Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Lessons from Sheep-herding

The following paragraphs are excerpted from my article “Lessons in Sheep-herding”, which appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review in November 2008. If you are interested in reading the entire article, please email me.

…The relationship between dog and shepherd is important, too. My dog instinctively knows what to do with the sheep – at least on a basic level. She wants to achieve a balance where they are motionless, but still grouped together. She circles them, she nips at the heels of those who stray, and she endeavors always to keep them under her control. However, she needs to learn that we are a team: I, as the human shepherd, have a plan that I wish to implement with her help. She must pay attention to me, as well as to the sheep, and follow my instructions. One of my mentors watched my dog work, and commented, “She needs to work for you. Right now she’s just working for herself.”

If you take out the word “dog” in the above paragraph, and substitute “priest” and/or “bishop”, I think you have a good picture of the Church! Priests and bishops want to protect their flocks, keep them together, prevent strays. They may even have some “instincts” that help them to achieve this, and they certainly are given graces by virtue of their ordinations that enable them to accomplish God’s will. But they must also be attentive to the Good Shepherd; they must be aware of His plan and carry out His instructions. Otherwise, they are working for themselves, not for God.

We can also alter the picture slightly, and perhaps achieve a better working model of the Church today if we put the Vicar of Christ, the Pope, in the position of the Good Shepherd. Now the issues at hand become quite clear: the Pope must issue the directives; the bishops must obey the Pope; the Faithful must obey the bishops. When the chain of command breaks down, the dogs run amok, and the sheep are led astray.

In herding sheep, I am the shepherd, and my dog does her best to follow my instructions…most of the time! Now and then, she decides it’s better to “go bye” than “away to me”. Once she’s taken action on her decision, it is futile for me to call her back; sometimes it “works” and she keeps the flock together, but usually she succeeds only in scattering them, and we have to do some repair work. Generally, I have a plan, and I want my dog to take a particular action whether or not she “agrees” with me. If she fails to follow my commands, we fail to move the sheep according to plan. It’s as simple as that.

In the Church, our Holy Father is issuing commands to the bishops. Certainly, he is infallible in matters of faith and morals, but we are all required by the obedience of faith to follow his teaching even if it is not issued ex cathedra. Most importantly, the bishops must follow the Pope’s directives, or their flocks are going to scatter. It seems to me, in my limited experience as a Catholic and in my reading of the history of the Church in the United States, that we have had many instances of bishops failing to obey the commands of the Holy Father, resulting in confusion amongst the sheep…er, laity.

My admittedly limited reading of historical Church documents and their implementation in the US has led me to the conclusion that American bishops, especially since Vatican II, have felt that they are entirely within their rights to disregard these documents. I believe this is an outgrowth of the fact that our nation was founded and shaped primarily by Protestants who sought freedom both from foreign monarchs and from the limits those monarchs set on religious practice. As Catholics became increasingly integrated into mainstream American life, they too came to view that “Bishop of Rome” as a foreign domination they’d rather avoid. This image must have been made even more apparent to American Catholics during the time of John F. Kennedy’s political career, as allegiance to the Pope as a potential threat to the integrity of JFK’s presidency was made an issue at that time. I’ve heard more than one lay Catholic refer to “that bunch of celibate old men in Rome” making rules that grates on American sensitivities.

…[Several examples of bishops avoiding obedience to the Pope are given.]

When bishops are unfaithful to their promise of obedience, it seems that several messages are sent to the Faithful. First, these bishops imply that they do not consider the Faithful intelligent enough to recognize the disparity between their actions and the words of the various documents. The laity has easy access to the documents described above, and many of them can and do read them! If a bishop then directly – or even indirectly – opposes them, at least some of the laity will notice. If they don’t, any number of “bloggers” will pick up on the discrepancy and make it public. More and more, reluctant bishops will have to endure their Faithful crying out, “The emperor has no clothes!” And it is undeniably an insult to the intelligence of the laity for bishops to maintain their “innocence” when the evidence is there in black and white.

Second, the bishops seem to be saying that they can ignore the directives of the Vatican with impunity. When bishops issue their own statements or directives that can be seen to be in conflict with what those of the Holy Father, they practically shout from the rooftops that they do not recognize the authority of the Vicar of Christ. And yet, we are all called to obey those in authority over us.

When bishops disobey, they send a third message: “Do as I say, not as I do.” They are saying, “I want you to obey and honor my directives, even though I am not in obedience to the authority above me.” This approach to leading the Faithful backfires in the long run, just as it does in parenting. By setting an example of disobedience, bishops invite their priests as well as the Faithful to engage in that very same behavior with regard to the bishop. Perhaps this helps explain the existence of groups of self-described “loyal dissenters” such as the so-called “Voice of the Faithful” and “Call to Action”, which many bishops consider the bane of their existence. And yet these groups are ostensibly doing exactly what has been modeled for them by some of their bishops and priests.

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