During his return trip from Kazakhstan, Pope Francis was asked about the state of the Church in Germany. In response, he spoke about the importance of having pastors, not just pastoral plans. Too often, he said, we have put pastoral care in the hands of “pastoral scientists”; but without true pastors who are close to their people, no pastoral plan will work.

This importance of encounter is a central element in the vision of Pope Francis. Without denying the importance of pastoral plans or political action, he reminds our bureaucratized world about the foundational nature of personal love. Without such love and attention, our Christian Faith becomes sterile.

A top-down, bureaucratic approach to solving problems inevitably introduces a certain uncertainty into our moral vision. In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre critiques the modern tendency to confuse the soft social sciences with the hard physical sciences. We sometimes forget that the conclusions of the social sciences are soft and uncertain; these results are, at best, probabilities or rules of thumb. This uncertainty is inherent in the subject matter of the soft sciences; it is very difficult to run properly controlled experiments with whole societies. We can’t take two completely identical societies, change some variables, and watch results play out over hundreds of years, for the simple reason that there aren’t any identical societies available for such experiments. Similarly, every human individual is unique, and generalizations about human behavior under certain circumstances can only take us so far.

Oftentimes, we can’t even determine the difference between causes and effects. Are prosperous nations successful because of their strong social welfare programs, or are their social welfare programs a side benefit of their success? All this uncertainty produces a lack of predictive power in the soft sciences, and such failures are tolerated in a way that is foreign to the “hard” sciences. For instance, economists often fail to predict recessions; but such failures do not necessarily lead to a reduction in their social influence or rejection of their theories.

This lack of predictive power is a serious matter, since bureaucratic institutions can only form policies on the basis of the social sciences. Governments, businesses, and non-profits turn to various experts to inform their decisions. A proposed bureaucratic plan or policy can only be judged by its promised results—but such results are always uncertain and contingent.

This lack of certainty is particularly noticeable because social policy or Church governance is applied across such large scales of time and place. Political or bureaucratic action generally requires trade-offs; a particular policy might benefit one class of people but be bad for others. A policy that is beneficial in the short term might lead to environmental damage or financial problems in the long run.

When the Church’s social teaching is seen exclusively as a matter of government planning and political action, this inherent uncertainty can lead to endless debate. We’re called to love our neighbors as ourselves; there is no uncertainty in the Gospel message on this point. It isn’t a “prudential matter” that can be dismissed or waved away. And yet when this call to love our neighbor is equated with political action, things suddenly become uncertain and debatable. Political “conservatives” argue that any social program will fail to achieve its goals, and use this dismissal to justify their comfortable lives. Progressives champion various social programs that promise to solve our social problems—and then use their support for such programs to justify their comfortable lives!

Meanwhile, the Gospel cuts through all this confusion by ignoring the question of results altogether. In the Gospel worldview, things are much simpler. If an individual has surplus wealth, it should be given to the poor. The Gospel doesn’t lay out a five-year plan to eradicate poverty; rather, the Gospel calls for the personal eradication of selfishness. And that’s a far more uncomfortable and challenging thing than either “conservative” indifference or “progressive” political activism.

If we took the Gospel seriously, we would certainly end up changing society, just as the Early Church transformed the late Roman Empire. Jesus tells us, “seek first the Kingdom of God, and all this will be added unto you.” Jesus didn’t come to change society, but to transform human beings by uniting them with his Mystical Body; the renewal of society flows from such transformation. We could almost say that social renewal is a by-product, a happy accident. And changing hearts isn’t something that we can do by bureaucratic means. It requires personal encounter. We need to encounter God and let him transform us. Then we can become channels of God’s transforming grace for those we encounter in our daily lives.

In particular, such personal action is required if we are truly going to “go to the peripheries.” Quite apart from their uncertain results, bureaucratic political projects and bureaucratic pastoral plans are necessarily based on a certain kind of “lowest common denominator.” They are designed for “efficiency,” and have to work for as many people as possible. To do this, they have to ignore the unique circumstances of particular individuals.

This does not mean that either pastoral plans or government initiatives are fundamentally problematic. And certainly the social sciences can provide a valuable contribution to our understanding of the world. But it is important to realize that bureaucratic or pastoral plans based on the findings of social science are inherently “prudential” and debatable and not central to the message of the Gospel.

As Father Thomas Dubay, S.M., said, “Small minds pit truth against truth, large minds do not.” While Christians can disagree about the prudential desirability of any particular policy, we can’t disagree about the message of the Gospel. This also applies to the way we should approach politics. God hasn’t told us how to build a perfect political society, or even how to solve particular political problems, whether in the Church or in the State. By contrast, God has told us how to build up the Mystical Body of Christ through personal service.

When pastoral plans or bureaucratic political projects take center stage, some individuals will always end up falling through the cracks. A friend of mine was recently told that the problems he was dealing with were “unique,” and that there wasn’t much that his local parish could do for him. By contrast, Jesus used the parable of the lost sheep to portray God’s interest in the individual. Concentrating on the 99 sheep might make more sense from the perspective of efficiency; obviously, any pastoral program benefitting 99% of a parish or diocese would be considered a resounding success. But God isn’t interested in numbers; the true shepherd “wastes” time in seeking out the lost sheep.

As a matter of fact, the “99 righteous” don’t really exist. Jesus told this parable for the benefit of the Pharisees, who were complaining about his willingness to eat with sinners. We all need God’s mercy; in different ways, every single one of us has gone aside and become lost. God comes to find us and restore the unity of the flock. True pastors participate in the work of bringing each human being back into unity with God and with one another.

While pastors have a particular responsibility to participate in Christ’s guidance of his Church, every baptized Christian is called to participate in building up the Body of Christ. We each have a particular charism, a particular role to play. No matter what our role might be, we should adopt a personal rather than a bureaucratic outlook approach to fulfilling it. In this way, our whole lives can become one fabric of continuous prayer.

Prayer is a personal encounter with God, and every action should become another chance to meet him through the mundane details of our daily lives. We can’t delegate our prayer to a committee, or pay somebody else to build a relationship with God on our behalf. Jesus wants each of us to spend time with him; it isn’t sufficient to tell him that our parish has a prayer society that will spend time with him. And when Jesus comes to us in the person of our neighbor, it won’t be enough to tell him about our support for social projects and government programs. By serving our neighbors, we are serving Christ; by ignoring our neighbors, we are ignoring Christ.

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.

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