Shepherding Today

Is the Idea Outmoded?

In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has compassion upon the crowd because they were like sheep without a Shepherd. I believe this particular verse is highly relevant today. But I do not say this because of the Pope’s retirement, who made it clear he is not abandoning the Church. Rather, I refer to the perfect storm of contemporary pastoral life that has left a void in proper shepherding. In other words, this particular storm has erupted and left priests who renounce the role of shepherd as well as those who consider themselves good Catholics to wander through life like sheep without a Shepherd. To be clear, Jesus the Christ is and will always be THE Shepherd of the flock. And it was Jesus Who said He will give shepherds to guide the sheep of His flock.

Unlike times past, however, this modern day wandering has a dimension to it that may not be easily reversible as today many of the shepherds of the church eschew true shepherding and the sheep resist the possibility of being shepherded. This situation did not come about in isolation and is the result of many complicated factors that occurred over a span of history. Thus, we are dealing with the aftermath of a perfect storm in which we need to recapture Catholicism in the modern world. The shepherds should always be seeking to raise the flock to the level of God but, in today’s context, the flock would prefer to reduce God to the level of the flock and expect the shepherds to do the same. The problem we face is that, in an effort to remain popular, many shepherds have complied.

Let me explain…

To start, we must acknowledge that the situation in which we find ourselves grew out of the age of the Enlightenment. During that period, a tacit anger was directed toward the Church and an elitism formed among those who were scientifically “in the know.” Discoveries and scientific progress were happening at an astounding rate and anyone not up on the latest science was looked down upon as being out of touch. These discoveries were all beneficial to Man and clearly improved His situation, but did not make His being better. Within this age of rapid change, a secular force began to take hold of the popular mindset and scientific discovery became the new scriptures. Unaware of the fact it was happening, human beings around the globe, and especially in the West, began making doctors and scientists their new priests, i.e., those who were experts in the secular scriptures. Key to understanding what happened is rooted in the approach of science found in thinkers as early as Descartes — start as a skeptic toward everything, including God.

As skepticism became the rule of the day, anything that was previously accepted as authoritative had to be proven anew. It is one thing to learn about gravity or be able to demonstrate a heliocentric universe but that did not mean the experts of the past were demons who willfully misled generations. Those of the past simply operated on the science of the time. In fact, age after age of modern science has seen one expert after another challenged and his or her “science” refuted. Many popular scientific theories did not withstand the scrutinies of the community and many were considered passé within a generation or two, i.e., several times within the lifespan of the average person. This ongoing process left many subconsciously wondering if there is anything definitive at all. The result of this process was that many began to place their faith in progress. Keep in mind that the process is subliminal and not occurring with any overt intent. It is the result of a long process that left a state of uncertainty in the minds of most people and the only thing sure was that everything operated under the law of progress. The result of the process is the point — Man no longer knew where he was going — only that He had to keep going.

With skepticism entrenched and progress as the philosophy of the day, defiance toward authority grew throughout the early part of the 20th century, especially when the industrial revolution was beginning to make a difference. The ire against authority was latent in this stage, but would manifest itself in future generations. The underlying perspective as this period unfolded, which began many centuries earlier but only made the mainstream at this point, was that all things must be questioned to make sure the claim is accurate. This era saw skepticism blossom on a widespread scale and by the middle of the 20th century it became the normative response to all things, especially authority. The stance taken on a broad scale, simply put, was that those in authority had to earn rather than receive respect, not just once but over and over again. Burdened by faith in progress, those in positions of authority had to repeatedly prove to the masses why he or she deserved to have the obedience of those subject to them.

This incessant process gave rise to an irreverence toward those in charge, which became manifest in the rebellious attitude of the 50s and 60s. All authority came to be suspect and had to be tested over and over. However, scientific progress by itself was insufficient. Horrific wars had become commonplace and abuses of power were witnessed by subsequent generations. The problem identified was that these things happened because of blind obedience to authority. This tendency to question authority was fueled by corruption in democratic governments in the 70s and the threat of totalitarianism from the Communist world. All of this together is the making of a perfect storm. Even long before the scandals in the Church became public, which in hindsight was a growing time bomb for the Church, the storm was being fueled by a desire in the Church to express Herself more clearly to a world in turmoil. Unfortunately, in this expression there was a disconnect between the magisterium of the Church and the local shepherds in the church. It is in these pieces that we find a trajectory that leads to the degradation of shepherding.

As we know, Vatican II was not a council of “change” or “progress” but one in which the Traditional Teachings of Christ needed to be re-expressed to a world that had truly become modern in the philosophical sense. Although never intended or foreseen by the council fathers, many priests and theologians began to abdicate their pastoral responsibility in favor of being popular in the mind of the flock. The reason for the abdication was due to the misperception that the Church was progressive like everything else when, in fact, She was not. Sadly, during this period of societal upheaval and confusion, many priests turned to secular sources to become “effective leaders” and to be “more pastoral.” These sources were along the lines of contemporary psychological models in which trust is gained by not challenging or judging a person but listening and affirming a person where he or she is at. The problem is that the technique is built on relativism and subjectivism. It would not be long before this same worldview was preached from pulpits around the country. The clearest example was the overt rejection by some priests of the Teaching in Humanae Vitae.

As we know, relativism allows a sheep to pick and choose what he or she considers to be right and wrong. Combined with emotivism and hedonism, the relativist concludes that the good is what feels good and evil is what feels bad. If someone disagrees with a sheep’s personal assessment of a given act, rather than try and understand the Truth of the act as expressed by the authority, the relativist merely rejects the discordant “opinion” espoused by the errant other. Ultimately, the relativist will have to reject the other because it is the only way he or she believes personal harmony can be achieved. Implicit in this rejection, therefore, is a denial that the other is an authority.

The relativist criteria would eventually be applied to and embraced by those who are shepherds in the Church. In this regard, many of the Church’s pastors falsely believed it was important to tell a sheep what he or she wanted to hear rather than what he or she needed to hear. Within this milieu, the sheep are now formed in the expectation that affirmation of what they wanted is truly “pastoral” rather than being told what is needed for salvation. The eventual result was that sheep would only seek shepherds that told them what they wanted to hear. A relativist sheep only seeks shepherds who speak in terms of what affirms their fallen desires and allows him or her to remain mired in acting on those errant preferences. In the aftermath of the perfect storm, many shepherds began preaching a secular gospel in fear of “losing” the sheep to some other shepherd. This discordant voice among the shepherds of the Church, and the resistance within the flock of being shepherded, has left many sheep to live as if there is no Shepherd at all.