Rorate Caeli

Guest-post: "Where Are the Good Shepherds?"

by Peter Kwasniewski

The Gospel for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany is the famous parable of the Lord that we find in chapter 13 of St. Matthew’s Gospel:

“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.’” (v. 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.

This is not, however, the way the Fathers of the Church read this Gospel parable. Take, for instance, St. Augustine’s reading of it:

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 obserance 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” 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—they are manifest to all, and they will kill the other plants if they are not contained. St. John Chrysostom notes that pulling up the weed means putting the heretic to death, which he thinks a bad idea; but restraining them in every possible way is not only licit but obligatory.

In case someone might be tempted to write off these Church Fathers as crusty, intolerant men who did not have enough compassion, 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:

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])

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.

May the Lord send us many good shepherds, bishops and priests 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!

[Image: Hierarchs and royalty in hell, Orthodox Cathedral of the Resurrection - Podgorica, Montenegro.]