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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.