land may, 100 years later, see humanity in a unique way according to their time. Consequentially, the focal point of pastoral sensitivity, and the need to teach on a certain subject in one country, may not resonate as equally important to a country on the other side of the world. Far from implying a certain relativizing of the truth, or a moral subjectivism in which the truth may be determined by culture and time period, the pope calls the theologian to answer the questions that are relevant in his own time and place. This notion of a living river lends an image of a constantly refreshing source which gathers nutrients from the past, satisfies what is immediate, and continues its motion forward. The Holy Father warns also against two extremes: a fundamentalist view—which canonizes everything just because it is in the past, and is skeptical of anything new; and, a modernist take—which ignores the richness of the Church’s heritage only to seek whatever has, as he puts it, a “new flavor.”

These two errors are most commonly seen in how many people view what is “doctrinal” versus what is “pastoral.” The distinction noted above diminishes both features of the Church, as it reduces her tradition to nothing but a picture of power-hungry men, wagging their fingers at everyone, while being solely concerned with shouting moral demands, and expecting an immediate and obedient response. Likewise, the pastoral aspect of the Church is reduced to a limp guise of empathy which never asks for change, and effectively gives no reason for anyone to live as a Christian. The expected lifestyle isn’t proper to anything but what is relativized by the culture that surrounds it.

This modern take creates a parallel view of the Church’s history. It tends to imagine a transition in the method of the Church’s functions from teaching dogma to “pastoral care.” Contrary to this, Pope Francis states that the Church Fathers, themselves, were truly great theologians particularly because they were truly great pastors. For them, explaining and defending the truth, condemning heresies, and caring for souls is all a part of the same ministry. Indeed, it still is! If one understands living the faith as indistinct from living one’s life as a Catholic, then the ordained minister who cares primarily for  peoples’ spiritual needs is doing exactly that: keeping them safe in the truth.

In order to close any gap between what theology has to offer, and how pastoral work is to be accomplished, Pope Francis outlines three points on the makeup of the trustworthy theologian, which helps us understand the synthesis between dogma and pastoral work:

The theologian is, first of all, a child of his people.
Theologians were not created in test tubes, or grown in a laboratory. They are products of a certain age and culture that have unique expressions, in language and customs, that are inescapable and are to be respected. Though the theologian has received much from the Church in a broad sense, he can never forget that he is always connected by his roots to a certain time and place. Those he teaches are not beneath him, as he himself was influenced by the culture and people from whom he first learned the faith.

The theologian is a believer.
Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6). One who refuses to acknowledge that it is through, and for, Christ that he lives, cannot be considered a true theologian. The Catholic Church understands theology to be a divine science that has revealed truth as its formal object. In coming to it, the believer finds union with God, and union with others who have also discovered the beauty of revealed truth. This union is necessary since the truth is the sum total of revelation springing from the one incarnate Word of God. The theologian, then, as a believing son of the Church, does not aspire to anything less than to serve and protect those to whom he offers his efforts. His research and findings can never be contrary to what has already been given by the Holy Spirit to the Church. If his work takes him in a direction contrary to the Magisterium, he must listen and obey the corrections given as an obedient son, and rethink where and when he started to stray. Again, theology is not an ideological weapon used for dissent and disunity, but a search for a better understanding of the faith that the people of God strive to live by, in hopes of gaining ultimate happiness with their Creator.

The theologian is a prophet.
If the second point sounds as if the Holy Father is trying deflate the egos of his theologians, the language used in this third point is nothing, save for empowering. He evokes striking imagery as he calls on the theologian to awaken the “sleepy consciences” of the people. The current climate of society is one that prizes individual consciences over all else. The theologian, then, constantly replenished by this river of tradition, can be attentive to what spoils a society’s mindset, denounce it, and call on people to rediscover what has been lost in the ultimate search for liberating truth.

Pope Francis makes a final point that ought never to be forgotten: the theologian cannot do his work without prayer. If his work is to be fruitful, praying and intellectual work on the given topics are never done without the aid of the other. Just as pastoral work cannot be borne out successfully without prayer and work, so the efforts of theology will not be carried out authentically without prayer and study. A theologian who remains in true prayer cannot harbor anything but good intentions, and accomplishes all he does as a faithful son of the Church.

One cannot give a hard and fast rule for settling every point of contention having to do with the Church’s pastoral arm. The Church is alive in so many cultures that to try and give a blanket solution to a problem is impossible. Tradition holds true, then, for theological instruction and pastoral ministry. While the two may have their own proper roles and functions at certain points, there is too much overlap, generally speaking, to create a chasm by a wayward juxtaposition which diminishes their true senses. To care for souls is to keep them in truth. The truth may demand changes in lifestyle, or modes of thinking, but the Church never makes such claims unless she is motivated by charity and genuine concern for her own. The teaching office of the Church does not “make up” truth, but recognizes that which is revealed by God himself. The pastor, drawing from the living river of tradition, helps his flock to see that dogmatic teaching is a part of his pastoral ministry, not in opposition to it. By learning to trustingly take delight in the law of the Lord, the member of Christ’s flock will rightly be like the tree planted near rivers of water, whose leaves shall not whither.

Brother John Thomas Fisher, OP About Brother John Thomas Fisher, OP

Br. John Thomas Fisher, OP, is from Easley, South Carolina, and joined the Order of Preachers in 2013. He is currently studying for the priesthood at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.


  1. Hello Brother Fisher. This dichotomy of “doctrinal” vs. “pastoral,” of which you (with Pope Francis) write, to resolve and bring into a living and fruitful union, brings to mind for me another dichotomy of significance in our culture today: that of “masculine” vs. “feminine.” The two models seem to fit together well, as you noted: “doctrinal” – “power-hungry men” seeking to judge everyone; “pastoral” – “a limp guise of empathy which never asks for change.” Thus the “doctrinal” caricature can be portrayed by the excessively objective “man of the house”; and the “pastoral” part played by the “single mother,” raising children with no father around, focused in an excessively subjective way on the needs (as she perceives them) of her children.

    This model, projected into parishes and dioceses, reveals much that is painfully pathological, suggesting import from today’s surrounding secular culture. Boys without fathers, having no idea what it means to be a man; girls without fathers, led toward “independence” from men – from necessity – and sadly seeking sometimes to simulate masculinity themselves, in themselves, and in their lives in society. Thus the distortions of modern “feminism”: manly women, emasculated effeminate men, and newly defined “families” of the gender combinations of your choice.

    God created man and woman with differences ordered to reciprocal complementarity – and either one in isolation is “not good,” and can lead to aberration. I wonder, then, in applying this train of thought to your article: How does the Church come into a reciprocal complementarity of doctrinal and pastoral concerns, which can reflect the masculine and the feminine perspectives in the Church – the paternal and the maternal, the Petrine and the Marian. Indeed, these principles, in their respective perfections, point the way to authentic union in Christ, of doctrinal and pastoral concerns, in parishes.

    The Church is sent to “make disciples” – and such fecundity requires, even as the natural analogy indicates, authentic union of the two dimensions discussed. It takes a husband and a wife, a father and a mother, in a loving home! It takes objective Truth and Love, communicated subjectively in a truly loving way, to raise a child – to make a disciple. The prudence needed to bring, and to protect, such a human and healthy parish is a precious virtue. And it is necessary in order to conceive, to nurture and to grow disciples. Such virtue requires supernatural grace – humbly sought and received, courageously and faithfully lived by local pastors and leaders.