Fiducia Supplicans Pastoral theology, care with no soul (7)

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Homeward-bound in the ark of tradition (7): Care with no soul @PaterElias #FilioQueInEnglish

How the last two instructions of the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith (DDF) create genuine feelings of unease @PaterElias #FilioQueInEnglish 

No 7 in the series of Homeward-bound in the ark of tradition About the influence of modernity on the Magisterium.

In ‘FilioQue in English, the catholic trademark’ Father Elias Leyds c.s.j. tries to distinguish in both written and spoken word the truth from the false, the Word that has become flesh, always in search for Jesus Christ, the way, the truth and the life. “As a priest, a foot soldier in the Lord’s trenches, I should not comment but explain, because Clarity is the only munition of the gospel of life”.   


January 10th 2023, Oisterwijk

In the previous article we have examined an instance of deconstruction in the teachings of the current magisterium. Instead of allowing one particular kind of blessing, the mere meaning of the term ‘blessing’ is obliterated by a self-contradicting definition. When we examine the context in which this takes place, we cannot miss another term that over the last decennia has been omnipresent in the discourse of the Magisterium: ‘pastoral’. It is often used as a file for removing edges in traditional Church teaching that are deemed too sharp for modern man – or rather, for which modern man is considered to be either too daft or too sensitive. Pastoral care is the modern version of the term cura animarum or ‘care of souls’. Yet, at the same time the term ‘soul’ is glaringly absent, not only from today’s teachings of the Magisterium, but also from contemporary biblical and liturgical translations. One may wonder: is the term pastoral yet another product of deconstruction, an empty notion making up for a loss of meaning?

Deconstruction annihilates the possibility of exchanging or sharing meaning. For any form of communication, leading to an indestructible communion that makes sense, which in turn bears a lasting fruit, words must have meaning. The simple respect for meaning, as the indispensable condition for undertaking anything at all, is not just a matter of convention for the civilized and the cultivated. It is an inalienable talent given to every human soul, created for reality. Only self-deceit, consummated in unwitting and ludicrous vanity, can bury this talent. Where the human mind is lost in its own delusions, it loses its immunity against the virus of deconstruction, which eventually casts the soul into the shadows of a spiritual death or a lugubrious virtual reality. There, the body is still alive, but as an exile or a prison. The soul desires death, but only in a meaningless way. Dark desire can find a getaway in artistic expressions of narcissism, but stops short of imposing itself on the body. In fantasy and appearances, death is cherished, while in reality the soul flees from it.

Deconstruction not only destroys meaning, but also annihilates the ability to construct. Objective meaning is the primordial element of communication. It allows us to connect with reality, as it is given, as it can be changed or as it needs to be changed. Only when words have meaning beyond contradicting something else, we can begin to add something meaningful to reality. Then, we can build more than what we can imagine or devise. And we can give from what we have. When we respect reality, we also can’t fail to discover that all things are incomplete, including we ourselves. And we are called to complete all things, again including ourselves, on behalf of an agent that is beyond ourselves and beyond all things. Dedicated to a higher cause, our life can produce more than just transitory fruits that can be consumed to give a moment of gratification. We can transcend our own limits by a lasting fruitfulness that consummates self-giving love and finalizes the goodness of our mere existence. This represents the deepest yearning of the soul. And while deconstruction jeopardizes this yearning, pastoral care of souls should recover, heal and nurture it. That’s why today’s oblivion or concealment of the term ‘soul’ in discourses classified as pastoral, as well as in liturgical translations, is extremely troubling. Today’s pastoral mainstream seems to be an Amazon River where piranhas of deconstruction are thriving.

The Catholic Church in the Netherlands has had a singular experience with this. In the years 1966 to 1970 a so-called Pastoral Council was held for the Dutch Church Province in an enormous recently constructed minor seminary at Noordwijkerhout. The preposterous use of the term council, traditionally reserved for dogma-defining gatherings of the entire Church, may have raised a few eyebrows, or even smiles. But it turned out to be ludicrous. In the council two groups met and shared their euphoria of renewed respectability. Catholic theologians, whose craft had never procured them much of a prestigious standing in the rather nominalistic cultural environment, had returned from the Second Vatican Council with fresh ideas and a new drive to update the Church. They found eager interlocutors amongst emancipated Catholic opinionizers (often former priests), intellectuals and politicians, whose echelon had emerged from their second-class catholic citizenship in a mainly protestant society one or two generations earlier. They were all too happy being taken seriously and taking each other seriously.

More than anybody, the main organizer, father Walter Goddijn OFM, was taking himself seriously. His success earned him the epithet ‘Stalin of Noordwijkerhout’, which actually characterized the result of the assembly. The Catholic Church of the Netherlands entered into an ideological and bureaucratic winter, which assured the progressive disintegration of all structures facilitating and sustaining the Catholic faith. Widespread amazement about the implosion of the Dutch Catholic Church surprisingly did not raise the question elsewhere, whether there might be a lesson to be learned here. Much of today’s synodal confusion and fatigue could thus have been avoided …

Only under the pontificate of John Paul II the Dutch bishops were able, to some extent, to slow or halt the process of decomposition. Even today they have to be on the alert for both public opinion and obstruction from within their administration, where functionaries are eager to hold to positions they acquired over the last decades.

Since the elated sixties, keeping the faith has been a wearying and often lonely quest for the younger generation. It has been difficult to define and diagnose the smothering state of mind accompanying the decomposition within the Church, and its corresponding irrelevance in the outside secular world.  It is not surprising that those who did persevere have a covert aversion of the term pastoral, for it was the central theme of ever more tepid exhortations. They do not use it, and pretend not to hear it, like an ideological slogan that has completely been hollowed out. What does it mean really? Why has the term become so dominant, that it can be used as a multifunctional argument to relativise any principled and objective teaching? The abbot of a monastery in France, Dom Jean-Charles Nault OSB has presented a clear and liberating answer to this in his doctoral thesis, an elaborate study of ‘acedia’, one of the seven cardinal sins.

His doctoral thesis was published in 2001, La Saveur de Dieu[1]. Acedia is one of the seven capital sins, which in his analysis forms the core of the spiritual malaise of our times. Traditionally it is associated with the most oppressive of demons, the so-called ‘noonday devil’. Even though the usual translation of acedia is ‘sloth’, the original meaning in Greek is rather carelessness or lack of attention in particular to funeral rites. But acedia has little to do with laziness. Acedia is a lack of joy caused by a lack of purpose and of transcendence. Its hidden source lies in our choice for transcendent reality – to accept it or to reject it. The way we look at reality and respect it is closely linked to the perspectives and hopes we have regarding our personal future. It’s all seen in the same light – or in the same darkness. Dom J.-C. Nault not only retraces acedia’s meaning, but also explains how today many are burdened by acedia. It manifests itself in conditions as depression, melancholy, burn-out, or mid-life crisis.  Instead of experiencing joy to be alive, acedia leaves the soul with a feeling of emptiness, a void of meaning. From this the soul may try to escape into apathy, but also into unbridled activism. The notion of acedia has been part of our spiritual tradition throughout the Middle Ages. Today it is almost totally ignored, although its influence may never have been as potent as today.

For anyone really caring for souls, the recognition and the deeper understanding of acedia are of crucial importance. The thesis earned Dom J.-C. Nault the Henri de Lubac prize of theology. A condensed and easily readable version followed in 2013, Le démon du midi[2], which in 2015 was translated into English, The Noonday Devil.[3] The author shows how our attitude, mindset and understanding with respect to transcendent reality are decisive for our active moral life, and thus also for the way we judge ourselves. I will follow his train of thought from here, try to summarize it, and add some thoughts of my own.

On the one hand, moral life is a matter of individual choice and responsibility. But on the other hand, our relationship with reality as such depends very much on life experiences and the upbringing, education and teaching we have received. Therefore, the responsibility of the Magisterium, i.e. conserving, preserving and teaching universal truths that are part of Revelation or part of human traditions, is incalculable. In the Church, servants of knowledge are servants of souls. And where souls acknowledge to be lost, they must guide them towards purposeful paths. Where souls experience darkness, teachers can help them to rediscover light. Where erroneous conclusions keep souls imprisoned, masters must help them to unmask toxic principles and show them the ones that liberate.

As Dom Nault demonstrates, the very influential doctrine of nominalism contains such toxic principles. Nominalism is like the fundamental contradiction of realism. Classical realism was integrated into scholasticism and reached a summit with saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Nominalism’s main proponent was William of Ockham (1285-1347). Although nominalism has various branches, it generally comes down to the denial that different realities can have a common species as part of their existence, and therefore cannot have a common purpose that can be freely chosen. There are no ‘universals’. There is no such thing as a natural inclination towards what is good, nor a natural openness for transcendence. If there are any principles, either by necessity or by choice, these will infringe on man’s freedom. They better be denied or ignored. Both the intellect and a free choice to be faithful are a threat to unconditional freedom.

Thus, we can understand how, ultimately and unavoidably, moral life gets stuck in an infernal paradox: in order to affirm an absolute self-referential freedom of the will, a law must be invoked, exterior to the will and unchecked by the intellect. The most liberating moral act is to make no sense at all. The choice between Hegel’s dialectics and Kant’s moralism is latently already present, as is the final suicidal trap of Derrida’s deconstruction and Sartre’s existentialism.

As a consequence of nominalism, several rifts appear in traditional foundations of Church teaching, which sometimes blur principles and damage sources of primordial importance. Thus, believing and doing are separated, and are no longer able to bear fruit. For starters, in the Bible the Ten Commandments, received on Mount Sinai, get ample attention, but the Sermon on the Mount and the seven (or nine) Beatitudes do not make much sense any longer. Next, dogmatic theology and moral theology are treated as separate sciences, where the former formulates what must be believed in order to go to heaven and the latter warns about what needs to be done, or rather, what needs to be refrained from, so as to not go to hell. At this point pastoral theology needs to be invented and, presented as real science, must soften a rigid credence full of obligations and fears.

Other rifts may occur. In order to save spontaneity and authenticity, non-binding spirituality emerges from prescribed morals. Paradoxically ascetism may then make a come-back in new prescriptions concerning nutrition, exercise and health care, as the soul acquires self-esteem through hardship and cannot content itself with only gratuity. On the other hand, less honorable motivations in prosperous comfort zones may push spirituality into sentimental pseudomystical tendencies. Recently we have seen how even these can lead into a darkness, where sexual perversion and abuse are part of morbid sacrilegious debauchery.

All these failed attempts of recovery from nominalism can be observed against a background coloured with various paradigms of thought. It’s a kind of fake firmament of dying stars. When these are examined, they all are seen to originate in nominalism. Nominalism represents for Christianity the first explicit destruction of realism. It implies the first suicide of the intellect together with the free will, by a deconstruction of meaning, which has caused the ever-transfiguring false dichotomy between morals and dogmata. Many attempts have been made in Christian civilisation to bridge this dichotomy, but where a lack of metaphysical understanding has not liberated the mind of nominalism, the abyss has not ceased to widen. Pastoral theology seems to represent another desperate attempt to spread out a firmament, but its stars are already fading and do not guide us back to realism. The world below is increasingly overshadowed by acedia, which, however, goes unrecognised. The process of decomposition is continuing unabated.

At the core of the dichotomy between moral and dogmatic theology is a primordial misunderstanding of the act of faith. Yes, the moral act of faith, justifying the soul, has a dogma as it object. A dogma is a principle that cannot be proven, nor can it be disproven by reasoning. It is accepted and adhered to solely on the base of filial obedience, first result of grace not being rejected. However, the act of faith is also itself an object of faith. We believe that we believe, i.e. as we believe God revealing Himself we believe that we do so because He is attracting us. The formal object and the final purpose are one. We don’t have to believe God’s mere existence, because we can discover this by natural means. On the other hand, by believing we do not understand what God is, i.e. His essence. Strictly speaking, faith is not about the existence of God, nor about His essence, but about His personal initiative to both reveal Himself and attract to Himself, while promising that ultimately we actually shall see His eternal essence. Divine grace, in which gift and the yearning for it are one, transforms normal human conviction into faith in revealed truths.

Yes, we believe that we believe. The act of a life in grace and in truth is of dogmatical nature, and any dogma implies a divine revelation in terms of a human act, namely an act of Jesus Christ, the Word who has become flesh. Therefore, the distinction between moral and dogmatic theology does not justify two sciences. They are part of one and the same science. And therefore, there is no such thing as pastoral theology, because it has no object and there simply is no need for it. It’s claim to solicitude is false, and is bound to reduce divine charity to either sentimentality or a set of moral rules, at least for as long as it does not understand what is the human soul and what the soul is capable of in yearning for and reaching out to. If it does eventually understand the soul, it will also understand it will simply have to cease to exist.

Pastoral care can inspire a genuine way of caring for people, but it’s not a care of souls, not a cura animarum. It does not need a theology, let alone justify it. Believers anyway have no right to claim they can take care of people better than others. What distinguishes them, as believers, from non-believers is the solicitude for souls. This does not mean servants of the Church, like priests, are to avoid making use of non-theological science, like modern science, medical science, psychology or psychiatry. On the contrary, some expertise might be useful for practical and contemplative purposes. But as in any interdisciplinary dialogue, the frontiers of non-theological and theological sciences must be respected, as well as the competence of their respective experts. It is inappropriate to incorporate domains of modern human science into some branch of theology, because they do not share the same principles.

+ Father Elias Leyds c.s.j.



[1] Jean-Charles Nault (préf. Livio Melina), La Saveur de Dieu : L’acédie dans le dynamisme de l’âme, Paris, Cerf, coll. « Cogitatio fidei » (réimpr. 2006) Prix Henri de Lubac
[2] Jean-Charles Nault (préf. du cardinal Marc Ouellet), Le Démon de Midi : L’Acédie mal obscur de notre temps, Dijon, éditions de L’échelle de Jacob, 2013
[3] Dom Jean-Charles Nault, The Noonday Devil, Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times


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