Shepherds Become Wolves? The Coming Storm

09-03-2023Weekly Reflection

The pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: The pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism. Pope Benedict XVI

We are now in hurricane-season. We are in hurricane season in the Church and have been for some time. A spiritual hurricane, category-five, is approaching the Church at this socalled “Synod on Synodality” to take place in Rome in October. It is a gathering at the behest of the Pope of bishops, clergy, and laity to discuss themes laid out in a working-document issued earlier this year called in Latin the Instrumentum Laboris (IL). The IL itself has set up the conditions for the hurricane but it is not an authoritative document for teaching in the Church. Quite the contrary.

Some commentary on this document: Stephen White of Catholic University points out: … it reads like a document drafted by a committee in summation of other documents drafted by committees. The whole thing is (unfortunately but, again, unsurprisingly) a bit of a word salad, riddled with jargon and buzzwords. Some of this is no doubt due to language and translation issues….. I’m not sure anyone reading it would come away with a clearer sense of what synodality is, or why it is essential to the mission and life of the Church, though I suppose that’s what the Synod itself is for. There were also concerns about phrases like “listening and welcoming” in this document, the Holy Spirit, and “sense of the faith.” Theologian Terrence Sweney commented: So much, perhaps everything, depends on what we mean by these words. What do we mean by listening and welcoming? I live in the Northeastern US. I am surrounded by empty churches with “All are welcome” signs. Now they add affirming to them. But they’re empty. Full churches are communities that give you something to be welcomed into. That is to say, an actually robust life of worship, service, and witness to the Truth.’ Hence the importance of questions: what are they welcoming? What are they affirming?

The phrase “sense of the faith” was discussed by the International Theological Commission of the Church. It reminded the Church: 114. The Church appreciates the high human and moral values espoused by democracy, but she herself is not structured according to the principles of a secular political society. The Church, the mystery of the communion of humanity with God, receives her constitution from Christ. It is from him that she receives her internal structure and her principles of government. Public opinion cannot, therefore, play in the Church the determinative role that it legitimately plays in the political societies that rely on the principle of popular sovereignty, though it does have a proper role in the Church, as we shall seek to clarify below. (emphasis added)

Addressing the current concerns the Commission said: 118. It is clear that there can be no simple identification between the sensus fidei and public or majority opinion. These are by no means the same thing. i) First of all, the sensus fidei is obviously related to faith, and faith is a gift not necessarily possessed by all people, so the sensus fidei can certainly not be likened to public opinion in society at large. Then also, while Christian faith is, of course, the primary factor uniting members of the Church, many different influences combine to shape the views of Christians living in the modern world. As the above discussion of dispositions implicitly shows, the sensus fidei cannot simply be identified, therefore, with public or majority opinion in the Church, either. Faith, not opinion, is the necessary focus of attention. Opinion is often just an expression, frequently changeable and transient, of the mood or desires of a certain group or culture, whereas faith is the echo of the one Gospel which is valid for all places and times. ii) In the history of the people of God, it has often been not the majority but rather a minority which has truly lived and witnessed to the faith. (emphasis added) The Old Testament knew the ‘holy remnant’ of believers, sometimes very few in number, over against the kings and priests and most of the Israelites. Christianity itself started as a small minority, blamed and persecuted by public authorities. In the history of the Church, evangelical movements such as the Franciscans and Dominicans, or later the Jesuits, started as small groups treated with suspicion by various bishops and theologians.

In many countries today, Christians are under strong pressure from other religions or secular ideologies to neglect the truth of faith and weaken the boundaries of ecclesial community. It is therefore particularly important to discern and listen to the voices of the ‘little ones who believe’ (Mk 9:42).

The Synodal-Way pathology from Germany is precisely the rejection of the Church’s moral teachings on sexuality to conform it to current secular political agendas and this will be a major threat and influence in the October synod. This is a primary example of shepherds becoming wolves. A symptom of this is the rush of certain bishops to bless same-sex unions which is rejection of God’s commandments and a blasphemous mocking of God in the name of a blessing with slogans like love is love. The love of friendship can be same-sex. The love belonging to man and woman beholden to the procreation and raising of children and unity in life-long marriage is specific to man and woman. This is being rejected in various sectors of the Church including bishops and clergy. A classic example of the wolf-shepherd is the Arian crisis where a majority of bishops in the 4th century departed from Catholic Faith by denying that Jesus is equal to His Father as being God as well as Man. The laity sensed this and were instrumental in the triumph of Catholic teaching following heroic bishops like Saints Athanasius, Hilary, and Ambrose. This heresy came from clergy, the priest Arius and the bishop Nestorius, with major interference from the political sphere by the eastern Roman Emperors.

If the shepherd becomes a wolf, the first duty of the flock is to defend itself. Normally, the doctrine of the faith comes from the bishops to the faithful, and it is not for the faithful, who are subordinates according to the order of the faith, to judge their superiors. Yet every Christian, precisely because he may use the Christian name, has not only the necessary knowledge of the essentials of the treasure of revelation, but also the duty to protect them. The principle is invariable, whether it is a matter of faith or of conduct of life, that is, of dogma or of morals. The true faithful are those who, in such circumstances, take from their baptism alone the guide of their conduct, not the faint-hearted who, under the deceptive pretext of submission to existing authorities, postpone their opposition to the enemy in the expectation of receiving an instruction that is neither necessary nor appropriate. A betrayal like that of Nestorius is rare in the Church, but it can happen that some shepherds, for this or that reason, remain silent in situations where the faith itself is at stake. Fr. Prosper Gueranger, The Liturgical Year, Paris 1889. Fr. Gueranger was a pioneer in the restoration of the liturgy and monastic life in France. Bishop Strickland of Tyler Texas issued what can be styled as non-negotiable teachings of the Church:

1. Christ established One Church—the Catholic Church—and, therefore, only the Catholic Church provides the fullness of Christ’s truth and the authentic path to His salvation for all of us.

2. The Eucharist and all the sacraments are divinely instituted, not developed by man. The Eucharist is truly Christ’s Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, and to receive Him in Communion unworthily (i.e. in a state of grave, unrepentant sin) is a devastating sacrilege for the individual and for the Church. (1 Cor 11:27-29)

3. The Sacrament of Matrimony is instituted by God. Through Natural Law, God has established marriage as between one man and one woman faithful to each other for life and open to children. Humanity has no right or true ability to redefine marriage.

4. Every human person is created in the image and likeness of God, male or female, and all people should be helped to discover their true identities as children of God, and not supported in a disordered attempt to reject their undeniable biological and Godgiven identity.

5. Sexual activity outside marriage is always gravely sinful and cannot be condoned, blessed, or deemed permissible by any authority inside the Church.

6. The belief that all men and women will be saved regardless of how they live their lives (a concept commonly referred to as universalism) is false and is dangerous, as it contradicts what Jesus tells us repeatedly in the Gospel. Jesus says we must “deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him.” (Matt 16:24) He has given us the way, through His grace, to victory over sin and death through repentance and sacramental confession. It is essential that we embrace the joy and hope, as well as the freedom, that come from repentance and humbly confessing our sins. Through repentance and sacramental confession, every battle with temptation and sin can be a small victory that leads us to embrace the great victory that Christ has won for us.

7. In order to follow Jesus Christ, we must willingly choose to take up our cross instead of attempting to avoid the cross and suffering that Our Lord offers to each of us individually in our daily lives.

8. The mystery of redemptive suffering—i.e. suffering that Our Lord allows us to experience and accept in this world and then offer back to Him in union with His suffering—humbles us, purifies us, and draws us deeper into the joy of a life lived in Christ. That is not to say that we must enjoy or seek out suffering, but if we are united to Christ, as we experience our daily sufferings we can find the hope and joy that exist amidst the suffering and persevere to the end in all our suffering. (cf. 2 Tim 4:6-8)

In the weeks and months ahead, many of these truths will be examined as part of the Synod on Synodality. We must hold fast to these truths and be wary of any attempts to present an alternative to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or to push for a faith that speaks of dialogue and brotherhood, while attempting to remove the fatherhood of God. When we seek to innovate upon what God in His great mercy has given us, we find ourselves upon treacherous ground. The surest footing we can find is to remain firmly upon the perennial teachings of the faith.