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See instead: What exactly is a pastoral advice question?
This question should be put on hold until that question is resolved.

Since we talked about pastoral advice questions recently, the label is being used a bit more often on the site. Sometimes, this might be problematic. Adapted from a recent question:

Joe and Martha have been dating for four years, both of them were raised as Catholics but not baptized. Joe was the one interested in dating and so forth. Now Joe sees that both want to continue, but they are not getting married. Instead, they had been living together for a while now. If Joe did want to propose marriage, would it make a difference to Joe and Martha if they got Married (as a Sacrament) before being Baptized, or after?

At this point, we might want to say: "Question author... are you Joe?" But we should not ask that, because it is not our business. Nor is it our business to suggest that this might be a personal problem that the author is facing. He might not be facing any such problem. (Incidentally, the question does have a very clear answer from the Catholic perspective: if both parties are not baptised, they do not receive the Sacrament of Marriage.)

The question, as written, is a hypothetical scenario. Hypothetical scenarios are not pastoral advice questions. As far as we are concerned, the following types of question give no indication, one way or the other, that the author is soliciting pastoral advice:

  1. Questions that tell a contemporary story or describe historical events.
  2. Questions that are about family and interpersonal relationships, common situations that a person might "run into on the street", or deal with "practical matters" in general.
  3. Questions that use the word "I".

We can present scenarios, we can talk about practical matters, and we can use the word "I" in giving background. None of these are on their own or together reasons to close a question or mark it pastoral.

In a pastoral advice question:

  1. The author self-identifies as being as the one
  2. actually involved in and having some control over
  3. the problem discussed in the question

A question can have many other problems: it might still be too localized, or off-topic. So feel free to comment, downvote, or close for those reasons. But unless the question at least meets this definition, it is not a pastoral advice question. In particular, we must not assume that any "hypothetical scenario" actually applies to the person asking the question, since they might not be involved in any such problem. If they do not profess involvement (pastoral advice questions are recognizable because so much involvement is being professed) we should not assume involvement.

Additional clarifications are very much welcome.

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I think you've missed the main point in what a "pastoral advice" question is. Personal involvement has little to do with it. Of course those are the obvious cases to spot, but it really doesn't matter how many layers of abstraction you put the problems through they still aren't good fits for our site. It doesn't matter if your asking on behalf of somebody else or dreamed up an imaginary situation or read about a case in the news. Questions where the expected answer is actionable advice about a personal, relational or faith issue are off topic.

The questions we handle are about the documented doctrine, tradition, and practice (usually corporate) of Christian groups, not the actions of individuals. The exception to that is notable historical figures, with emphasis on historical.

At some level, spotting what we are labeling as "pastoral advice" is a matter of intuition and the line is fuzzy, but the concept is pretty easy to grasp if you recast in a different context. The two obvious ones that come to mind are legal and medical advice.

Here's what the difference might look like in legal terms:

  • Not pastoral advice: Has the supreme court ever overturned a case involving Law XIV?
  • Pastoral advice: Should somebody convicted of Y try to appeal to a higher court?

Or medical:

  • Not pastoral advice: What are the stages of kidney failure typically associated with Diabetes?
  • Pastoral advice: Should someone with Hematuria add tomato juice to their diet?

Note that all of the above could be cast with or without real or hypothetical examples and it wouldn't make much difference to what the core question was. The presence or lack of a case study is not what makes a question pastoral advice or not.

  • ...this answer is going to get half the questions on this site shut down. A couple of random questions from the top of the list that put "personal issues" through "layers of abstraction": Should I baptize my infant?, Should Christians marry non-Christians?. I understand that some denominations are very keen on "by faith alone" and are very much against this, but some other denominations that do offer explicit and codified actionable, personal advice and direction to their members. – Alypius Apr 11 '13 at 22:51
  • @Alypius Those look like two great candidates for closure, being some cross between truth an pastoral advice with no theological framework to work inside of. The latter crossed my radar already today and I was going to close it but didn't have time then (or now) to deal with the explanations necessary to do that as a mod. – Caleb Apr 11 '13 at 22:55
  • Yet more "personal issues" put through "layers of abstraction": What are the steps to become confirmed?, Did my friend who committed suicide end up in hell?, What must a Protestant do to become Catholic?, Can a couple seek In-Vitro?, Can I baptise multiple people at once?... I could go on, but I'm running out of chars. – Alypius Apr 11 '13 at 23:04
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    @Alypius: With the exception of your last example (which you yourself asked), all of the questions you linked to as examples are older than 8 months, well before we really started cracking down on pastoral advice questions. – El'endia Starman Apr 11 '13 at 23:48
  • @El'endiaStarman You think the linked questions were pastoral advice questions that we should "crack down on", as Caleb is suggesting? Various more-recent examples: Can I be baptised by immersion?, can I baptise without consent?, who can baptise a new believer?*, when should I begin to worship Jesus? – Alypius Apr 12 '13 at 0:30
  • (Now that recent examples cannot be discounted due to age, I shall let Caleb respond to @Alypius' points.) – El'endia Starman Apr 12 '13 at 6:24
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    @Alypius Of the questions you list, there are some truth ones that should probably be closed and some perfectly good doctrine ones that don't have anything to do with this conversation at all. The fact that you edited the titles of the questions in your links to make them sound like something they are not is fairly disconcerting (to the point of feeling disingenuous). Either you don't understand the problem or your trying to force a case when the evidence is against you. – Caleb Apr 12 '13 at 8:28
  • @Caleb What exactly is a pastoral advice question?. (As for the "title edits", they indicate the "underlying pastoral question" - no room to list both.) – Alypius Apr 12 '13 at 9:16

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