The Myth of Pastoral Sensitivity

May 2009By W. Patrick Cunningham

W. Patrick Cunningham is a deacon of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, and one of the Archbishop's team of Masters of Ceremonies. He has a master's degree in theology from St. Mary's University. For the past nine years he has been principal at Central Catholic High School in San Antonio, and has taught moral theology and Scripture to sophomores. He and his wife Carolyn have three daughters and eight grandchildren.

In one of the parishes in which I have ministered, every year over a period of years, the director of religious education (DRE) asked me to teach one or two Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) classes. There seemed to be no pattern to the topics I was requested to research and present, so I was not surprised when she asked me to teach the "sacrament of marriage" to her two sections, on consecutive nights. This was long before the explosion of "theology of the body" seminars, so I confined my resource-mining to the Code of Canon Law, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sociological research on how to keep a marriage together, and my various sacramentology resources. I gave the same presentation to both sections.

Great was my shock when a week later I received a copy of a letter directed, not to me, but to my pastor. In it the DRE complained in no uncertain terms that my presentation, which she had attended both nights, was inappropriate. My comments on premarital intercourse, cohabitation, contraception, and other aspects of marriage and sexuality -- all of which were culled straight from the Catechism -- had offended some of the RCIA students, and two were dropping out as a result. I replied by letter to my pastor, with a copy to the DRE, that I taught what the Church teaches, that I had been given no specific information from the DRE about the composition of the class or any restrictions on the scope and sequence of the topic -- in fact, I was given no directions whatsoever. All she had said was, "Teach about the sacrament of marriage." Needless to say, I never received an invitation to teach anything in that parish again. I had acquired the dread moniker, "pastorally insensitive."

About a dozen years ago, I was counseling a young, unmarried Catholic couple who had been intimate and were expecting a child. They had spoken to their very experienced Catholic pastor about it, but were shaken by the encounter. When I asked them why, they told me that he had said, "Whether you get an abortion or not, don't leave the Church." The couple rightly understood that the pastor had his priorities upside down, and that the pursuit of the good meant both staying in the Church and bringing new life into the world. The pastor had a citywide reputation for being "pastorally sensitive."

Throughout Catholic academia, especially in the U.S. and Canada, schools are establishing Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender (GLBT) Resource Centers. At Georgetown, Jack Harrison, co-chairman of "GU Pride," a homosexual support group, spoke of plans to make the Jesuit campus more "trans-friendly" by "working to provide bathrooms and better housing options for trans­gender individuals." This, one would suppose, is the latest front in the war to demand "pastoral sensitivity" not only from clergy and religious, but also from the general population.

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Excellent article. I can think of only one time in the last 4 years that a priest has addressed any of the political issues we are facing (We do have an active pro-life organization that makes public appearances). When he did, the congregation broke out in applause. Either we have a great congregation of saints that do not need Church teachings or we have a parish leadership greatly uninterested in what is going on in our country.
Interesting side note, though, I think, well known. I had a visit from my brother & sister in law from the Netherlands. I told them we had to leave early in order to get a seat at Sunday Mass - they quipped that was never a problem in the Netherlands.
Posted by: awunsch
June 12, 2009 10:08 PM EDT
As to all the 'sensitivity' problems the author
addresses, I advise him to, when examining such
conduct of a bishop or priest, to just remember the meaning of the old canard: Follow the money.
Then he will understand why, eg, Cardinal Dolan
invited Obama to the Catholic Charities banquet.
Posted by: Anonymous
August 21, 2012 12:32 PM EDT
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