“You Cannot Steal Sheep If The Shepherd Is Doing His Job”

For some reason, I happened upon this PBS segment on Episcopalians joining the Catholic Church. As a Catholic, and one who thinks the personal ordinariates are a stroke of genius by Benedict, which will bear much fruit, this was a feel-good moment.

At one point in the story, a woman from one of the Episcopal congregations which joined the Church is asked about “sheep-stealing,” and said: “You cannot steal sheep if the shepherd is doing his job.” At first I was like, “Yeaaaaahh! Right on!”

And then, I was like: “Uh-oh.”

Is the shepherd of the Church doing his job? I don’t mean the Pope (he sure is doing his job), or even the bishops (“Lord, thank you that I’m not like that publican bishop!”). We are all the Church, which is the Body of Christ, who is the true Shepherd. We are all baptized as king, priest and prophet–i.e., shepherd.

If you look at the history of the Church, it suddenly seems as if all of our schisms came as a result of bad shepherding. If the shepherd is doing his job, you cannot steal sheep. Think of the astonishing growth of Pentecostalism and various prosperity heresies in Latin America.

Now the typical answer of some Catholics to this is to say that heresy is heresy, that the Church has never been in doctrinal error, and that Church corruption, while obviously condemnable, never justifies schism. I mean, what are you, a Donatist? All true enough!

The Holy Spirit protects the Church from doctrinal heresy, but it can’t protect her from what I’ll call practical heresy. Yes, the Church never officially taught that “when the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs” ; but a lot of prelates sure did, and did so in the name of the Church. And to say “Well, obviously, we don’t agree with that, and that’s un-Catholic, and after all we hold these things in earthen vessels, and the Church will always have sinners.” Again, all true! But is it enough?

At the risk of putting forth a mechanistic, retributive view of Providence (which would be wrong), it’s hard not to see the major schisms as punishment from God for bad shepherding. Whether or not that’s an accurate description of God’s work in the world, I think it’s useful at least as metaphor, or thought experiment. You cannot steal sheep if the shepherd is doing his job. And we’ve got a lot of sheep outside the pen, haven’t we?

The major schisms in the history of the Church have been the East-West Schism and the Reformation, but there is another schism afoot. Call it dictatorship of relativism, or whiggish secular materialism, or moral therapeutistic deism, whatever it is (and I’ll have more to say about that), it is a Christian heresy. And you cannot steal sheep if the shepherd is doing his job.

It doesn’t pass the smell test to point to Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa as evidence of the holiness of the Church and say that (say) the sex-abuse scandals are irrelevant. (And yes, you can reconcile–and in fact you should–the point is that humanity is hopelessly corrupt and we see the Spirit when it lifts us up.) Donatism again? Well, the Donatist heresy is about the validity of sacraments and doctrines. I’m not a Donatist.

We’re all practical Donatists. I like to think that I’m a member of the Catholic Church because of a dispassionate appraisal of her doctrines, but where would I be if I had encountered wolves instead of holy priests? Heck, even Jesus says we’ll recognize the Church by love, not by the soundness of her doctrine.

There’s no point to this post, no recommended doctrinal or ecclesiological reform. But a reminder of our tendency to blame others for our failings, to see the mote before we see the beam.

Remember: you cannot steal sheep if the shepherd is doing his job. If there are sheep outside the pen, don’t blame the sheep, blame the shepherd.

Anyway, here’s the PBS segment:


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  • Mike

    You’re absolutely right, partly anyway. I once read that if lapsed Catholics were a religion it would be the 2nd largest in the US so obviously there are lots of stray sheep. But then again i am a stray sheep too, if you count this or that “issue”.

    I’ve often made the point that at SOME point if you disagree you have to part ways, like these Episcopalians are doing and i stand by it, but i see your point too: that Catholics shouldn’t be too smug when they’re barely treading water.

    I don’t know but i am hopeful about orthodox congregations. Fluffy therapeutic theology can only go so far before it breaks down and fails to offer any real comfort to the afflicted. And as for young people, i think that they’re also looking for something eternal something they can “sink their teeth” into, something challenging and rewarding.

    • It’s better to be in imperfect communion than not be in communion at all. If you’re a Catholic, that is. If you’re an Episcopalian, swim the Tiber!

      • Mike

        I agree, except if your only or primary reason is to change the RCC then after alot of “soul searching” maybe it is better to join another denom. But there’s a difference between not understanding the RCC or coming to a different conclusion but respecting the RCC and coming to a different conclusion and continuing to be a part of a group that you consider evil/bigoted whatever.

        • This is the part where it’s hard to speak in generalities. For me, the two main questions would be: do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of the Living God and that through His Death and Resurrection we are saved? Do you believe that the eucharistic bread and wine are truly the body and blood of our Lord? If the answer to those questions are yes, then that’s the life line you need to hold on for dear life through the storm. If the answer is no, or “not sure”, then those are the questions you need to address.

          • Mike

            Agree that those are the fundamental.

  • As one of the sheep outside of the pen, I have to say that I’ve been better off trusting my instincts in finding shepherd assistants than trusting that particular self-proclaimed deputy-shepherd’s designees.

    • I would gently dispute the “self-proclaimed” part. I think if you take seriously the Gospel message you have to take seriously the fact that Jesus appointed apostles and (it would seem) bestowed authority upon them.

      • I’m not convinced about the authority part. I think when you read the Synoptic Gospels you see three historical narratives about a YHWH-chosen preacher wandering among the Jews spreading the messages that God is Love and that the end is coming – or specifically the eminence of the Kingdom, but it is clearly an eschatological movement. Here I see only trusted disciples who are told to follow him in anticipation of the end to come. And when that preacher from Nazareth is crucified, the disciples are left demoralized apostles, quickly understanding Jesus to be a Passover sacrifice, and they the last safeguard of his legacy. (In John, Jesus marches confidentially to the Cross, so it is a very different gloss, but throughout, it is Jesus who claims special divine authority for himself). This does not translate to, well, clerical authority. It isn’t until Acts where discussion of church life, the authority of anyone begins to cohere.

        The other aspect of “self-proclaimed” is that there have been many schisms, many councils, many bishops claiming authority, and each has asserted its claim in whole or in part on evidence that I cannot examine but in the privacy of my belief. I’m not sure that scripture is necessary or sufficient for deciding who has authority in the Church catholic, but even assuming that it is both I don’t see apostolic succession having a clear grounding in the Biblical text, and certainly not a claim to exclusivity and primacy. But this is not my field of expertise, so I could very well be wrong, I am more informed by an overwhelming conviction that God would not allow the Church to be destroyed just because someone didn’t get from point A to point B to lay on hands.

        • Oh boy, where to begin with this?

          In John, Jesus gives his disciples the authority to retain and remit sins, and bestows upon them the Holy Spirit to do so. In Matthew, it’s the authority to bind and loose, and the Church is told that the gates of Hell will not prevail over her. In Acts, the apostles appoint a successor for Judas, and the apostles receive the Spirit at Pentecost. It is based on the Spirit that, at the Council of Jerusalem, the apostles decide on a question of faith and morals (whether the Mosaic law applies to gentile converts). Paul appoints Timothy and asks him to appoint successors by the laying on of hands. Clement of Rome and Irenaeus of Lyons, both 2nd century bishops and Church leaders, point to their apostolic succession and apostolic authority. All of this points to the idea that Jesus founded a Church with a specific structure, duly recognized by the apostles and the Christians who knew them: an apostolic college with teaching authority given by God (with Peter and his successors as premiers), which appoints successors and priests and leads the Church. Historically speaking, that early Church is the same as the contemporary Catholic Church. (And if you want to say the Gospel writers put this stuff in to strengthen their claim to lead the Church–why then do the Gospels repeatedly describe the apostles as cowards and clueless buffoons?)

          And the Synoptic Gospels do not at all describe Jesus as merely a “preacher.” Jesus is repeatedly pointed to as speaking “with authority”–unmistakable language for a 1st century Jew: the ultimate authority is the Torah, the word of God. The only person who can speak “with authority” is the author of the Torah, i.e. God. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says “You have heard it said … but I say to you”–again, unmistakable language in the context of 1st century Judaism: Jesus is arrogating himself the right to rewrite the Torah. Imagine a contemporary Evangelical pastor saying “The Bible says this … but I say…” And, of course, they all have the Resurrection accounts.

          Now these are all things anybody can question, but the Gospel accounts in my view speak clearly to the fact that their authors believed a number of things, among which, relevant to this discussion: that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah of the Jewish people and the Son of the Living God, that he bodily rose from the dead, and that he founded a Church and commissioned it to preach his Gospel.

          “God would not allow the Church to be destroyed just because someone didn’t get from point A to point B to lay on hands.” Indeed! And He hasn’t, as attested to the fact that it’s worked for 2000 years.

          • We don’t disagree on whether Jesus was claiming special authority (or rather if he is depicted as claiming special authority in the Gospel narratives), nor whether or not this whole church business is important and important to Jesus. He was and it is. Our differences are actually here are actually more minor and narrow 1.) do the Gospels, by which I mean Matthew, Mark, John and the first half of Luke-Acts give a solid grounding for clerical authority and 2.) is there a solid grounding for apostolic succession in specific, and clerical organization/authority in general that can be traced to the living Jesus.

            And I’m not sure it *has* worked for 2000 years – I think the historical record especially of the early church gets a little murky. But even then, imagine if some terribly malicious person rose up at the head of some terrible force and executed every bishop. Would God intervene? I’m not so sure – I think this whole free will thing is pretty important. I also don’t think that the faith would therefor irrevocably be destroyed, any more than the sudden spontaneous combustion of every true copy of the Bible would doom us. As far as I am concerned, as long as there is (EDIT: at least) one Christian, there is a church, and everything else is a crutch.

            Which is not to say that crutches are bad. Taking Christianity seriously suggests that we are all in fact walking on broken legs.

          • I would say that the historical record suggests that the Early Christians, including the Apostles, thought that Jesus’ views were a lot closer to mine than to yours. Again, what’s the point of having apostolic succession and apostolic/conciliar government in Acts if not to serve as a blueprint?
            As to the whole doomsday scenario thing, yes, absolutely, the free will thing is pretty important, but again, in the Gospels Jesus is shown giving assurance to His Church that it would be protected from extinction.

            With regard to the broader question, I think this very individualized, atomistic vision of faith, itself a recent innovation, just misses whole swaths of the Biblical narrative. The God of the Bible is one who redeems individuals and works through individuals, yes, but also a God of the Covenant, who chooses and sponsors a people after himself, and who cares deeply about communal and covenantal worship as well as relationship with individuals.

          • With regard to the broader question, I think this very individualized, atomistic vision of faith, itself a recent innovation

            Could you clarify what you mean by that?

          • Well, if you don’t have a Church, then all that’s left is your personal relationship with God–which is very important! But if that’s your ultimate standard, there are some pitfalls. And, again, I don’t think that’s the Biblical view of discipleship.

          • I think I see what you’re saying, but I think you may have misinterpreted me. The muddy history I refer to is not merely whether or not Early Christians believed in apostolic succession or whether they have Jesus-ordained authority to minister to the flock. Rather, I am saying that it is also not clear that the line of succession is unbroken. The history of the Christian church as an organization is messy, bloody, and not unoccasionally written by the victors.

            Second, and I think this is the more significant point, I am not holding up an individual relationship with God as the gold standard for how Christians should understand their faith in the world. Rather, I am saying that church as the body of Christ exists so long there is even one Christian doing the work of church (and all that includes) and that is sufficient. Maybe it takes two persons- a Christian and whoever he or she ministers to. A high view of clerical authority suggests that the church can be ended by mortal hands and that seems to me to be a much more questionable claim. Beyond that baseline however, the most perfect Christian life involves a thriving Christian community. I can probably be fairly accused of having an atomized view of faith – but my view of Christian life suggests that individuals ought to form communities, and communities out to value individuals and I don’t think that is out of step with Biblical discipleship at all.

  • I’ve encountered a lot of wolves in my day- both male and female. But I’m still Catholic, because I must go with Truth, wherever it leads.

  • Beth Turner

    I love your picture of the Montessori Atrium catechetical materials. It reminds me that, as a mother (even though I am a convert), I am first and foremost responsible for not being like a wolf to my children!

    “We’re all practical Donatists. I like to think that I’m a member of the Catholic Church because of a dispassionate appraisal of her doctrines, but where would I be if I had encountered wolves instead of holy priests? Heck, even Jesus says we’ll recognize the Church by love, not by the soundness of her doctrine.”

    • I love the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. I’m glad someone picked up on that wink.