By Phil Lawler / Sep 25, 2019
“God will call the bad shepherds to account for his sheep and for their deaths.” Thus St. Augustine, in his sermon On Pastors.
Do Catholic priests in America still read the Divine Office regularly? (I’m afraid I know the answer to that question. According to a recent survey, about half don’t, although they are under a moral obligation to do so.) Do bishops? Because if they do, they have been getting an earful recently, with excerpts from St. Augustine’s famous sermon sprinkled through the Office of Readings during the past few weeks.
This morning I found myself reminiscing about one prelate whose homilies featured the sort of positive-thinking approach that plays well at Rotary Club luncheons, building toward a rhetorical climax in which he would invariably declare: “Today could be the best day of your life!” No one was offended by these windy homilies, and no hard lessons were learned. St. Augustine was familiar with that preaching style:
But what sort of shepherds are they who for fear of giving offense not only fail to prepare the sheep for the temptations that threaten, but even promise them worldly happiness? God himself made no such promise to this world. On the contrary, God foretold hardship upon hardship in this world until the end of time. And you want the Christian to be exempt from these troubles? Precisely because he is a Christian, he is destined to suffer more in this world.
The negligent shepherd fails to say to the believer: My son, come to the service of God, stand fast in fear and in righteousness, and prepare your soul for temptation. A shepherd who does say this strengthens the one who is weak and makes him strong. Such a believer will then not hope for the prosperity of this world. For if he has been taught to hope for worldly gain, he will be corrupted by prosperity. When adversity comes, he will be wounded or perhaps destroyed.
What should the pastor say to a member of his flock who is engaged in manifest public sin? What should the bishop say, at the funeral for a Catholic celebrity who energetically promoted legal abortion? Again St. Augustine had an answer, quoting from Ezekiel:
If I say to a wicked man, “Wicked wretch, you are to die,” and you do not speak to warn the wicked man to renounce his ways, then he shall die for his sin but I will hold you responsible for his death. If, however, you do warn a wicked man to renounce his ways and repent, and he does not repent, then he shall die for his sin but you yourself will have saved your life.
“Do you see how dangerous it is to keep quiet?” the great saint asked. “If you remain silent, you die: and rightly. You die for your impiety and sin—it is your negligence that kills you.”
Msgr. Charles Pope, in an excellent reflection on St. Augustine’s sermon, sums up this lesson nicely:
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.
Yes, fewer and fewer sheep. Msgr. Pope observes that while pastors avoid the tough issues, thousands of Catholics—especially younger Catholics—head for the church exits. In the world outside the parish complex, the standards of morality plummet, and Catholics stand by as silent witnesses if not active accomplices. There are plenty of reasons for the collapse of Catholic practice and Catholic influence in our society, plenty of blame to be shared. In this case the sheep themselves are certainly not blameless. Still the erosion is becoming steadily more severe, and everyone knows it. Yet, Msgr. Pope remarks:
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.
There are—now as in every generation—faithful, loyal Catholics who do their best to uphold the faith and transform the secular culture through the power of the Gospel. Do they receive the unstinting support of their bishops and pastors? Or is it more accurate to say that yet again St. Augustine hits the target?
It is not enough that they neglect those what are ill and weak, those that go astray and are lost. They even try, so far at it is in their power, to kill the strong and healthy.
St. Augustine, a diligent bishop, had no patience with other bishops, other pastors, who enjoyed their status but neglected their duties. His sermon was obviously written and delivered in anger—righteous anger—anger at the betrayal of men who were chosen to carry on the work of the apostles. Why don’t we see and hear the same sort of righteous anger shown by our bishops today?
Priests molested children, and negligent bishops covered up their crimes; now other bishops apologize. A cardinal-archbishop is exposed as a predator, and other bishops voice their disappointment. A Catholic school hosts a speaker who advocates infanticide, and the local bishop issues a clarification. Where is the righteous anger? Where is the manly outrage?
Whenever I write a column like this one, critical of bishops, I can expect to receive a few comments from readers who hope I will acknowledge the “good bishops,” too. And I will, gladly. The good bishops, in my view, are those who, when confronted with clear evidence of episcopal neglect, will condemn it with the same fiery candor that St. Augustine showed, saying:
Let not such a shepherd deceive himself because the sheep is not dead, for though it still lives, he is a murderer.
Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. https://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/otn.cfm?id=1365