St. Augustine, reflecting on a text from Ezekiel, has some strong words for those who would be shepherds, be they bishops, priests, or deacons. Let’s examine two important observations he made during a longer sermon delivered to the priests and people of Hippo.
He begins with a lament over the failure of many shepherds to teach the truth:
After the Lord had shown what wicked shepherds esteem, he also spoke about what they neglect. The defects of the sheep are widespread. There are very few healthy and sound sheep, few that are solidly sustained by the food of truth, and few that enjoy the good pasture God gives them. But the wicked shepherds do not spare such sheep [from a sermon On Pastors by Saint Augustine, bishop (Sermo 46, 9: CCL 41, 535-536)].
St. Augustine speaks here of the fact that far too many are not “sustained by the food of truth.” The weak and unsound condition of the flock is evidence of neglect by the bishops, priests, and deacons of the Church. It is largely a failure to teach truth clearly and to rebuke error.
We are in the midst of one of the most shocking and rapid cultural meltdowns imaginable. We have seen the demise of marriage through divorce, cohabitation, contraception, and its very redefinition. Here are just a few other examples: more than 50 million abortions since the Roe v. Wade decision, sexual promiscuity, rampant single motherhood (and absent fathers), widespread sexually transmitted diseases, sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults (including by clergy), sexual harassment, rampant pornography that is becoming ever baser, celebration of homosexual acts, and a sexual confusion that has led some to claim that there are more than 50 “genders” and that a male can make himself female (and vice versa) simply by declaring it to be so. Add to this the deepening toll of greed and gluttony as well as a dramatic falling away of religious practice. Fewer than one in four Catholics attend Mass weekly, down from more than three in four in the 1950s and before.
In the midst of this demise—in which, just when it seems it can’t get worse, it does—many pulpits are strangely silent, as are catechetical programs, and nominally-Catholic universities and colleges. It’s still business as usual even though most don’t come to Mass anymore to know that. You’d never know that there was a tsunami raging outside the doors.
The fault here lies first and foremost with the clergy, but it also extends to parents, catechists, and lay staff in parishes. Parents fail to educate their children in the faith, warn them of sin and error, and protect them from it as much as humanly possible. Most clergy and parish staff have few, if any, plan to deal with the onslaught. There is little in the way of vigorous sermons that speak to modern confusions. Catechesis does not address it. There are few focused bible studies, seminars, or lectures. Very little in the way of good literature is available in parish bookstores/libraries. Seldom are Catholics encouraged to read edifying Catholic books, watch Catholic programming, listen to Catholic podcasts, or make use of other good sources to refute modern errors.
Taking a moral stand is “controversial,” and too many Catholic leaders, both clergy and lay, are allergic to controversy. There is endless talk about being a “welcoming parish” but never the fuller development of that idea: all are welcome to come and hear the truth of Jesus Christ, repent of their sins, and thereby grow in holiness.
Listen to what St. Augustine says: “There are very few healthy and sound sheep, few that are sustained by the food of truth.” This is the fault of the shepherds. A good shepherd sees the wolf (of untruth and error) coming and drives him away, but a bad one sees the wolf and hides while it devours the flock. The bad shepherd fears controversy; he doesn’t want to risk his popularity or career. He hides, living off the fewer and fewer sheep who remain. We priests, bishops, and deacons need to take a good look at our ministries and honestly assess whether we are good or bad shepherds. Parents and other church leaders need to do the same. The flock is in terrible health, and we cannot simply blame others; this has happened on our watch. Even reasonably good bishops and pastors ought to ask what they can do to be better, what concrete plans they can implement. Parents and other leaders need to do the same.
St. Augustine next turns his concern to a matter even more shocking than neglect: shepherds who actually attack the strong sheep who remain:
It is not enough that they neglect those that are ill and weak, those that go astray and are lost. They even try, so far as it is in their power, to kill the strong and healthy. Yet such sheep live; yes, by God’s mercy they live [Ibid].
There is a frustrating and hurtful dynamic today among many bishops and other clergy to excoriate the very Catholics who have stayed with us through thick and thin, who still come to Mass and believe the doctrines. Too easily they are dismissed as being troublemakers, extreme, and overly rigid. Little attention is given to their concerns even when the matters involve serious doctrinal issues, liturgical abuses, or outright malfeasance. If such Catholics receive any reply at all from bishops or pastoral leaders, it is often terse and stern.
Meanwhile, much effort is expended by Church leaders seeking to placate dissenters and others who oppose us but who often show little or no intent to repent or to be converted. Prominent Catholics, including politicians and even clerics, publicly dissent from Church teaching and are seldom rebuked. But let a young priest say a Mass ad orientem, chant too much Latin, or warn particular Catholics not to approach Communion, and he is often quickly rebuked—even removed. Lay Catholics too are often selectively rebuked. Traditional Catholics are often scolded and their concerns dismissed; dissenting Catholics and others like them are treated with great tolerance and seldom rebuked. They are even honored in our universities and other public settings.
It is obvious that this causes great grief among the faithful who have tried to remain loyal during this maelstrom. At times this grief manifests as anger. While that anger is sometimes misdirected, we in the clergy ought not to so quickly forget that many of them have darned good reasons to be angry. Collectively, we have too often scorned them and/or dismissed their concerns. The Church they love is in shambles, and it has happened on our watch. Yet, as St. Augustine observes, we turn on them as if to kill them, to kill the little hope they have left. This is not only wrong, it is foolish; they make up the larger part of the few who still do come to Mass, and their children attend our shrinking schools. Though our flock is sorely diminished, we turn on them, our own. It is a strange and sad dynamic.
One can only hope that the recent and ongoing sexual abuse scandal will humble us clergy and make us more grateful for the strong faith that God has given this remnant to see beyond our sins and foolishness and still find Christ. They are still here, often in spite of us. As St. Augustine observes, “Yet such sheep live; yes, by God’s mercy they live.”
Yes, these are strong words from St. Augustine. Reaching back to the time of Ezekiel, whose text St. Augustine is commenting upon, the problem of bad shepherds seems a consistent one. Please pray for us shepherds. Much has been given to us; much depends upon us, and much is expected of us. We will face judgment one day. May our ministry not condemn us.
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Strong Words from St. Augustine to those Who Would Be Shepherds