Supervised Pastoral Education: A Theologian's Assessment


This theologian’s assessment is made with reference to the canonical norms promulgated by Paul VI in 1983 which govern the practice of pastoral activity. The Documents of Vatican II are consulted for a contemporary understanding of Roman Catholic pastoral activity. The two questions I consider are: 1) does Supervised Pastoral Education facilitate the role of the RC chaplain as the full provider for the religious and spiritual needs of Catholic patients? and 2) does Supervised Pastoral Education facilitate the role of the RC chaplain as providing care for the needs of all patients in an ecumenical and charitable spirit?

In contrast to the ministry of the parish priest the ministry of the RC chaplain is regulated differently in a number of ways by canonical norms. First, a chaplain is someone who is entrusted with the pastoral care of a portion of the Christian faithful (Canon 564). Coriden, Green and Heintschel (1985: 445) write that “ that a chaplain serves ‘some community’ or ‘particular group’ of the faithful rather than a parish...[and] although the office is pastoral by nature, the chaplain is not a pastor.” Secondly, the chaplain's ministry is a specialized activity assisted by professional competence gained from the study of the technological sciences and applied arts. Thirdly, the chaplain's ministry involves a high incidence of individual pastoral care within the group. Fourthly, the chaplain's ministry is undertaken in an abnormal (clinical/pathological) institutional environment. Fifthly, the chaplain's ministry is undertaken in a multifaith context and must not compromise on matters of faith and morals.

In light of these differences, I assess some of the goals of SPE as understood by the Canadian Association of Pastoral Practice and Education. This assessment is undertaken as a documentary process and does not comment on the qualitative value of any individual unit of SPE. The documentation is obtained from the CAPPE Handbook posted May 1, 2001 at

The Documents

Specifically, I examine guidelines given in the Certification Section of the Handbook and the Student's Handbook. The Student Handbook refers to "activities of pastoral care" and "function of ministry." Catholics understand these activities to be undertaken in the name of the church and regulated by Documents of the Second Vatican Council and governed by Canon Law. The regulatory relationship among social norms, law and pastoral activity is not confined to the Roman Catholic tradition. From a non-Catholic perspective of the relationship one writer, licenced to practice law in the Province of Manitoba, observes that:

There are several recurring themes flowing through theological studies which may be referred to by a lawyer in the course of counselling a client which assist in placing a client’s legal problem within the broader context of life, which in turn, may result in a legal solution which is practical, responsive to a client’s problem, and also more accommodating of a client’s personal values and core beliefs (Kreel 2002).

The student handbook states the two-fold purpose of CAPPE as: 1) "to encourage and promote supervised pastoral education as a part of professional education for ministry, and 2) to support high standards of practice in pastoral care and pastoral counselling. Its functions include: association, education, accreditation, certification, research interpretation, and service. I ask: In light of the Council's understanding and the canonical norms does the two-fold purpose of CAPPE facilitate the primary and secondary roles of a Catholic chaplain?

I begin by considering the CAPPE certification process. CAPPE certification is a cumulative process of education through the stages of basic and advanced levels, provisional teaching supervisor, associate teaching supervisor and teaching supervisor. The basic educational goals are retained in each professional level and studied to a greater depth and intensity.

Section I, Subsection 2, of the Handbook, the goals of basic SPE are listed as follows.

  1. to become aware of one's personhood in ministry and of the ways one's ministry affects other persons.
  2. to become aware of how one's attitudes, values and assumptions affect one's ministry.
  3. to become aware of one's pastoral presence in interdisciplinary relationships.
  4. to develop the ability to utilize the experiential method of learning.
  5. to develop to utilize the peer group for support, dialogue and feedback in a way which integrates personal characteristics with pastoral functioning.
  6. to use individual and group supervision for personal and professional growth and for developing the capacity to evaluate one's ministry.
  7. to integrate the learnings of theology and the social and human sciences in understanding the human experience.

These goals may be assessed theologically from a Roman Catholic perspective. The specifically Christian terms "pastoral" and "ministry" need interpretation and clarification in a SPE setting. As I have argued elsewhere these terms are problematic for Christian chaplaincy in the multifaith institutional setting. “Can there be an understanding on non-Christian pastoral care? One could argue that spiritual care ought to be identified with the synagogue and pastoral care identified with the church” (Savage 2001:45).

For Catholic Christians the terms “pastoral care” and “ministry” are virtually identical in that they define the work of the church undertaken by the baptised. Coriden et al (1985:167), discussing ministry write:

When Paul VI eliminated tonsure, the minor orders, and the subdiaconate from the Latin Church with Ministeria quaedam, he likewise provided for a new recognition of lay ministry in the Church. He intentionally took this step to emphasize that ministry is not just ordained or sacred ministry. All participate in the mission of the Church. ‘Ministry’ is one way of carrying out that mission; the Code also speaks elsewhere of the ‘apostolate’ and of ‘service’ by lay persons. Formal recognition of lay ministry was made in terms of the key elements of the Church’s mission: word (lector or ‘reader’) and sacrament (acolyte, focusing on the central sacrament – the Eucharist).

Further, these commentators, Coriden et al (1985:101), state that the notion of the full care of souls, as described in CC 150, “must be understood as a descriptive statement of fact and not as an implication that there can exist a full care of souls for which ordination is not required. The celebrations of the Eucharist, of penance, and of the anointing of the sick are essential elements of pastoral care that can be called complete.” It is in a pastorally supportive role that Catholic laity participate in the ministry of the Church. To this end, Arrieta (2000:260) writes that Catholic teaching

distinguishes between ‘ecclesiastical chaplains’ and ‘lay chaplains:’ the former is established by the ecclesiastical authority to address the pastoral need of those groups of faithful inadequately assisted by common pastoral organization; the latter is provided in civil institutions by the faithful who give, with ecclesiastical approval and assured economic support, pastoral assistance in certain cases (hospitals, schools, etc.).

This accords with Coriden et al (1985:148) who note: “The potential for non-priests to provide a range of services has been placed in the law, and bishops are empowered to take advantage of these options – especially to provide the necessary help to the faithful entrusted to their care.” I assess the goals of CAPPE as being advantageous to the Bishops with the task of educating chaplains who have a responsibility of caring for a portion of the faithful entrusted to their care.

Ashley & O’Rourke have conducted a thorough pastoral theological analysis in their book, Health Care Ethics, which is significant for this assessment. They write:

Catholics reason ethically in terms of a value system rooted in a view of reality contained in the Christian Gospel, interpreted by the Church in its life of faith, and authoritatively formulated by the pope and the bishops....This commitment to authoritative teaching, as well as respect for a long tradition of Catholic theological reflection, however, cannot exempt educated Catholics from listening honestly to other systems of belief, nor from comparing beliefs with the discoveries of science and history and with the personal experience of life (Ashley & O’Rourke 1987:xv).

There is an ethical requirement for Catholics to listen and to take into account the human experience of other traditions in articulating their own understanding of full pastoral care in light of the church's teaching. CAPPE units provide a supportive and useful role in pastoral education. Roman Catholic ministry is undertaken in persona Christi and a personal understanding of ministry, a pyschotherapeutic understanding (psychic intervention) of ministry and peer relations within ministry must always be understood from this perspective. Ministry (pastoral care), in persona Christi, attends to the body and the soul. It attends to the person as a unity. In persona Christi is a sacramental ministry. From a Catholic perspective, a sacramental understanding cannot be omitted from full pastoral care. This understanding is not always as explicitly articulated in the Reformed traditions as it is in the Roman tradition. However, in a paper originally delivered to the Association of Clinical Pastoral Educators for Western Australia, John Dunnill, (2002:110), draws out the implications for ministry to the body and soul without using traditional theological or sacramental language. From his understanding, the goals of CAPPE may be seen as supportive of the Bishops in the task of educating chaplains who have a partial responsibility for the faithful entrusted to their care.

The Problematic of Section II, Subsection II

This section of the Handbook presents a problematic from the RC perspective of pastoral care. Among the formal requirements for advanced SPE is a Christian theological education "or the appropriate parallel disciplines of the faith tradition of the candidate." Does that requirement, which seems to understand parallel theological education as equivalent, support the full and/or partial role of the RC chaplain in pastoral care? All theological education may be appropriate with the limited learning context of a CAPPE unit but not all theological education supports the RC perspective of pastoral care. An answer to this problematic is to be found in three conciliar documents, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (28 October 1965); the Decree on the Pastoral Office of the Bishops in the Church (28 October 1965) and the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (7 December 1965).

The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christain Religions states clearly the understanding of the Catholic Church. The Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in religions which attempt to overcome the restlessness of people's hearts. "It has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from its own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men and women" (Flannery 1996:571). From a philosophical perspective Jews, Christians and Muslims share a particular notion of revelation. With respect to the Jews, the Council notes that “since Christians and Jews have...a common spiritual heritage, this sacred council wishes to encourage and further mutual understanding and appreciation. This can be achieved, especially, by way of biblical and theological enquiry and through friendly discussions” (Flannery 1996:573). With respect to Muslims the “council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all, let them together preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values” (Flannery 1996:571). A CAPPE unit provides an appropriate human learning environment for an ecumenical and charitable education that is in keeping with the mind of the Council and the norms of the code. It serves to support the purpose of educating RC chaplains in their secondary role of meeting the spiritual needs of patients.

The Decree on the Pastoral Office of the Bishops discusses clearly the understanding of the Church with respect to education of catechists and, by implication, of ministers. The Decree states that bishops should, “ensure that catechists are adequately prepared for the task, being well instructed in the doctrine of the church and possessing both a practical and theoretical knowledge of the laws of psychology and of educational method” (Flannery 1996:291).

With respect to Christian theological education, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, teaches that

theologians are now being asked, within the methods and limits of theological science, to develop more efficient ways of communicating doctrine to the people of today, for the deposit and the truths of faith are one thing, the manner of expressing them – provided their sense and meaning are retained – is quite another. In pastoral care sufficient use should be made, not only of theological principles, but also of the findings of secular sciences, especially psychology and sociology: in this way the faithful will be brought to a purer and more mature living of the faith” (Flannery 1996:238).

The goals of CAPPE may be seen as supportive of the Bishops in the task of educating chaplains with a responsibility for the faithful entrusted to their care in a multifaith setting.

Celebrating the Healing Process

Clearly the task of full pastoral care, from the Roman perspective, is not completed by the counselling approach or simply by being present. Ashley and O’Rourke (1987:401) insightfully remark that pastoral care “must not be confined to talking about the Presence of God, but it must deepen into experiencing that presence in prayer, worship, celebration and communion” [authors’ italics]. To conclude, then, the full and partial roles of pastoral care are complementary as they both embrace ministry undertaken in the name of the church. The tension, from the RC perspective of supporting pastoral care, is that CAPPE needs to explore what it means to minister in persona Christi if it intends to provide professional standards for full pastoral care.


Arrieta, Juan Ignacio (2000). Governance Structures Within the Catholic Church. Wilson & Lafleur: Montreal.

Ashley, Benedict & Kevin O’Rourke (1987). Health Care Ethics: A Theological Analysis. Catholic Health Association of the United States: St Louis, MO.

Coriden, James, Thomas Green & Donald Heintschel (1985). The Code of Canon Law: Text and Commentary. Paulist Press: New York.

Dunnill, John (2002). “Being a Body” in Theology, (March/April), pp. 110-117.

Flannery, Austin (1996). Vatican II Documents: Constitutions, Decrees, Declarations. Costello Publishing: New York.

Kreel, Darrell (2002). “The Relationship Between Theological Studies and the Contemporary Practice of Law.” Paper presented at the Faculty Lounge, Faculty of Theology, University of Winnipeg.

Savage, Allan (2001). “The Changing Perspective of Pastoral Care” in Explorations: Journal of Adventurous Thought, (Vol. 19, No.3), pp. 43-54.

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