2.3.2 Using the ‘pastoral spiral’ in study of this module

Back to 2.3.1

Unit 2 Contents


The explanation of ‘see, judge, act’ on the last screen is fairly simple.  It might seem just to be common sense.  Fair enough.  If only we always had common sense, life would go very smoothly!  The fact is that when faced with challenging issues in working life or wider society, it can be hard to know where to start and what then to do.  The straightforwardness of ‘see, judge, act’ is one if its strengths.  Obviously it can be necessary to employ the method flexibly and imaginatively in real life.

Over the decades since Mater et Magistra was issued in 1961, it has been developed in various contexts to enable it to be used intelligently in such flexible ways, and therefore effectively.  The need to go on using it repeatedly, as different issues have to be addressed, led people to think of it in terms of a circle or cycle.  Its usefulness in relation to a wide range of issues that come up in pastoral ministry led to some calling it the ‘pastoral cycle’.

The first element, ‘see’, has been distinguished into two stages, often labelled ‘experience’ and ‘social analysis’.  This leads to an emphasis on people first bringing to mind the stories that relate their own experience, before seeking to understand the issues they face by looking at the historical and social context.  On one interpretation, this emphasis on experience can be seen as manifesting commitment to human dignity: all are recognized as legitimate participants in deliberation about what needs to be done.  All parties, whether individuals or groups, have experience that others don’t, knowing about which can assist us to ‘see’ more clearly.  Yet, on another reading, emphasis on subjective experience runs a risk that people will fail actually to ‘see’ beyond themselves and to gain the necessary wider perspective.  During your study of this module, you are asked to make use of this cycle, and you will need to make sure you avoid this danger.

In the context of the pastoral cycle, the ‘judge’ element is generally referred to as ‘theological reflection’, on the basis that the main aim is to gain new insight by looking at how Christian teaching bears on the issues.  Perhaps a disadvantage of this label, however, is that it underplays the need, in real life, actually to come to a conclusion and to make an assessment or judgment.

Hence the four stages of this cycle are usually now known as ‘experience’, ‘social analysis’, ‘theological reflection’ and ‘action’, although other terms are also used.

Some emphasize that it makes more sense to see this method as a spiral rather than a cycle.   The idea is not that you end up where you started, but that you have made some progress, that you have moved up the spiral and come to a better vantage point.

The website of the Jesuits in Australia gives access to a very helpful PowerPoint presentation on the ‘pastoral spiral’.  This gives more information than I have about how this tool has developed.  It also presents it in visual form.  For the next reading, simply work through this presentation.  In light of what this screen has said, it should make sense (even though it was probably designed to be shown as someone was speaking).


Reading (6pp)

Sandie Cornish, ‘Introducing the Pastoral Spiral’.

At the following page, go to this heading and click on the green arrow a few lines below it to access the presentation:





On the last screen you were asked to think of social issues which could be helpfully addressed using the ‘see, judge, act’ method. Bring those issues back to mind.  In the light of this PowerPoint presentation, do you think the ‘pastoral spiral’ can cast additional light on those issues?

Can you think of other issues which you could make use of the ‘pastoral spiral’ to address?

What do you think the benefits and also the potential downsides could be of making use of this tool to deal with such issues?


The ‘pastoral spiral’ will be important for this module in two ways.  First, each of units 3 to 7 is structured, more or less, on this basis.  What this means is that the units have the following pattern:

  • To begin with you will be asked to bring to mind and reflect on your own experience in relation to the topic of the unit, for example, working life (Unit 4) or family (Unit 6).
  • Then some attention will be given to the historical background, and thereby the social context, which we need to know about if we are to analyse and thereby ‘see’ the topic adequately.
  • After that, we shall move to the ‘judge’ or ‘theological reflection’ stage, by looking at Scripture and the main documents of CST that address the subject.
  • Finally we shall look at what follows for what people need to do in practice.  As the quotation on the last screen from Paul VI’s Octagesima Adveniens emphasized, what is actually needed in your or my specific circumstances will depend to a large extent on the detail of these.  Given that we can’t give close attention to such details in this module, the ‘action’ stage in each unit is relatively short.  It is a springboard for the deliberation needed in people’s specific contexts.

The second way in which the ‘pastoral spiral’ is significant for the module is to do with Assignment A, the first of two you are expected to do.  While the details of this will be decided by your university, the proposed assignment asks you to use the pastoral spiral as the structure of what you write.

In its subject  matter, Assignment A will focus on material to be studied in Unit 4 on working life, although there is flexibility in that you can (and will need to) bring in material from other units too.  But the point to note here is that you are expected to follow the pastoral cycle in addressing working life.  Given that the first stage is ‘experience’, you will have the opportunity to draw on your own experience and/or that of others in your own social context, and then to build on this through the study you will do.  For the purpose of writing a good assignment, it will be the third stage of the cycle, ‘theological reflection’, that is most significant and to which you will need to give most space – by drawing on what you have learned through study of the primary texts of CST and secondary material on them.

More information will be available about the proposed assignments later.


End of 2.3.2

Go to 2.3.3 Concluding exercise: CST in national life

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