“Woe to the pastors, that destroy and tear the sheep of my pasture, saith the Lord. Therefore thus saith the Lord the God of Israel to the pastors that feed my people: You have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold I will visit upon you for the evil of your doings, saith the Lord.”
— Jer 23:1-2 (DJV)
This Sunday’s readings offer a cautionary tale to our pastors. In Prophet Jeremiah’s day, the priests of Israel had displeased God for not shepherding His flock. They had squandered the great responsibility God had bestowed upon them… and God would have none of it. They are reproached in the harshest terms possible and threatened with severe punishment.
For some time, I have seen these Bible passages being wielded by priests (and lay apologists) from an ultraconservative sector of the Church, trying to use it as a justification for their dissent against the post-concilliary Church (and against Pope Francis’ teachings in particular.)
This reading (so they argue) applies to the priests who have succumbed to the spirit of the age, so that they no longer shepherd the flock, scattered by a modern culture hostile to Catholic sexual morality. These priests don’t preach sound doctrine from the pulpits, leaving the sheep lost and thirsting for the truth that the world will not provide them (and tragically, nor the Church.)
There is an element of truth to this. It is indeed true that many of our priests shy away from preaching the fullness of Catholic doctrine, especially those teachings deemed unpopular by modern-day conventions. And liberal pastors don’t just shy away from it, but rather actively dissent against those teachings. The problem is that ultraconservatives also accuse Pope Francis and those who are faithful to him of doing the same…
And this is when they lose all reason… and in fact, when the tables actually get turned on them.
Remember the hallmarks of bad shepherds according to Prophet Jeremiah. They 1) scatter the flock, 2) drive the flock away and 3) have not visited the flock.
Regarding accusation no. 1, many who dissent from Pope Francis’ magisterium (and namely Amoris Laetitia) will affirm that the flock’s scattering comes from division. A division borne out of the “confusion” created by Amoris Laetitia and by Francis’ alleged shying away from traditional teachings of the Church uncomfortable to the modern ear.
The problem with this approach is that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Dissenters will denounce division in the Church, while they are the ones sowing it. For the division is mainly between those who accept the teachings of the Pope and those who don’t. It is, therefore, extremely ironic (not to say dishonest) to have people dissenting from the Pope using “division” as an argument.
As the Catechism of the Church states (emphasis mine): “The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magisterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him” (CCC #100).
The pastors who promote an “alternative magisterium” based on disobedience to the Pope’s teachings and his manifest will are the ones creating division among the Church. Therefore, they are the ones who are scattering the flock, whenever some of Christ’s sheep are led astray from the rod of His Vicar.
But there are other ways to scatter the flock. And they are related to the other two signs of bad shepherding: drive the sheep away and not visiting them.
Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia is all about reuniting the sheep who have been scattered by today’s sexual liberality, so that they are now trapped in situations of sin with difficult resolution. Pope Francis knows that these sheep will only come back to the Church if we show them mercy, for their life story is wounded and they need a field hospital to be cured. They don’t need someone to constantly judge them and just lay down the Law at their feet, forcing them into a path they are not ready to walk since they are still on the first steps of their faith journey. Too much a strict and obsessive focus on the Law will only drive these sheep away.
Francis doesn’t want to wait until they come to the Church, however. He wants the Church to come out of its sacred roost and come out to the spiritual peripheries, imbued with an evangelizing spirit. His Holiness wants us to “meet them where they are.” He wants pastors “with the smell of the sheep.” In short, he wants pastors to “visit his flock.”
Shepherds who stand against Francis’ appeals and teachings are, therefore, sabotaging his efforts to reunite the scattered flock. Their rigorist and pharisaical attitudes, especially when manifested publicly on social media or Catholic media drives people away, who might otherwise be drawn by Francis’ merciful demeanor. And they don’t visit their flock, at least not the scattered flock, for they confuse the whole of the flock with just a fraction: the supposed “remnant” of perfect sheep. Ironically, these are many times sheep who got scattered because they followed such pastors instead of Christ, represented in the person of His Vicar.
In short, pastors who abuse Jeremiah’s words to foster dissent against Francis should reassess their position. They should not feel vindicated by the Prophet’s warnings, but should fear them. For, as pastors, they are endowed with a grave responsibility indeed. It would be better if they first (re)learned how to be sheep, before they put on their shepherd attire again, and stand condemned.
[Photo credit: “The Bad Shepherd”; Jan Brueghel, the Younger; ca. 1616]
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.