If you ask some people, they would define pastoral as a vacuous word used to justify an attitude of polite niceness that would never offend, rebuke or admonish anyone, potentially also masquerading as an attitude of love. Those same people know that pastoral has a real meaning that is good and worthwhile, they just never hear the word used that way.
At its most basic, being pastoral means looking after someone, like a shepherd (pastor) does for their sheep. It is the duty of the priest and bishop to be pastors modelled on the Good Pastor, or Good Shepherd, himself, and by implication, it is the duty of the Church to be pastoral. The Church has always done this, and in one sense, it is one of the few things she really can do.
If that strikes you as odd, that might be because you think of the Church as being very concerned with dogma. The thing is, for the Church, dogmas are facts, and it is always facts that produce pastoral problems. For instance, to put a secular example which I will return to in this post, imagine a tall cliff top which was a popular tourist attraction, but where unfortunately people keep on falling off. The pastoral problem is that people fall off, but it is produced by some facts about the scenario: the fact that people go to the top of this cliff, the fact that falling off a cliff is dangerous, the fact that gravity makes people fall. If any of these were not facts, there would be no pastoral problem.
It is with this in mind that we must go about seeking pastoral solutions to matters. It is far too easy to approach thorny issues and try and solve them by denying one of the facts. In the spiritual life, it is far easier to deny facts than in the physical life, but things are no less true because that are not readily perceived. Falling off cliffs kills. Mortal sin kills.
Since reality is constrained by facts about how the world is, one must solve whatever problems arise in light of the facts. Hence, one cannot ignore the fact that people are falling to their deaths, and perhaps the right response is to build a fence. When the matter is spiritual, however, pastoral approaches tend to play hard and fast with dogmas, the fact of the spiritual life. For instance, it is not "pastoral" to give the Eucharist to someone in an unrepentant state of sin. It is good neither for the Eucharist nor for the person, and I daresay, it is not good for the person giving them it, or encouraging them to take it, either. If we try and spin the situation as pastoral, what we are doing is ignoring the harm it does to all parties involved.
My point is really quite simple: when we try and approach issues from a pastoral perspective, we must always be ready to navigate the facts, be they worldly or otherwise. If we fail to take the facts seriously, we have not solved any problem at all. This might sound obvious, but it seems to be shockingly missing in some people's minds.
What I have said should be understood as applying in general, however, there is one issue that is very contemporary which begs to be looked at as an example of what I have said: the discussion about communion for the divorced and remarried. First, let me quote the Church's position, from a section of paragraph 84 of Familiaris Consortio:
"However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred
Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have
remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state
and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ
and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this,
there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the
Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the
Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.
Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the
Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign
of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a
way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of
marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for
example the children's upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the
obligation to separate, they "take on themselves the duty to live in complete
continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married
Notice how Pope St John Paul II recognises that the pastoral approach is fully conscious of the facts of the matter, in this case, that a valid marriage is an indissoluble covenant. On the other hand, you can take a look at the impoverished and I daresay, twisted perspective given in this piece from the 1990s by some activist organisation. You are welcome to read the rather long piece at your own leisure, but glancing at the ARCC's new webpage, not much has changed. In light of one Cardinal's reaction to the responses given in the survey for the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family, the president of the organisation wrote that:
"Your published assumption that the global Catholic community
remains ignorant of the current Church teaching on the family, is the
true shock to us all. It is clear that your are not aware of our
intelligence, knowledge, and understanding that we have about
traditional Catholic teachings and that the survey demonstrates that the
Catholic people who are the People of God, the Church, not only know
and understand the Chuch's teaching on the family, but continue to
suffer from, and reject, these teachings." (Source)
Let me set aside the lapse in grammar and spelling - "your are" and "Chuch's teaching" - and indeed, what seems to be a jump in logic: Mr Edgar, the ARCC president, says that it is clear that Cardinal Tagle is not aware of the faithful's intelligence and so forth. But it is quite to the contrary, in fact, since the Cardinal was surprised not at the depth of their understanding, but of their ignorance. He had presumed they knew, and was surprised they did not.
Those things aside though, we see after over a decade that not much has changed: for Mr Edgar, and many others, a pastoral solution means that the facts must be changed. Unlike the case of the cliff, where the facts are perfectly obvious, Mr Edgar cannot see the facts of the spiritual life, expressed as they are in Familiaris Consortio. As he says, he rejects them. I cannot comment on his life or the state of his soul, but it certainly seems like his lack of sight is due to lack of faith, since as St Thomas Aquinas' hymn puts it, "faith for all defects supplying, where the feeble senses fail."
There is more to the Church's pastoral response to divorced and remarried people than simply that they cannot receive Holy Communion, and during and after the Synod we may hear of some change in practice. But Mr Edgar's approach will always and everywhere fail, because for him, the facts are the ones that need to change. That is just not going to happen.