Posted July 22, 2015
In the first of today’s Readings (Jeremiah 23: 1-6) God, through the prophet Jeremiah, laments that the ‘shepherds’ were not doing their job. The ‘shepherds’ were the prophets and priests whose role it was in Israelite society to keep the people on the straight and narrow and to censure their wicked ways. God vows to get rid of the lot of them and replace them with shepherds after his own heart. Seven centuries on, to judge from today’s Gospel reading (Mark 6: 30-34), the people of Israel are still having trouble with their shepherds, or rather, Jesus perceives, they don’t have shepherds at all. Jesus had compassion on the crowds for they were like sheep without a shepherd.
Is any of this relevant to us? I mean, do we even need shepherds in this day and age? Do we still need prophets and priests, or indeed any other authority, to teach us what is right and what is wrong, or to censure our wicked ways? We are civilized and educated people. We can surely look to our own minds and consciences for moral guidance. We are not sheep in need of a shepherd. Can we not think for ourselves?
But can we? Or at least do we? Undoubtedly many people do have firm and personally formed convictions about what is right and what is wrong, about what promotes the true good of individuals and society, and what diminishes it. But there is a general tendency, one that is very typical of our age, for people to surrender, whether consciously or not, to moral influences outside of themselves, emanating from sources that may have no concern at all for moral truth or the authentic good of individuals and society. The place of prophets and priests has been taken over by more subtle and more persuasive sources of authority. As someone said: People are still sheep, only now the shepherd is the media.
In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the pigs in the farmyard conspired to wrest power from Farmer Jones and rule the farmyard themselves. The first thing they did was to teach the less intelligent farm animals to condense all moral truth into a single, politically correct, easily repeatable slogan: ‘Four legs good, two legs bad’! The lesser farm animals espoused this new morality enthusiastically. The sheep especially took to bleating the slogan for hours on end, encouraged, no doubt, by the fact that ‘Two legs bad’ resonated well with their native language – although, when the pigs learnt to walk on their hind legs and displayed their new ability to the lesser animals, the sheep came out spontaneously with a revised authorized slogan: ‘Four legs good, two legs better.’
Now it seems to me that society today is in danger of being persuaded to condense all moral truth into one or two simplistic slogans, so that, as in Orwell’s farmyard, any attempt to introduce deeper and more wide-ranging considerations is immediately drowned out by slogans of the ‘Four legs good’ variety. Certainly, I have heard TV debates and even debates in Parliament in which the level of moral discourse rarely rose above the sophistication of the farmyard in Orwell’s allegory. At all events, the consciences of groups and individuals are being formed not by personal reflection and unbiased debate but by TV programme makers and newspaper columnists with agendas of their own; or by experts with bags of information and no moral purpose; and often by a debased value system that shrouds society like a miasma and no one knows, or cares, where it is coming from.
The consequences of all this in our civilized and educated society are plain to see. Large sections of society are worse off than Jeremiah’s sheep: disorientated, at the mercy of predators, locked in desiccated pastures, with no one and nothing to provide them with direction and still less with inspiration. Like Orwell’s sheep, they are content with mindlessly bleating the slogans. The absence of a recognized moral leadership combined with the inability of individuals to think critically and constructively for themselves has led, not surprisingly, to some degree of chaos in the moral, social, and cultural life of the nation. Morality is reduced to the assertion of rights. There is no such thing as moral evil, only the inevitable consequences of emotional or economic deprivation. Routine immorality is sanctioned by law. Family life is fast becoming a thing of the past. As the Bishop of London once put it: ‘Literally millions of children grow up without knowing a stable, loving, secure family life – and that is not to count the hundreds of thousands more who don’t even make it out of the womb each year.’ Society is inured to violence because violence is displayed on television in most homes most of the day. Values are turned on their heads. Even our quality newspapers (not to mention the daily comics) give as much prominence to celebrities flaunting pointless lifestyles as they do to international crises and humanitarian disasters. Nonsense and noise have taken the place of culture in the population at large. That is what happens in a society in which, far from thinking for themselves, people’s minds are mesmerized by the totalitarianism of money, glamour and sex.
It is interesting that Jeremiah in other places, and other ancient prophets before and after him, envisaged a time when there would be no need for human shepherds, because God himself would be the shepherd. Moral truth would come straight from God. ‘They will all be taught of God’, Isaiah had said. Or, as Jeremiah himself will put it: ‘There will be no need for a person to say to neighbour, “Know the Lord”, for from the youngest to the eldest they shall all know me.’ God will dispense with human shepherds. But then, of course, the metaphor breaks down, for the sheep will no longer be sheep but autonomous moral agents, with no excuse and no one to blame if they fail to appropriate moral truth, to assimilate it into their persons and to become each one his own shepherd. Christians believe that these prophecies of an ideal future were at least partly realized in the fact and the life and the teaching of Jesus. We are supposed to be living in that age when God is our shepherd, or rather, when under God’s guidance we shepherd ourselves. Now, by God’s dispensation, is the age of self-shepherding.
There is a certain Protestantism about this notion of self-shepherding, or there would be if it were the whole story. (Luther went wrong, in this and other matters, by concentrating on half the truth to the exclusion of the other half.) Relax: God is not going to make Protestants of us all. But, equally important, neither does he want to leave us in a complacent Catholicism, where you are supposed to obey and it’s someone else’s job to do the thinking. I remember a much-loved Archbishop, long since passed to his eternal reward, who when asked in an interview what he made of the allegation that Catholics were priest-ridden, retorted: ‘Of course Catholics are priest-ridden; and the priests are bishop-ridden; and the bishops are Pope-ridden: and the Pope is ridden by the Holy Spirit.’ It’s not as easy as that, of course, and it’s far, far more serious. For each one of us, whatever our riding arrangements, has a personal, non-transferable responsibility to discern God’s moral truth, to inform ourselves of the issues at stake, to form our consciences on objective criteria, and above all to make gospel values luminous and unmistakeable in our minds and our lives.
It is part of the wisdom of our Catholic tradition that even in this age of self-shepherding Christ speaks to us not only in our hearts but also through the Church’s magisterium, that is, the Pope, and the bishops world-wide under the authority of the Pope. Hence the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that while members of the Church are to shoulder responsibility for finding their way through the moral maze, they must do so ‘under the guidance of Christian wisdom and with due attention to the teaching authority of the Church’.
This is not a peculiarly Catholic point of view. It accords perfectly with the practice of Luther’s hero, St Paul. No one was more passionately convinced than St Paul that every individual Christian possesses God’s Spirit, has the love of God poured out in his heart, has God’s law written in the depth of his being, has an instinct for moral truth. Yet no one articulated God’s moral demands and urged them upon the Christian faithful more insistently than St Paul, or with a keener awareness of possessing a God-given authority to do so.
Certainly we have conscience to guide us, and the inner promptings of God’s Spirit. But conscience and the promptings of the Spirit should themselves lead us to pay ‘due attention’ to the guidance the Church provides through its God-given shepherds of the flock. Paying them due attention is part of the self-shepherding that is the responsibility of every member of the Church.
Fr Tom Deidun