4th Sunday of Easter 2012
St. Raymond of Peñafort
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
April 29, 2012
One of the most cherished images that Scripture gives of Jesus
is the image of the Good Shepherd.
The Shepherd who not only goes out seeking and bringing home the lost sheep,
but who, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel,
“lays down his life for his sheep.”
Of course, when Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd”
he’s reminding us that he’s fulfilling God’s promise
in the Old Testament book of the prophet Ezekiel, that
“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.”
God the Son himself has come as the perfectly Good Shepherd
to care for his people.
But of course, in the Old Testament God also promises,
through the prophet Jeremiah:
“And I will give you shepherds [plural] after my own heart.”
So before Christ ascended bodily into heaven
he left his sheep with shepherds to continue his work,
men close to his heart,
men he had trained and gave special grace—His apostles.
In particular he gave the role of chief shepherd to St. Peter,
as after the Resurrection he gave him the trifold command:
“feed my lambs” “tend my sheep” “feed my sheep.”
And so we find Peter in today’s first reading taking up that command.
And remembering the words of the prophet Jeremiah:
” I will give you shepherds after my own heart,
who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.”
Peter begins to feed Christ’s sheep
with the knowledge and understanding
of Christ’s salvific death and resurrection.
Of course, this is just the beginning of Peter’s 30 years
of shepherding Christ’s sheep.
But before he and the other apostles died, they also left new shepherds behind.
And so the promise of the one Divine Good Shepherd lives on in the Church
in every generation since then
in the office of pope, bishop and priest.
Unfortunately, as Jesus warns us in today’s Gospel,
some of those shepherds have acted like
“A hired man, who is not a shepherd…
because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.”
History is full of examples of this.
We look back, to the very beginning, to Judas,
who cared more for 30 pieces of silver than for the flock.
Or to the 15th century, to men like Pope Alexander VI,
a notoriously immoral man who made his two illegitimate sons Cardinals.
Sadly, though, we don’t have to look back centuries to find bad shepherds
—in the last decade we have been all too aware
that some priests today have behaved
like wolves in shepherds clothing, preying on the lambs,
and some bishops who have been more willing to
lay down the lives of their sheep,
than to lay down their lives for their sheep.
But there’s also another kind of false shepherd we see today
who’s devastation we don’t read about in the press.
Because the primary role of the shepherds of the Church is spiritual:
the shepherd feeds his flock “with knowledge and understanding”
of the truth of Jesus Christ.
And he tends them by protecting them from lies and false teaching.
This is what Christ did, and what Peter did,
and what so many good and holy popes, bishops and priests,
including our present Holy Father, Pope Benedict,
have done for all these 20 centuries.
And yet there have always been pastors in the Church who have failed to do this.
From the infamous heretical bishops and priests of the early Church
like Nestorius and Arius,
to the false-“reforming” bishops and priests like
Thomas Cranmer and Martin Luther in the 16th century.
And today, sadly, it continues.
You know this as well as I do.
You read the papers and you travel across the country
and you can’t help but hear priests preach or write
defending such things sins
as pre-marital sex, contraception and so-called gay marriage,
or denying dogmas like the Resurrection,
the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
or even the divinity of Christ.
Sad but true.
But there’s also another, even more subtle way that shepherds fail the flock.
When we talk about the “teaching of the Church,”
what we’re normally talking about is dogma or doctrine
—things that are definitively taught by the Church
as certainly and always true.
—doctrine that, as Catholics, we cannot deny.
These are not imposed on us,
but are gifts given to us, by Christ, the Good Shepherd.
On the other hand,
not every situation in life is directly addressed by the magisterium
—or the teaching authority of the Church.
Everyday you and I make decisions
on what the right thing to do is in a particular situation.
For instance, there is no dogma that tells me:
“This is how thou shall always respond
when someone gets angry at you about a homily.”
Instead, I apply the doctrine that is clear
—things we know to be true about charity and humility,
as well as justice and fraternal correction.
And we don’t reinvent or ignore or manipulate that truth,
but once we learn it we have to apply it
as best and as honestly as we can to the particular facts at hand.
This is part of what we call “the conscience.”
And in applying our consciences we make what we call “prudential judgments”
—given the truth of Christ, taught by His Church,
we then judge what would be prudent,
or best in this situation.
Now, here’s where the problem with some shepherds come in.
Sometimes shepherds teach things that are their own prudential judgments,
the conclusion of their own consciences,
as if they were, in fact,
the doctrine of the Church.
For example: the Church clearly teaches
that direct abortion is always gravely sinful.
But on the other hand, the Church also teaches that
defending ourselves from an unjust aggressor, even killing him,
is not a sin at all.
And this right to self defense also extends to war,
and, partially, to capital punishment.
So the Church teaches that while abortion is always wrong,
some wars and even some executions
are just and necessary–depending on the facts in the case.
So, as Cardinal Ratzinger wrote
less than a year before he became Pope Benedict:
“…There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion
even among Catholics
about waging war and applying the death penalty,
but not however with regard to abortion….”
The fact is that most decisions in life—large and small—
are the matter of individual consciences
—not consciences independent of the truth or doctrine,
but conscience formed and bound by the unchanging truth
taught by Christ’s Church.
Now, sometimes bishops and priests feel obliged
to offer their judgments to their flock
—and sometimes they should.
For example, how many times have I recommended you give generously
to this particular second collection or that
—many of you appreciate my opinion, but many of you ignore it.
Sometimes even in homilies I’ll give you an opinion,
as a Father shares his personal insight with his children.
But whenever I do that, I have to be very careful to make clear,
and you have to be very careful to discern,
the difference between my opinion and advice,
and the Church’s truth and doctrine.
[On my part, I try to use words like “I think, or “it seems to me”
when I’m giving my personal judgment.]
Unfortunately, sometimes the shepherds of the Church—myself included—
either out of zeal to be helpful,
or out of self-centered self-importance,
are tempted go beyond teaching doctrine
and beyond giving simple advice
and try to override consciences,
by presenting their personal judgments as if they are doctrine.
We’ve seen this on issues like the death penalty and war,
when bishops and priests act as if you are bound
by their personal judgments.
And in the last few months we’ve seen it on several other important issues.
For example, consider the political debate over the budget,
especially providing safety nets for the poor,
and reform of entitlement programs:
some bishops and priests give the impression
that in order to be a good Catholic
you have to take a particular side in these complicated debates,
and that Catholic doctrine is absolutely on that one side.
But it is not.
Of course, the “social teaching” of the Church
does tell us that society should provide for the poor and needy,
and that governments have a role to play in that.
But it also teaches the principle called “subsidiarity”
—a principle, a doctrine,
that the popes of the 20th century repeatedly called
“unshaken and unchangeable.”
Under that principle,
Bd. Pope John XXIII taught, in his famous encyclical Mater et Magister,
and quoting Pope Pius XI:
“it is …a grave evil …
for a larger and higher association to arrogate to itself
functions which can be performed efficiently
by smaller and lower societies.”1
1 “Just as it is wrong to withdraw from the individual and commit to a community what private enterprise and industry can accomplish, so too it is …a grave evil for a larger and higher association to arrogate to itself functions which can be performed efficiently by smaller and lower societies.”
[In other words,
if the family can handle a certain responsibility,
the government should stay out;
if the local government can handle a certain responsibility,
the federal government should stay out.]
And as Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his 2005 encyclical “Deus Caritas Est”: “The State which would provide everything,
absorbing everything into itself,
would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy…
Things like food and health care are fundamental rights,
but no one can say that the Church teaches
that this specific way of providing food or health care to the needy
is better than that way,
or that the federal government has to take the lead
instead of the state government,
or this much regulation is necessary
or that much free enterprise is too much.
All the moral principles and doctrines have got to be weighed and applied
to the facts as we individually understand them,
and then we Catholic Americans can and must
make our own free prudential judgment:
what does the Good Shepherd demand in this situation?
Let me be clear, my point is not specifically about
war or the death penalty, or the budget,
or health care or entitlement reform.
And, by the way, if you listened carefully
you’ll notice I haven’t given you my opinion on any of these issues.
What this is about is confusing Church doctrine with personal judgment,
and vice versa.
Because if we aren’t careful it will lead, as it always does, to all sorts of problems.
For example: it will inevitably lead to some people
—even some good and well-meaning Catholics—
treating all doctrine as mere opinion,
or treating some mere opinions as if they were doctrinally certain.
In the end this will both
undermine the Church’s credibility
–when bishops and priests express
conflicting opinions as if they were doctrine,
and it will reinforce the credibility of those
who dissent from church doctrine
–the bishops disagree, so why can’t I.
Not only that, but sometimes the bishops judgments
are wrong—even nonsensical.
How does that add to the credibility of doctrine,
if people are confused between doctrine and opinion?
And last, but not least,
how many times have good Catholics
come to me burdened with heavy feelings of guilt
just because they disagree with the mere opinion of some priest?
How many times have sheep wondered away from the flock
in confusion and distress
because some false shepherd tried to impose his opinion
as if it were dogma.
There is no clearer image of the love of Jesus for each of us
than the image of Christ the Good Shepherd.
And there is no greater sign of the Good Shepherd’s love for His Church today,
and in every generation,
than the good and faithful shepherds
Christ continues to send to tend and feed his sheep.
Today, let us thank the Good Shepherd for giving us good Pope Benedict
and all the bishops and priests who faithfully help him
in his pastoral ministry.
And let us pray for them, and for all the pastors of the Church,
that they may keep their eyes and hearts fixed on Christ,
and lay down their own lives
–lay aside their sins,
their dissenting theologies
and their personal opinions—
and be lifted up in the grace of the Risen Christ,
to feed and tend His sheep with the love and truth
of the one Good Shepherd.