Sunday, July 22, 2012

On sheep and shepherds...

Catholic clergy call themselves “shepherds” tending their flock of sheep.  This Sunday’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah indicates that God will hold religious shepherds accountable, “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture.”  What causes sheep to scatter?  How do shepherds mislead God’s flock?

Last Sunday’s reading from Amos 7 gives some insight into shepherding.  Amos says, “I am a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores, but the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’ …”   I added the bold and italics for emphasis.  Shepherds follow their flocks versus rope, drag or parade before them.  Flocks actually follow leader sheep within the group, and shepherds in turn follow the flock.  When shepherds want the flock to go somewhere, they must get the leader sheep to go there first. 

Sheep are born fairly independent so they graze dispersed.  However they remain close enough to flock together when frightened or threatened because they lack individual defense capabilities.  Sheep consider most humans to be predators and flock away from them but through sustained lack of inflicting harm, sheep learn to trust their shepherd.  Thus good shepherds must spend most of their time with sheep to gain and retain trust. 

Periodically the flock must be led to fresh pastures or it will overgraze the area and eventually suffer food shortage or starvation.  Therefore shepherds sometimes instill fear in the flock such as by using herding dogs so the flock bands together and moves.  However, sheep thrived before shepherds domesticated them so instinctively they will move to fresh pastures even without a shepherd.   

What’s the purpose of shepherds?  They try to prevent untimely sheep deaths so that each sheep dies when the owner decides, thus maximizing profits from fleece, milk and eventually meat.  Because sheep are so valuable, good shepherds don’t leave any sheep behind, drive then from the flock or inflict damage upon them.  Instead, the shepherd offers personal care, binding wounds, attending, nursing, or even carrying injured or sick sheep to keep the flock as large and profitable as possible.  Thus, “scattered” sheep occur when neglectful shepherds repeatedly abandon injured and sick sheep that cannot stay with the flock as it moves.  Or, “scattered” flocks occur when some sheep follow leader sheep to fresh pastures while a comfortable shepherd refuses to move.  

With hundreds of Christian denominations the second largest of which in the U.S. being ex-Catholics, and the vast majority of Catholics worldwide not regularly attending Mass, one might justifiably observe that the current shepherds are textbook examples of scattering and misleading sheep.  Woe to them. 

How did this occur?  Recent history mimics the church’s long history.  Many ecclesial shepherds spend more time with other shepherds than with sheep.  Others openly refuse to interact with sheep such as my own pastor refusing correspondence from me.  Thus they don’t know their sheep and their sheep don’t know them.  Subsequently their sheep don’t trust or listen to them. 

Historically church shepherds also fight flock movement.  They want the sheep to continue grazing on the same patch of grass that fed the flock for two thousand years.  Actually, this is hailed amongst the shepherds as a positive thing called “Sacred Tradition”, an institutionalization of restricting the flock’s movement.  “This is the same blade of grass that Ignatius of Antioch ate in the first century A.D.  Surely it must be good enough for you, little sheep.”  Meanwhile, the sheep are saying, “Um….that blade of grass is kinda dead…not so nutritious...”  Large portions of the flock, following leader sheep, have moved to life sustaining pastures but the shepherds have not followed the flock.   

Furthermore, numerous leader sheep have actually been driven from the flock for pointing to fresh pastures.  For example, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have censured or excommunicated about 100 theologians for pointing to fresh pastures.  Granted, one might counter that the shepherds banished those sheep because they felt the new pastures contained unhealthy grass.  Even if that were true, good shepherds don’t drive such sheep away.  They draw even closer to them.  Also, I would ask this, “To which new pastures have the shepherds led the flock?”  Many sheep suffer spiritual starvation grazing only in the same two thousand year old pasture and so they follow leader sheep seeking sustenance.  

The shepherds feign threats drawing on the flocking instinct but they do not do this to move the flock but rather to convince the flock to remain in the same overgrazed pasture.  However, many sheep feel the shepherds’ obstinacy poses a greater risk to the flock than the things the shepherds call threats.  Some things the shepherds call threats the sheep actually know keep them healthy.  Again, trust is lost and sheep won’t listen to the shepherds.

Thousands of shepherds have injured sheep by raping the lambs.  The brotherhood of shepherds protected their brotherhood more than the flock.  Once shepherds inflict such unspeakable harm on the flock, they lose all trust and are viewed as predators.  Sheep flock away from predators; they don’t follow them.  Such loss of trust is not easily overcome if overcome at all.  Because they spend most of their time bandying about with other shepherds, they do not understand sheep and are frustrated that this broken trust continues to plague them.  Rather than address it, they deny and minimize it which only further erodes trust.  Rather than care for the injured, many shepherds whimper that they are actually the injured ones. 

A sick notion that is a direct affront to Jesus’ teachings currently floats amongst the ultra-pious.  Such people believe the dwindling flock is a positive thing because it results in a “purer” church.  Meanwhile geneticist say that the purer the breed, the weaker, more vulnerable and emotionally unstable it is.  Such breeds suffer from inbreeding, shrinking the gene pool and allowing the amplification of weak, recessive traits.  “Purification” impedes survival.  Is this why scripture says, “…thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, against the shepherds who shepherd my people: You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds (Jer 23:2).”?  God is not looking for a purified flock but rather desires the biggest bleating flock possible.

Sheep’s choices seem limited.  Wandering individually carries the danger of lost flock protection yet some sheep assume this risk. The remaining choices seem to be either risk starvation in the 2,000 year overgrazed pasture in which the shepherds reside, or follow leader sheep to other pastures.  No wonder the flock is scattered; the shepherds are culpable, not leader or individual sheep.  But laying blame doesn’t feed starving sheep. 

What are hungry sheep to do?  First, scripture reassures us, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have banished them and bring them back to their folds; there they shall be fruitful and multiply (Jer 23:3).”  God protects sheep, “banishing” them from incompetent shepherds.  Look at your shepherds.  Do they exclude, reject or censure anyone?  If they do, should you follow them or does God “banish” you away from such harmful men?  Next, look within yourself.  Are you called to be a leader sheep, helping guide starving sheep to fresher grazing grounds?  If not, who seems to be a healthy leader sheep?  Follow them.  Finally, don’t worry; good shepherds will follow the flock.  May God send us good shepherds and in the meantime, may we flock together for protection.

P.S.  Keep in mind that at times such as now when the church's leadership teemed with corruption, God sent us many saints.  Often those saints were viewed by the corrupt leaders as heretics but were later canonized.  There are far worse things in life than being rejected or censured by inept or corrupt shepherds.  Fear not.


  1. I read a very interesting discussion on this Sunday's Readings from contributors to the forum, Catholica from Australia. I value your insight today as well. Perhaps others who follow 'Questions-' would be enriched further as I. Peace MK

  2. Wonderfully written - thank you.

  3. Thanks for offering the link to the Catholica article!