Beyond pastoral statements: Towards a comprehensive response


The Church’s voice could have great value in South Africa, but its delivery needs work so that more can hear it clearly. But is that enough? Fr Lawrence Ndlovu argues that the Church has the knowledge, the capacity and the mandate to turn words into action. A pastoral response in South Africa must move beyond a paper-based statement. 

There are many instances where there has been need for the voice of the Church on different issues that happen both in the Church and in society. The Church’s voice was particularly urgent and sharp during apartheid, but in recent years it has not been as clear and present. Why? The Church has the advantage of being very close to the masses of the people on the ground – both in terms of hearing their cries for direction and for finding an audience on issues of Catholic Social Teaching. So why has the voice of the Church in South African society been far quieter than in previous years and what can it do now?

Maximising the Church’s Reach

In a recent article, Fr Chris Townsend reflected on this silence from the Church, arguing that the Church needs be seen to be aware of what is taking place in and around it. Indeed, he affirmed that the voice of the Church needed to be heard. While there have been pastoral statements released by the hierarchy on many different issues, these statements have not enjoyed sufficient publicity. There are numerous reasons for this including messaging, platforms, timing and relevance. This lack of uptake is not just the fault of news editors who do not publicise some of these statements, it is also the fault of the one releasing them without putting in place the media apparatus that drive the release of statements. In some cases, the Church is very late in the conversation and therefore appears to be repeating what has already been said, often getting lost in the noise around issues.

Media is no longer a mere footnote in the life of any institution; it is often integral as should be the case with the Church which works in communication. The narrow understanding of media, which only sees print and television as the most important mediums, is outdated. Social media and its many platforms has not only become an instrument of information, it is also a gauge through which the social zeitgeist can be ascertained. Media is now fast and effective. For this reason, the issuing of pastoral statements on any issue (especially issues of national importance) should be swift and it needs to be accompanied by a vigorous spreading of that statement on all media forums and languages – those spoken formally and understood widely. This spreading of the Church’s views assists the Church in retaining an open disposition.

A statement has its own life cycle. This cycle begins with a thorough pastoral reflection so that whatever issue that is being highlighted has all its facets and implications explored. The releasing of a statement should also lead to the next phase which is dialogue. This means that the movement of a statement is not just outward but also open to receive. Another important dimension to note is that once a statement has been put out it should reach all people both inside and outside the Church. Sometimes there is a tendency of releasing statements to ourselves, our own media platforms and publications, which leads to a closed conversation that will have no influence on the broader conversation taking place in society. 

On the one level the traditional pastoral statement has a role to play because it communicates an awareness from the side of the Church about the ills and triumphs both in the Church and in society. Through a pastoral statement the Church is also able to communicate its proximity with society.  However, there is now a need to access this very important tool (Pastoral Statement) in order to evaluate its effectiveness and adequacy. Statements tend to point out where the problems are and how they affect the masses. Statements also serve to encourage good action. They also express the position of the Church on the topic or issue that has become a social preoccupation.

Pastoral statements are good but not enough.

The Church has the ability to dig into its great wealth of knowledge and experience; it is also able to initiate tangible initiative. For example, South Africa is gripped by the state capture debacle, by the entrenched state of corruption in state owned enterprises which also involves private companies. Business ethics needs serious attention not just in Southern Africa but world-wide – the Panama Papers, Paradise Papers and the Gupta email leaks shows that many people and their personal decisions are caught in this web. There is absolutely no reason why the Church cannot, beyond releasing statements about this issue, begin a process of engagement around the streamlining of moral formation and practice in tertiary institutions.

The church already has St Augustine College which prides itself as being a leader in ethical formation. There can be real partnerships through such apparatus like St Augustine that can be entrusted to drive the process of meaningful and morally purposeful systems of education which would be accessible to many Catholic and non-Catholic professionals. There is absolutely no reason why the Church cannot begin to engage Catholics in business, government and leaders of industry towards the creation of Catholic business forums and an ethics charter for all Catholics in business towards the facilitation of ethics in business generally. The Church has a special position which enables it to facilitate initiatives for Catholic members of parliament. Catholics from different political parties are able to find each other through their shared faith and Catholic values anchored by the Church’s social teachings.

There can be many such initiatives that can come about as the Church’s deliberate act in response to pastoral situations. This kind of pastoral response takes into account the Church’s magisterial intelligence, the biblical tradition, and above all the Church’s incarnate character as one who resides with and within society. It is only through serious and proximate engagement that the Church’s prophetic voice and action can be most effective. SA.


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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Beyond pastoral statements: Towards a comprehensive response