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Based on the response to a question I recently posted, I think there might potentially be non-trivial confusion or disagreement about which questions should be counted as pastoral advice questions.

The formulation of pastoral advice questions first came up is in this original post on Aug 2011. In that post, questions asking for pastoral input...

may be anything from "I can't seem to stop surfing internet porn", to (if we're really having a bad day) "My friend has started cutting herself and cursing Jesus - is she demon-possessed?". [...] we almost certainly don't have the information anyone would need in order to offer good quality help.

This is pretty vague for a "definition", but my understanding (based on the examples) was basically that they involved some personal problem that authors said they were actually facing. Recently, we've agreed to be more strict about pastoral responses, so the issue has received some attention. This brings us to the second time that this came up in a definitive way:

I think you've missed the main point in what a "pastoral advice" question is. Personal involvement has little to do with it. [...] 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.

This remark is written by Caleb. The reason I'm bringing the issue up as non-trivial is that all of the following solicit answers that would include the "actionable advice" that the Church itself provides:

  1. Should a Catholic marry a non-Christian?
  2. According to Catholicism, should parents be obeyed?
  3. According to the Roman Catholic church, who can baptize a new believer?
  4. When does the bread and wine become Body and Blood?
  5. What are the steps to become Confirmed in the Catholic church?

There are many others. The Catholic Church provides copious information (unified, specific, and non-contradictory) on how "personal, relational, or faith issues" should be handled and what actions people should and should not take. The Church has clear answers for everything from whether you should commit murder to whether a priest should absolve his own partner in adultery. The effect here would seem to render me unable to ask about what the Church says should be done, because some other Catholic might end up on this site and... act according to the instruction of the Church.

For these reasons, I think this question is important and has serious implications. I also notice that it hasn't been asked anywhere, even though we're taking an increasingly active stance against "pastoral advice questions". So:


  • Exactly which kind of questions are pastoral advice questions?
  • Do they include questions where the author makes no claim of personal involvement?
  • Do they include questions where someone might visit the site and do something on the basis of the question?
  • What is the stated problem with asking those questions?
  • Could I suggest separating your question from your answer here? – Affable Geek Apr 12 '13 at 15:46
  • @AffableGeek I did not take it to be an answer. I thought I might have been expected to give some background so as to justify this extremely basic question even being asked. But I see your point, and have removed all of that. (Note that this makes the vast majority of Caleb's answer obsolete, or perhaps even misleading.) – Alypius Apr 12 '13 at 16:28
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    Two people took the time and effort to go point by point through your original question, responding to issues, clarifying the points of confusion, generally sorting things out. I understand what @AffableGeek was suggesting here but meta isn't quite like main in that re-casting questions to get just the right framing isn't as constructive. In this case, you're edit neutered this question of the very points we were trying to clarify. If the answers resolve anything and aided your understanding, accept one and move on. If there are remaining points of confusion please ask about in a new question. – Caleb Apr 12 '13 at 18:36
  • @Caleb The edit came before wax's reply, though after yours. In any case, it's somewhat uncharitable to suggest that I'm trying to "get just the right framing" given AffableGeek's suggestion, and the fact that your answer (especially the early variants) wasn't so much going through things "point by point" as it was criticizing the question itself for misrepresenting you and presenting misleading questions. Perhaps I removed all of that in an effort to appease you and put more focus on the actual question? Since you want to keep it all, that's fine. – Alypius Apr 12 '13 at 23:01
  • @AffableGeek suggested removing the answer from your question. Both the revision comment in your own words and my impression of the effect of your edit was that you removed all the background. Even the first version of my answer was addressed at that background, trying to clear up the issues you had conflated. Neutering the question is no way to "appease me". My version of a good outcome in this circumstance is you being less confused and walking away with a better understanding of what's what here. Our answers are only useful in the context of your background, hence the rollback.. – Caleb Apr 12 '13 at 23:10
  • @Caleb Feel free to remove my answer as Affable suggested: I have no idea where in this question my answer is, but only that the background seemed not to be helping. Technically, I'm asking the question here, so if I feel like you're misreading and misrepresenting what I'm saying and focusing on "what I did" and how I'm "panicking" and distorting history (or whatever) rather than focusing on the actual question that I have, then perhaps an edit to clear all that out would have helped me. I wanted a nice, short answer, focused on the central issue I had. I have two nice answers instead. – Alypius Apr 12 '13 at 23:32
  • Apparently my searching skills could use some exercise. :P I've flagged this for a moderator to move good answers to the other post and delete this one. – David Stratton Jul 16 '13 at 23:20
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Abstract because this got really long:

This site has always banned pastoral advice questions because we believe it's a terrible place to come for personal advice. These questions are relatively easy to spot and there is not a lot of debate on what they are, but when there is the smell test is most effective as there is no set criteria.

Main post

Let's do a breakdown, I love breakdowns. The confusion here seems to stem from the fact that our definition of pastoral questions amounts to former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's explanation of how he defined pornography:

shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that. [Emphasis added by wikipedians and continued by me.]

The fact is, like pornography, there is not quite a hard and fast definition of what constitutes a pastoral advice question. However, just like the difference between art and porn in Justice Potter's opinion, a good hard and critical look at it will tell you the difference quite quickly.

Let me give you a loose rundown of the criteria I use when I'm evaluating a question for whether or not it's pastoral advice:

  • Does the question sound like the person is asking about something in his own life or someone near and dear to the OP?
  • Does it look like something a pastor/priest/counselor is better off handling?
  • Is it something that asks for actionable information.
  • It's not a question about specific church doctrine on a subject.

But overall, I look at a question that's potentially pastoral advice and sniff it, if it smells pastoral I'm going to give it a close read and probably close it outright. If other folks have identified it as such, that's going to play into my decision on the close.

Much like Obscenity to Justice Potter, there are no hard and fast rules here. The problem is that sometimes things that look obscene outside of their context are actually art when seen from the broader picture. And sometimes things that are art from a narrow view are obscene from a broader one. That's the same problem here, we've got a snippet of context from the question and have to make a judgement, we will rely on broader contexts, but we don't get the advantage of seeing the whole movie, we only get a scene and we're going to make a judgement based on that scene.

So that said, if the snippet we see, smells like pastoral advice, the question is getting closed and unless the original poster comes back to provide more context, it should not get reopened. That's not a new stance, that's how we've dealt with it and said we were going to deal with it since before the first pastoral advice question was even posted. We knew this was coming and we decided to head it off at the pass.

Before I get to your questions at the end of the post. I want to address each of the example questions you posted:

  1. Should a Catholic marry a non-Catholic. Context dependant: Since this is a pure hypothetical with no link to an actual question, the context matters. If the Catholic church has a doctrine on the subject, and the question is about that Catholic doctrine than that's a great question. But if the question is presented as "my girlfriend and I want to get married, can we do it in a Catholic church, she's not Catholic" than we should burn that because it's advice. If someone would like to flip it around and ask about the doctrine than that's great, but don't legitimize the bad question by editing it. If you want to guide the OP to ask a better question, then do that.

  2. According to Catholics should parents be obeyed? Again, the context of the question is important. If it's a kid asking whether he can legitimately disobey his parents then we should close it. However if it's someone asking about the church's modern position on a commandment than that's legit.

  3. According to the Roman Catholic church, who can baptize a new believer? The title looks like a doctrinal question to me. Let's examine the context presented. 1. We know the OP isn't catholic, that's a point in the favor of this not being pastoral advice. 2. The question is asking about church history. That doesn't look like pastoral advice at all.

  4. When does the bread and wine become Body and Blood? from the title that looks like a hard doctrinal question. In fact knowing some history, this is hotly debated and extending it to my knowledge of history of protestantism there is plenty of hot debate over the sacraments. Next evaluation point, who is the OP, it's you, you're Catholic, so we might be in the pastoral advice stage. Let's examine the context though: no reason, you're looking for documentary evidence. I'm not sure how this could possibly fall into pastoral advice, and I'm not familiar enough with the catholic doctrine here to know if there are eternal consequences for Catholics beyond the scriptural remarks on the Lord's supper. But it sure doesn't look like something that I'd have to ask a priest about. Specially when you're asking for the documentary evidence like you ar.

  5. What are the steps to become Confirmed in the Catholic church? Ooh that has potential. That looks like the right response might be "go ask your local priest" Let's look at the context. So who is the OP? I know him from elsewhere on the stack but I don't know his religious bent, as far as I know he might be asking because he wants to marry his Catholic girlfriend (though looking further it looks like he was raised catholic, maybe? or at least in the context presented here). So the next question is, is there a standard here, or does he need to go ask his parish or priest. That's a question for the Catholics, and none of the mods are catholic so we're reliant on you guys to know that and cast close votes. I don't see any right now and I'm not sure we saw any earlier (they do age away so we might have missed it) and the one comment from a Catholic goes either way really. I'm split on this one and I might actually close it, but more as a Too Localized this is probably a question for your parish since it doesn't seem standard than a this is pastoral advice. But that's a narrow line.

So I've got two, "it depends on the context because the question hasn't been asked yet", two "I wouldn't close this based on context," and one "maybe but it's a close call, and probably not for the reasons we'd be talking about in this question."

So instead of a couple of hypotheticals, some good questions and a borderline one. Let's look at some of the questions we've actually closed as pastoral advice and see if we can find some commonalities (these are hard to find because google doesn't index deleted questions and SE doesn't search comments):

I hope that these examples help us clarify what pastoral advice actually is to us and how we deal with it on the site. Usually the questions have other problems (truthy, poorly written etc) that could be highlighted, but occasionally we do have to turn away a well worded question because it's pastoral advice.

I'd like to also address the questions you placed at the end of your post individually:

  • There is no box here. It's an I'll know it when I see it, I hope that the summary of your questions and the summary of some actual closed and deleted questions helps you come to an understanding of the criteria, but know they are not hard and fast.

  • The context is really important. If the person has no claim of personal involvement that should be a sign that it's not pastoral advice, however dissociating personal involvement is not a get out of jail free card for these questions. Again, the know it when you see it criteria is in effect. If it's been stripped of it's personal ties, but it still reeks of "help me figure this personal situation out" then it's ripe for closure.

  • I really like Caleb's description vs diagnosis example with respect to this question. Just today I had a medical question. Let's imagine for a moment a hypothetical Medicine.SE that doesn't dispense specific medical advice, but instead generally talks about conditions and how to treat them. I have a 1 year old son with a reasonably severe and persistent diaper rash that I'm pretty sure is a yeast infection. I can ask one of two questions. The first is "Here are some pictures, is this a diaper yeast infection? how do I treat it?" That's off topic there. The second question I can ask is "How do I diagnose and treat a diaper yeast infection?" that's on topic because it's a general case. Can you see how the first and second are different and how one is good and one is bad?

  • The stated problem with these questions is that we are not trained pastors, priests, counselors or at all licensed to give personal advice. We don't want to be responsible for the actionable advice that is taken. The second is that we are not a Christian site, those of us in leadership roles of this site recognize that a site owned by a secular company on the Internet is not a good place for us to be giving spiritual advice and we really don't want to encourage folks to come here for that.

Conclusion

A good bit of bits have been spilled on this topic in the history of this site and we've always come to the same conclusion. We don't want these questions as we believe we will do more harm to the OP than we can help. Pastoral advice questions are both dependent on the context that they contain and also the content of the post. They are something that cannot and should not be strictly defined because of these issues. The "I know it when I see it" doctrine is in full effect on these questions.

  • No disagreement from me. One thing though: Justice Stewart is a highly-trained professional, and is able to decide without needing guidelines, and without, in a sense, needing to be accountable. On this site, some people are only learning about when to close and label a question as "pastoral advice". You might know when that is, but others might have a harder time, so it might be worth emphasizing some clear guidelines (which you do to some extent, though they're hard to spot). – Alypius Apr 12 '13 at 23:14
  • 2 things here, 1. Scotus judges have no specific training in spotting obscenity I'm aware of. 2. I'd argue that our long term, high rep users here are better equipped to spot these questions than a SCOTUS judge is to spot pornography. There is a reason it takes 5 users to close a question, because we don't expect everyone to get it right all the time. This is also the reason that close votes have a high reputation threshold (it's much lower in beta than on a launched site 500 vs 3000). – wax eagle Apr 13 '13 at 2:25
  • He's a judge, I'd guess he has good judgement. There's a reason he, and not someone else, is known for such a quote. Anyway, no disagreement, unless you disagree that more guidance for those who want it is better than less. – Alypius Apr 13 '13 at 4:06
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To me, a pastoral advice question is one in which the circumstances of the asker are "too relevant" to the answer at hand.

PASTORAL ADVICE:

If the question is or must be framed in personal life of the asker in order to be sensible, it is pastoral advice.

NOT PASTORAL ADVICE:

If the question can just as easily be phrased in a third-person way, or if the details in question adhere to a significantly wide body of believers as to mask the identity of the asker, it is not.

PASTORAL ADVICE IS MERELY A SUBSET OF TRUTH:

Note: All Pastoral Advice questions are "Truth Questions," though the reverse is not necessarily true. If the phrase "What should I do?" accurately sums up the question, it is a truth question. If it includes personal history, it is a pastoral advice question, which is merely a subset thereof.

  • This gets tricky in some traditions, such as Eastern Orthodoxy, where pretty much every question involving practice is one that should be asked of one's priest. But it's fun to explore these issues on here :P – Dan Jul 16 '13 at 16:20
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Historically we have had little trouble identifying pastoral advice questions.

I don't think there is nearly as much confusion over this issue as you make out. In the history of the site as we first discussed the possibility of them before they happened and then as we have handled them coming in, we're never really had much disagreement over what they were. There are been border line questions that we've disagreed which way to handle, but the general concept seems to be fairly widely recognized. We get quite an assortment of them and they aren't easily boxed, but when they have come up we've pretty much agreed on what they were.

There have been no relevant changes to the definition or our site scope.

Here is where I think you start to loose the plot:

Recently, we've agreed to be more strict about pastoral responses [...]

What we discussed last month had nothing to do with identifying or closing pastoral advice questions. We neither proposed nor implemented anything different in what should be identified as such or how they should be handled (closed as off topic). The only thing we did was crack down on comments that were not conforming to our original guideline of not answering. We already had the policy in place for answers, but sometimes the comment feature was being used to leak over content that was answer.

Neither our strictness in handling nor our definition of pastoral advice questions has actually been revisited. We were just bringing comments in line with how we were already handling questions and answers.

As such, there is no reason to panic over the definition of "pastoral advice".

Your previous question raised the issue of whether hypothetical examples would turn an otherwise on topic question into an off topic pastoral advice one. Although I tried to explain that what makes something pastoral advice is first verses second or third person involvement in an issue, I think you ran off with the ball in a totally opposite direction.

Let's start again. I think part of my explanation there bears repeating in light of this question:

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?

The legal and medical professions are full of relevant examples. Would you explain to a stranger on the internet how a lung works and how that operation is affected by various ailments? Sure! Would you diagnose them with asthma and prescribe them medication based on their description of difficulty breathing? No!

The example questions above are not germane to this issue.

None of the questions you posted as examples are actually instances of what we are calling pastoral advice. Neither I nor any other party that I see in comments or meta has even suggested so. The only reason they are being brought up is you suggesting they are somehow related.

To continue using analogies from medicine, I think you've scrambled up the idea of diagnosis and prescription with the abstract issues involved in diseases and treatment. All of the questions you list are of the flavor "What are the symptoms of Lime Disease?" that can easily and factually be answered. Somebody could easily read the answers and try to diagnose themselves, but that is their problem not ours. A pastoral advice question would be more along the lines "What is the cause of this circular rash?". Answering that by saying the root of their problem was Lime Disease would be inappropriate for us.

Of the examples you originally listed, some of them are problem because they were truth questions that introduce another kind of problem we don't handle. The issues with truth questions should not be confused with those of pastoral advice questions although they do often overlap.

Summary

Factual questions about established doctrine and practice are in no way included in our discussion of pastoral advice issues. We quite obviously thrive on questions about documented beliefs and practices. What people choose to go out and do based on the knowledge they may gain here about the beliefs of specific denominations is not our concern. Diagnosing personal problems and prescribing faith based solutions continues to be off topic.

  • "What we discussed last month had nothing to do with identifying or closing pastoral advice questions." I'm not sure why you think I'm confused about this. I didn't say "questions". I said "responses". We are more strict about our responses. Questions are not responses. There are other parts of your answer that misinterpret what I say in a similar and somewhat "hostile" way. The matter seems resolved, though I still don't know what you meant by, emphasis: "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." – Alypius Apr 12 '13 at 23:44
  • @Alypius: I realize you used the word "responses" in that one instance, but the entire rest of your post including examples was all about questions that you were worried would fall under the umbrella and start getting closed. In another instance you even said "we're taking an increasingly active stance against pastoral advice questions". [cont...] – Caleb Apr 13 '13 at 10:15
  • @Alypius: [...cont] The fact that your entire post was about the definition in relation to questions and you clearly represented that as if you thought our stance on them was changing is what lead me to clarify that it is not. You may feel misrepresented, but I have responded to what you communicated. Trying to bring your attention to the ways you were confused or conflating issues is not hostility on my part. – Caleb Apr 13 '13 at 10:15
  • When I was clear, I was clear that I thought a confusing comment you made (see italics above, for example) might have implied a different attitude towards the rules (and am still mildly confused about what you meant by it), not because I thought that we had already changed anything or had discussed any potential changes (you are aware that I was part of that discussion). In any case, it seems clear now that there are and will be no changes, which is good. – Alypius Apr 13 '13 at 21:30
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I think I know which one your talking about and had the context been different I would have closed it immediately. In fact I got a close flag on it and decided to decline it.

Here's the rationale I gave for declining the flag:

I think this is about the mechanics of confession and raises an interesting doctrinal issue. It could probably afford to be divorced of the personal trappings, but it's a very good question.

This is a protestant man, asking a question about becoming a Catholic. I'm unfamiliar with the mechanics of confession, but based on my experience on this site with Catholicism, I was pretty sure there was an objective answer to be had. That said, as I mentioned in the flag decline, I'm inclined to edit out the personal aspects of this question. I didn't last night because I didn't have time.

So in this case, the question is a relatively objective doctrinal/practical one, it just has the trappings of personal advice. I believe the answer given holds that up.

  • And it seems I've identified the wrong question. The question in question is in fact closed...and rightly so, though maybe not because it's pastoral advice. To me it's more along the lines of "is this really a sin" or "can I be forgiven for this" which is a bit more truthy than pastoral...but ultimately they are both OT/Too broad at best – wax eagle Jul 16 '13 at 13:39
  • That wasn't the question - I initially thought it should be closed until I read it again and came to the same conclusion you did. – David Stratton Jul 16 '13 at 23:21
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I'm going to post another answer because I realized I identified the wrong question here. The question I posted my answer about actually has similar trappings to a pastoral advice question but boils down to a doctrinal one. The question you're actually asking about is a different story.

The question that was posed was fractured, and vacillated between pastoral advice and a search for truth. This means that it's either off topic as Pastoral Advice or "Too Broad/Unclear what you're asking" because it's a truth question.

I would probably argue that this question, even if corrected to remove the personal conundrum elements would still qualify for closure under the reasons listed above.

Ultimately it's not a good question for this site an should be the kind of thing that a user should take to his local pastor/priest/counselor or in the suggestion of one user, a medical doctor (apparently a mental condition is thought to be the culprit? that's a little odd to me, but whatevs, it's closed now).

I guess what I'm saying is that a bad question for this site is a bad question for this site no matter what we call it.

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