What is Pastoral Theology?

What is Pastoral Theology?

Pastoral theology is the continued reflection of the Church on the unchanging truth of doctrine in view of its being lived in faith, hope, and charity, and in view of giving direction to all of the pastoral activity of the Church. Pastoral theology studies doctrine in order to uncover its significance for the human person and build up the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

Vatican II Inspires Our Understanding of Pastoral Theology 

Vatican IIThe pastoral nature of the Second Vatican Council inspires our understanding of pastoral theology. More than anything else, pastoral theology is characterized by the inseparability of doctrine and pastoral action, as expressed by Cardinal Ratzinger in his commentary on Vatican II:

This Council is pastoral in its fusion of truth and love, 'doctrine' and pastoral solicitude; it wished to reach beyond the dichotomy between pragmatism and doctrinalism, back to the biblical unity in which practice and doctrine are one, a unity grounded in Christ.

We believe that the tendency to oppose doctrine and effective love is due to an incomplete theological methodology, and to a misconception of the human person. By its very nature theology should always be pastoral in orientation, since each generation must appropriate the Church's faith for itself, asking of the faith both the age-old questions and the new questions unique to itself. Theology can never be content simply to repeat the formulas of the past, but must discover their meaning and relevance for the present day in which the Church lives.

Pastoral Theology Connects Doctrine to Modern Man

As we understand it, the focus of pastoral theology is precisely the "living relevance" of doctrine. In the words of Yves Congar, pastoral theology is not lessMass than doctrinal or systematic theology, but rather, "it is doctrinal in a way that is not content to conceptualize, define, deduce and anathematize. The pastoral approach expresses saving truth in a way which connects with modern man, assumes his difficulties and responds to his questions, precisely in the very expression of doctrine." Pope John Paul II reflected that the pastoral nature of theology enables the Church, through her teachers, "to proclaim the Gospel message through the cultural modes of their age and to direct pastoral action according to an authentic theological vision." Created in God's image, people of all times and places are made for the truth, which is why truth itself is pastoral.

Pastoral Theology Emphasizes the Universal Call to Holiness 

The pastoral orientation of Vatican II takes as its focus the universal call to holiness (Lumen gentium, V). Pope John Paul II also noted that all pastoral initiatives must be set in relation to holiness. Therefore pastoral theology studies holiness as both the goal and the source of all pastoral activity. On the one hand, everything in the Church is ordered to the holiness of Christ's members, and on the hand, it is holy men and women cooperating with the Holy Spirit who are best equipped to engage in a full, conscious, and active participation in the life of the Church.


"Holiness is the hidden source and infallible measure of [the Church's] apostolic activity and missionary zeal." 

-Pope John Paul II, Christifidelis Laici, 17