When I was young and a Baptist, my mother worked as a secretary and librarian to a group of Evangelical clergymen around Atlanta. One day she amused and shocked me by declaring that of these five or so distinguished ministers of the gospel, there had been only one who didn’t end up being a challenge to her faith.
The first had shown himself crass and flirty with the ladies. Another locked the door of his comfortable office every afternoon for a “sweet hour of prayer” — which was actually a sweet hour (or three) of loud, comical snoring. The last had recently become famous on TV and thus acquired a towering ego.
The was one happy exception had been one of the TV minister’s lowly lieutenants. This meek fellow spent most of his time visiting the sick and shut-ins, doing the grunt work his boss was now too good for, drawing scandalously little praise, and seeking none. He served his Master well.
Looking back, my mom’s memorable story gave me a mental category that really has helped through the years: “the shepherd who ends up being a challenge to your faith.”
The Long Story of Bad Shepherds
Ministers who end up being a challenge to one’s faith have now become the Catholic problem par excellence. The days when we could blithely brush off our scandals and cover-ups are over.
The Good Shepherd has always been served, I’m afraid, by bad shepherds. Judas Iscariot, as you may recall, was one of the Twelve Apostles designated to take the place of Judah or Benjamin, sitting on one of “twelve thrones” in the New Jerusalem and “judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28). And the office of an apostle is far higher in God’s economy than a bishop or cardinal — higher even than a pope. Yet Judas proved himself to be, in Christ’s own words, “a devil” (John 6:70). Even true shepherds then, unambiguously designated as such by Christ, can be not just bad at times but downright diabolical — and worse than you think.
It’s my conviction that if more of us realized just how bad our shepherds really can get — and have gotten throughout history — we might, for lack of surprise, be better fortified when these new Judases turn up in our day.
Babes in the woods often lose faith after discovering too suddenly that they’ve been wandering in a fool’s paradise. In just the same way, many lifelong Catholics may be too likely to expect their ministers to be living saints, rather than cherishing the saints for how precious and few such beings really are.
Under these conditions, we are prone to make idols of our shepherds; we may start treating them as a holy caste of spiritual aristocrats — and worse, training them to expect such treatment. Like the prima donna, they can start “believing their notices,” rather than staying focused on earning them. And when some of these idols are exposed as having feet of clay, we’ll all be a little less likely to lose our heads if we’ve already “lived through” the Arian crisis of the fourth century or spent time with the bad shepherds hovering ’round the court of Louis XIV.
Learning From the Past
To this end, I’ve written a book on these historic times called Bad Shepherds.
It’s a terrifying subject, of course. I think of C. S. Lewis, who wrote the famous Screwtape Letters — thirty-one imaginary exchanges between two demons sharing with each other clever advice about how best to ensnare human victims. “Of all my books,” Lewis confessed, “this was the only one I did not take pleasure in writing.” Composing a whole volume written from the perspective of a tempter proved “dry and gritty work,” he admitted, however valuable such a book might prove for training the faithful to recognize the devil’s snares.
Similarly, I’d much rather have written (as I have done) about the saints and the champions, about heroes such as Justin and Ignatius, Antony and Athanasius.
Here’s what kept me pressing ahead. When the archangel Gabriel announced the coming of Jesus our Savior, he told blessed mother Mary, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David” (Luke 1:31–33).
We learn two neglected facts here:
- (1) that Jesus’ new gospel kingdom is going to be God’s Old Testament kingdom renewed and reborn;
- (2) that all of us Christians are citizens of that endless kingdom, the house of Jacob; and even today Jesus sits on a throne that originally belonged to David, king of the Hebrews.
All fine and good — but the more you know about the Hebrew kings who succeeded to that throne, the more astonishing these truths become.
Out of thirty-nine kings thirty-one were bad — several spectacularly so. Rehoboam, David’s grandson, set up golden calves for the people to worship and deliberately caused the civil war his fathers always feared. Ahab persecuted the prophet Elijah and “sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” urged on by his wife, Jezebel (1 Kings 21:25). Manasseh was a mass murderer who put an altar to Baal in Yahweh’s Temple and later burned one of his sons there as sacrifice to Moloch.
This is from a line of kings that God Himself had promised to “establish . . . and make sure forever” (see 2 Sam 7:12–16).
The Lesson of Bad Shepherds
The main point to gather, however, from the very unwholesome tale of the Davidic kings, is that wicked leaders ruling over God’s flock is an old, old story. It’s also a profound mystery, of course, not unrelated to the mystery of Judas among the Twelve — but a profoundly biblical one. And if the bad popes and bad bishops prove, as I myself once believed, that the Catholic Church herself cannot have been established by God, then the very throne upon which our Savior sits cannot be of God, and the religion built around it must be false.
The Catholic laity often shone brightest just when their bad shepherds were at their worst. God, in other words, had not left Himself without a witness. They not only survived but actually thrived, and their heroism finally turned the tide. And their victories were all the more glorious for having been won in spite of their leaders, rather than with their help. Soon it began to seem more and more likely to me that our crisis today, when it, too, becomes ancient history, will probably have ended in just the same remarkable way.
This is a history with a healing purpose, aimed at binding the wounds being inflicted on modern Catholics by their own bad shepherds.
With God’s help, we may one day join the heroes who won their crowns by outlasting their bad shepherds.
Men are never more awake to the good in the world than when they are furiously awake to the evil in the world. Men never enjoy so much the blazing sun and the rushing wind as when they are out hunting the Devil. On the other hand, there are no people so dreary as philosophical optimists; and men are never so little happy as when they are constantly reassured. Such men have begun by calling the moon as bright as the sun, but they end only by seeing the sun as pallid as the moon. They have made a shameful treaty with shame; and the mark of it is on them. Everything is good, except their own spirits.”G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, December 16, 1905.
This article is a preview of Bad Shepherds: The Dark Years in Which the Faithful Thrived While Bishops Did the Devil’s Work. It is available through bookstores and online at Sophia Institute Press.