Through the prophet Jeremiah, God rebuked the shepherds of Israel for their false teaching and bad example. (Jer 23:1-6) They allowed the sheep to stray and substituted their own opinions for God’s covenant, resulting in error and confusion. When Jesus came centuries later, the people were scattered like sheep without a shepherd. He loved them and took pity on them, teaching by word and example. (Mk 6:34)
Over the last century, many Christian leaders, including Catholic priests and bishops, have neglected or misled their flocks. This is especially evident in the widespread embrace of individualism, subjectivism, and consumerism and in the abandonment of Christian understandings of the human person, sexuality, marriage, family, and civic life.
Throughout the history of God’s people, shepherds and sheep repeatedly prove unfaithful because we’re prone to error, selfishness, and sin. That’s why each of us and the entire Church is semper purificanda (“always in need of being purified”) in order to be perfected in our knowledge, love, and generous service of God and neighbor.
To understand the current crisis, we must recognize that before our shepherds were ordained, they were sheep raised in particular families and parishes. Today, they no more intentionally teach error than their parents and pastors sought to mislead them. Yet falsehoods were and are taught. It happens frequently, or our parishes and families would be very different.
Most often, the clergy and laity don’t alter or abandon Jesus’ teaching because they explicitly want to contradict his love and truth. Instead, they believe their personal experiences have revealed a different and deeper meaning of the Gospel that is more compatible with their circumstances. They may even have been taught erroneous beliefs and practices at home, in religion class, or in the seminary. Of course, it’s also possible that such distortions are selfish efforts to make Christian faith and morals match their own opinions.
St. Paul calls the result being “conformed to the world” rather than to Christ. Facing that reality in our lives and in the Church can cause sorrow, shame, confusion, frustration, and anger. Those responses arise because we want everyone to know and love God and to share his abundant and eternal life. We recognize that living in false ways, innocently or culpably, is harmful to us and others, and we want to spare everyone the needless suffering caused by error and sin. We especially want our pastors to provide authentic witness and support.
But if our response to error and sin doesn’t remain rooted in love for God and neighbor, it can take corrupt forms that lead to denial (to avoid dealing with the problem), despair (because we feel powerless) or rage (because we become obsessed with vanquishing an unresolvable evil). Only through union with Christ can we find the fortitude and charity needed to see and respond in the authentic way he did.
We know what Jesus saw: wayward shepherds and scattered sheep. We know how he responded: with pity born of love. We know the action he took: he taught by bearing witness to God’s truth and love and by drawing everyone to himself. Thus he enabled all of us – shepherds and sheep – to share his joys and sorrows over all that is right and wrong with ourselves, others, the Church, and the world.
The Good News is that we have no reason to fear the truth, not even when it reveals harmful or catastrophic situations caused by error and sin. We can rejoice and be glad in that revelation despite the strong and painful emotions it causes. Our joy comes from facing the truth and finding Jesus already standing there, drawing us to himself so that we can share his life and respond by repenting of sin, abandoning error, and dealing as best we can with whatever has gone wrong in our life and in the Church.
Yoked to Christ, our burden is “light” and can’t destroy us the way unending denial, despair, or rage would. On the contrary, it brings us hope and life – even in the face of evils that won’t be set right this side of Heaven. With him, we are able to accept the endless need for purification while admitting and bearing with our failures and those of our shepherds.
The sorrow we experience in bearing with evil won’t overwhelm or paralyze us. In Jesus, it becomes a continual motivation for engaging in the struggle, persevering in prayer, and (if Providence permits) correcting particular evils in our midst.
This purification and sorrow can be borne even if our lives, families, parishes, nation, and culture are humanly speaking destroyed, because in Christ nothing can separate us from God and his love. Indeed, such purification and sorrow can be borne precisely because they are God’s love working in us as we grapple with our fallen nature and our troubled families, Church, and world.
There’s no need, then, in the face of the challenges and sufferings of life to make Jesus’ Gospel fit our expectations or to despair because of scandals and heartbreaking defeats. We need only welcome the daily witness of purification and carrying the Cross with him. That’s the Gospel.
Evidently, our wayward shepherds were never taught this Gospel, they forgot it, or they choose to subvert it. Many of the scattered sheep are in the same predicament. They’re now restless wanderers: the blind leading the blind.
Ignoring, fearing, or resenting the situation won’t help. Nor will conspiracy theories, simplistic “solutions,” and diatribes. Only by acknowledging the scandalous reality – and the error and sin of our own lives – can we discover in Jesus the compassion, hope, and strength needed to be faithful witnesses to him, his truth, and his love.
Under Providence, such a witness may or may not resolve crises in ways we consider timely and satisfactory, but any other response will certainly prove harmful and futile for ourselves and the Church. We must persevere in our witness and pray for ourselves and our shepherds: “Lord Jesus, have mercy on us!”
*Image: The Good Shepherd (Le bon pasteur) by James Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]
You may also enjoy:
John M. Grondelski’s A Modest Proposal for the Bishops’ Fall Meeting
Robert Royal’s Dear Bishops: Clear Your Minds of Cant and Can’t