In a passage of his… [Aquinas] touches upon the question, whether the pastors of souls or the professors of theology have a more important position in the life of the Church, and he decides in favor of the latter. He gives the following reason for his view: In the construction of a building the architect, who conceives the plan and directs the construction, stands above the workmen who actually put up the building. In the construction of the divine edifice of the Church and the care of souls, the position of architect is held by the bishops, but also by the theology professors, who study and teach the manner in which the care of souls is to be conducted. (p. 5)
The passage Grabmann is discussing is from Aquinas’s Quodlibetal Questions, in Quodlibet I, Question 7, Article 2. Aquinas there further develops the point summarized by Grabmann as follows:
Teachers of theology are like principal architects… since they investigate and teach others how they ought to go about saving souls. Absolutely speaking, therefore, teaching theology is better than devoting particular attention to the salvation of this or that soul… Even reason itself shows us that it is better to teach the truths of salvation to those who can benefit both themselves and others rather than to the simple who can only benefit themselves. (Nevitt and Davies translation, p. 204)
Note that Aquinas’s teaching here is diametrically opposed to what passes for wisdom in many ecclesiastical circles today, including Catholic ones. The “pastoral” is often contrasted with and elevated above theology, with the latter being caricatured as dry and irrelevant to the Christian life. Indeed, as I noted in , “pastoral” often functions as a weasel word – that is to say, in this context, a word that sucks the meaning out of a theological term and insinuates an opposite meaning. In this way, “pastoral” considerations are alleged to justify ignoring or even contradicting the clear teaching of orthodox theology (e.g. by permitting adulterers to receive absolution and take Holy Communion without a firm purpose of amendment).
For Aquinas, by contrast, there can be no conflict whatsoever between the deliverances of sound theology on the one hand and pastoral considerations on the other. On the contrary, to be genuinely pastoral is precisely to apply sound theology to concrete circumstances. If your pastoral instincts tell you to soft pedal or ignore what such theology says, the problem is not with the theology but with your pastoral instincts. Nor does the generality of the theologian’s conclusions somehow make them less applicable to concrete cases. Rather, it makes them applicable precisely to more cases rather than to fewer. True, applying them to concrete cases sometimes requires “discernment” (another weasel word). But that is precisely a matter of finding out how to apply them to each case, not of finding a way to justify ignoring them in some cases.
Yet those who pit the pastoral against the theological are often not in fact opposed at all to letting theology per se guide their pastoral practice. Rather, they simply don’t like a certain kind of theology (typically, the orthodox kind), and use purportedly “pastoral” considerations as an excuse to reject it. Or, if they do sincerely think of themselves as eschewing theology, they are often inadvertently doing so on the basis of what amounts to a rival theological position. In The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, John Maynard Keynes famously wrote:
The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.
End quote. What is true in economics and political philosophy is true too in theology. Those who pit the pastoral against theology often do so, whether wittingly or unwittingly, under the influence of modernism, the heresy according to which traditional theological positions ought to be modified or abandoned if they conflict with “lived experience,” the actual “praxis” of the faithful, or what have you. The pretense is that the pastor is more sensitive to such considerations than the theologian is, but what is really meant is that the pastor influenced by modernist theology is more sensitive to them. (Pastors whose knowledge of the “praxis” and “lived experience” of their flocks leads them to affirm the value of traditional theology are seldom listened to by those who most loudly proclaim themselves to be “pastoral.”)
Inevitably, as Aquinas sees, the question is not whether pastors will be guided by theology, but rather which theology will guide them. Wherever the pastor ends up taking his flock, some theologian is always in the driver’s seat.