3
  • See the recent "But can't I just say one thing?" question for information on what we should say in response to these questions. This question asks what we should do and whether we should try to "fix up" these questions.

In the meta post "Pastoral Advice Questions", some very strict guidelines are rightly laid down. There have been two occasions recently where I think we did not follow those rules well. I've already mentioned one in my answer (to the recently-asked question linked at the top of this post).


The other example involves a person struggling with parental authority. The question is "How much authority does a father have over his wife and children?". Here is the original revision:

Are fathers really in charge?
My father seems to think he owns me, my bothers, and my mother. Whenever somebody challenges him on this, he says he was appointed by the highest authority and that he can make us do whatever he wants. He is also completely obsessed with the Bible and Christianity. He lives with his head in that book and swears that we are "little more than slaves". I cannot find any evidence to support this. Is any of this true according to the Bible?

This is a pastoral advice question. It involves a specific personal problem, and if that did not tip us off, the person's name, "ConsernedAndConfused", should have. We do not deal with these kind of "questions based on problems people face". We don't "adjust it slightly". We Shut It Down.

Really? Can't we just fix it up?

Well, yes: it seems that this is a possibility. In fact, that's exactly what we did. We encouraged the author to modify the question, and after further revision, the question is now open with 3 upvotes, 0 downvotes, and 2 favorites. I actually can't think of an example where a pastoral advice question can't be turned into a passable question for this site, especially if we know the author's religious preference:

  • My dad bosses me around too much! Does the Bible support him? -> What does the Bible say about whether children must obey their parents?
  • I was speeding and ran over a cat, help! -> Is it sinful to carelessly kill an animal?
  • My girlfriend left me and is now engaged to a Muslim but I think it's just for him to come to this country and they got divorced. -> Can marriage be used to secure citizenship?
  • I'm a Catholic, and I have the flu. Was it a sin for me to miss Sunday Mass? -> According to Catholicism, is it a sin to...

Especially after learning the person's denomination, it becomes trivially easy, in most cases, to rephrase the question to fit our standards. But this is not what we agreed to do about these questions, or so it seems. I thought we agreed to shut these questions down. Have the rules on this changed? Is it really a better idea to modify the question?

I am not advocating that we should or should not encourage editing Pastoral Advice questions. I am pointing out a case where we did this, and asking if this was appropriate, and if it should be allowed in the future. I am also not suggesting that we give unwarranted attention to unsalvageable questions. The issue is that in the above example, the community thought that the question was salvageable, and went ahead with editing. I have not voted, and I see 0 downvotes and 3 upvotes, so it seems that the salvage was successful. But was it appropriate for us to do this in the first place?

  • (+1 for a good question, not that I necessarily agree.) – El'endia Starman Mar 24 '13 at 6:21
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A lot of question types can be salvaged with some investment in editing, but I don't think pastoral advice questions are good candidates for this.

Trying to salvage them by picking out an underlying doctrinal issue and shaping the question around that almost inevitably ends up doing just what we set out not to do. By reforming the question we are effectively telling the OP "this is the question you should be asking in this situation". As such, aren't we both giving out a diagnosis and prescribing something for it? If people come here having not yet made the mental leap to abstract their problem and find out something about Christianity, is spoon feeding them that step really going to help? Isn't it going to leave them farther behind the curve and more likely to still have wrong expectations about finding truth on a secular QnA site?

Sure there are times when a question can be salvaged. It is worth considering when there is an obvious doctrinal issue just below the surface. However, not all questions are really better off for being given CPR. In the case of anything that smells of pastoral advice, asking a new question with the related doctrinal issue and dropping a "related: " in a comment is as far as I would advocate going.

While we're on the subject, slapping on a question (even if you pretty it up in the body of the question) is not a magic way to turn searches for truth into constructive questions. Even if this sometimes results in a passable question, it often isn't what the original OP was after and they are likely equipped to interpret the results. I think trying to hard to shoehorn every question into a format that we can open is sometimes a disservice to the OP and the community. At best, these usually turn into passable questions, not great ones.

Please consider there may be cases where asking a new question if there is a related doctrinal issue that interests you would be more constructive. Linking questions to possibly related doctrinal or practical ones might actually be more useful to some OPs than having their original question hijacked, even with the best of intentions.

  • 1
    @Alypius I didn't say I expect great questions from first time posters. I don't. I am saying that editing clearly of topic questions into marginally acceptable ones probably isn't the best way to get new posters up to speed. Doing so in the case of pastoral care questions also runs more than a small chance of doing exactly what we set out not to do. – Caleb Mar 24 '13 at 7:10
  • @Alypius What should we have done? Closed it and left it alone. Commented as I suggest in But can't I just say one thing? and moved on. If a related question could be asked, ask it yourself and link as my edited answer here proposes. That's my take on what should have been done. – Caleb Mar 25 '13 at 15:18
  • Just to add to this: if we become curious about an interesting doctrinal issue and ask our own question about it, we should refrain from dropping a link into the pastoral advice question (and also refrain from dropping in "helpful" links in general). – Alypius Mar 25 '13 at 16:01
  • @Alypius: Personally I think I'd leave that issue on a case-by-case judgement call. I think a "related" link is less potentially miss-leading or conflict of interest than editing an original question. – Caleb Mar 25 '13 at 16:09
  • It may be possible to turn pastoral advice questions into good, specific questions that are answerable from Scriptural or denominational sources, and I see nothing wrong with suggesting how this might be done. But the editing should be done by the original poster; the rest of us should not attempt it. – Confutus Mar 17 '14 at 4:12
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I think it's a good idea, the edit can get to the root of the matter and cut out all the fluff and there's also a good chance the question will be closed as a duplicate. But, once all the fluff is gone, the concrete answer is still there.

  • Should we edit this ourselves, directly? I worry that there might be some conflict there - for example, the question I quoted could have been re-worded either as "must children obey their father?" (see CCC2217) or as "are fathers allowed to treat their children as mere slaves?" (see CCC2222). – Alypius Mar 24 '13 at 3:22
  • That's a fantastic question. It's just a matter of removing the first person references. If the father of a family acts as if he is the owner of the members of that family and answer with both catechism references (objection to the reply etc...) – Peter Turner Mar 24 '13 at 3:44
  • @Alypius might as well test the theory – Peter Turner Mar 24 '13 at 3:55

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