There is a relative absence of research into papal thought about legal matters, and it can be observed that much of the recent and contemporary debates in the Western Latin Church and in other Churches and Christian communities revolve around what is meant by “doctrinal” and “pastoral” as regards the adherence to canon law and in general to Christian teaching and practice.
This paper argues that the doctrinal/pastoral axis provides a foundational means to locate and therefore to understand recent calls for development of both terms. In fact, they provide the key to interpreting the signs of the times – a perennial call especially of the Roman Catholic Church – to track the working of God in human affairs.
The problem with this particular axis is a simple one: “doctrine” is viewed as virtually unchangeable and can only be added to through further understanding; “pastoral” is seen as meeting the lived needs of the Christian faithful, and others. The recent and current debates in the Catholic Church occur when one is in conflict with the other. And so I seek to explore these debates by examining the legal thought of the last three popes: John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis.