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Good Shepherding from Augustine to Catherine of Siena

Above painting: St Catherine before the Pope at Avignon by Giovanni di Paolo (1403–1482), Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

In chapter thirteen of his Gospel, St. Matthew recounts a famous parable of the Lord:

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the householder came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then has it weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn’ (Mt 13:24–30).

I don’t know about you, but I have heard more than a few homilies interpret this story of the wheat and the weeds to mean—you guessed it—that shepherds should be “tolerant” and “not crack down” on people who teach error and give scandal. As if the message was: “Let everyone alone to think, say, and do as they please, because at the end of time God will sort it all out—it’s not our business.” That, I’m afraid to say, has been more or less the modus operandi of pastoral government in the Church since the Second Vatican Council. The shepherds gaily spare the rod and spoil the child.

Free speech is much in the news these days, and we can all understand that a certain freedom of speech is healthy and necessary in the secular sphere—otherwise it will simply be dominated by the unscrupulous purveyors of propaganda, whether it be “progressive” or “extremist” (and let’s face it, there are wackos on both ends of the political spectrum at this point; but madness is the normal condition of the liberals, whereas only some conservatives are surrendered to it). We can rejoice that, as a wag put it, “I guess your Tesla just bought my free speech.” In a world of iron-fisted social media policing, we like the chance to speak our mind, share unwoke material, and deflate the monstrous balloons of ideology.

But, as I have explained in detail elsewhere, Catholics do not subscribe to the Enlightenment theory of “free speech,” controlled only by a positivistically-conceived “social order.” For us, the principle is not that everyone gets to say whatever he or she wishes, including nasty, vicious, polluted, corrosive content, but rather that everyone has a right to seek and to speak the truth in charity. Within the Church especially, theologians are not actually free to teach heresy; if they are allowed to do so, it is a sign of the weakness of church governance, of a lukewarm embrace of truth, of a failure to care for the common good of the flock. Unlike the German Synodal Way, the Church does not consider a double doctorate in Marxist sociology and liberal Protestant biblical hermeneutics to constitute a right, much less a duty, to propagate one’s deviant opinions.

By this circuitous route, we return to the Gospel parable. Is it a sort of proto-Enlightenment appeal to “let it all go” and let God deal with the mess at the end of time?

That’s surely not the way the Fathers of the Church read this Gospel parable. Take, for instance, St. Augustine’s view:

When that fear [of uprooting the wheat] has ceased, and when the safety of the crop is certain, that is, when the crime is known to all [i.e., no longer a secret], and is acknowledged as so execrable as to have no defenders, or not such as might cause any fear of a schism, then severity of discipline does not sleep, and its correction of error is so much the more efficacious as the observance of love had been more careful. . . . But the multitude of the unrighteous is to be struck at with a general reproof, whenever there is opportunity of saying aught among the people.

Parallels to this passage may readily be found in St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory the Great, and many other classic authors (and bishops). As an application of Augustine’s policy, one might imagine a prickly “Nancy Pelosi weed” or a poisonous “Joe Biden tare” that has grown luxuriant and towers above the wheat, providing cover and support for other weeds that choke the life out of many little plants around them. It’s time for the prudent householder to take action against such mature weeds—for they are manifest to all, and they will kill the other plants if they are not contained. St. John Chrysostom, by the way, notes that “pulling up the weed” means putting the heretic to death, which he happens to think a bad idea. Yet for Chrysostom, restraining heretics in every possible way is not only licit but obligatory. At the very least, he would have considered excommunication a no-brainer. One simply doesn’t allow the swine to trample the pearls.

In case someone might be tempted to write off these Church Fathers as crusty, intolerant men who did not have enough compassion—unlike those modern-day trumpet-blowers of mercy, who boast of their mercifulness to all (except to traditionalists, who barely deserve tolerance)—the Lord raised up the great Saint Catherine of Siena, who was more “virile” than countless clergy of her day and ours:

No rank, whether of civil or divine law, can be held in grace without holy justice. For those who are not corrected and those who do not correct are like members beginning to rot, and if the doctor were only to apply ointment without cauterizing the wound, the whole body would become fetid and corrupt. So it is with prelates or with anyone else in authority. If they see the members who are their subjects rotting because of the filth of deadly sin and apply only the ointment of soft words without reproof, those members will never get well. Rather, they will infect the other members with whom they form one body under their one shepherd. But if those in authority are truly good doctors to those souls, as were those glorious shepherds [the saints], they will not use ointment without the fire of reproof. And if the members are still obstinate in their evildoing, they will cut them off from the congregation so that they will not infect the whole body with the filth of deadly sin (Dialogue, ch. 119 [Paulist ed., p. 224]).

And again in the words of the Lord to St. Catherine:

They [bad clergy] do not pay me my due of glory, nor do they do themselves the justice of holy and honorable living or desire for the salvation of souls or hunger for virtue. Thus they commit injustice against their subjects and neighbors, and do not correct them for their sins. Indeed, as if they were blind and did not know, because of their perverse fear of incurring others’ displeasure, they let them lie asleep in their sickness. They do not consider that by wishing to please creatures they are [in reality] displeasing both them and me, your Creator (Dialogue, ch. 122 [p. 234]).

Would it be fair to say that this is the kind of woman who should be “promoted” in the Church today, and given more responsibility? And yet, in her sanctity, Catherine would never have desired—nay, she would have hid herself from—a post at a Vatican dicastery as per Praedicate Evangelium. Quite apart from humility and a sense of right order, she was too busy preaching the Gospel, putting it into practice, and thwacking renegade authorities to have time for rearranging office chairs on the deck of Peter’s barque.

There you have it: from Augustine of Hippo to Catherine of Siena, and everyone before, in between, and after them, we have a startlingly clear portrait of the God-fearing and God-pleasing shepherd: he who corrects the sinner directly and without embarrassment; he who never allows notorious sinners to sleep in their false beliefs; he does not prefer words that are soft, tender, and vague, but proclaims the whole truth uncompromisingly, in season and out of season, lest he be guilty of a failure of real charity towards men; and, last but not least, he is willing to cut off the contagion decisively when it threatens to infect the rest of the body.

The Second Sunday after Easter (N.B.: the traditional Western calendar does not talk about “Sundays of Easter,” but “Sundays after Easter,” treating the whole Easter octave as one great feast), which is what follows Low Sunday or Quasimodo, is the well-beloved “Good Shepherd Sunday,” where the Epistle from St. Peter concludes: “For you were as sheep going astray, but you are now converted to the shepherd and bishop of your souls,” and where the Lord says in the Gospel from that according to St. John:

At that time: Jesus said to the Pharisees: I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep. But the hireling, and he that is not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and fleeth: and the wolf catcheth and scattereth the sheep: and the hireling fleeth, because he is a hireling, and he hath no care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd: and I know Mine, and Mine know Me, as the Father knoweth Me, and I know the Father: and I lay down My life for My sheep. And other sheep I have that are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear My voice, and there shall be one fold and one shepherd.

Many, too many, are the shepherds today who flee from both secular wolves and ecclesiastical wolves, who leave their sheep and flee—flee into comfortable mansions, flee off to the endless meetings of bureaucracy, flee to this or that fundraiser or party or “retreat.” What happens is obvious to all: the wolf of modern media scatters the flock, the wolf of error bites them, the wolf of deadly vice catches and consumes them. This is the behavior of hirelings who don’t believe in holy truth and holy justice, who, it seems, couldn’t care less about their people’s final judgment or their own. But all the while we do have a good, faithful, loving, just, merciful, absolutely unfailing shepherd, on whom we may always rely, and to whom we may always flee for protection from all evil: Jesus Christ our Lord, the eternal Head of the Church. How consoling it is to hear, or to sing, these words for Sunday’s Communion: “Ego sum pastor bonus, allelúia: et cognósco oves meas, et cognóscunt me meæ, allelúia, allelúia.”

We are nevertheless still meant to have good shepherds beneath and in service of the Good Shepherd. May He send us the bishops and priests we need, who will rule, teach, and sanctify their flocks according to the law of Christ, the Magisterium of the Church, and the dire needs of the hour.


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