Back in the seminary I was shocked when a philosophy prof said out loud, “Wherever we admit expertise we don’t admit democracy.” Because I had naïvely swallowed too much of that ‘60s special sauce that democracy was always and everywhere good, I was brought up short. But then I started to think.
Today is traditionally known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” because each year the Gospel is one or another passage in which Jesus uses that image for Himself. It’s also traditional to speak today about the ministry of priests, who are to model ourselves on the Good Shepherd. In the Gospel we hear this year Jesus speaks of Himself as the gate, allowing the sheep in and out but blocking intruders to keep the sheep safe.
Forty-five years as a priest has led me to understand that these things as connected.
Religion in America is a free-for-all. (Historians say it’s in large part because as the country was settled we didn’t yet have universities to serve as credentialing agencies for preachers, so there was a lot of self-appointment by adventurous but unskilled people. And since the government – thankfully – keeps out of religious affairs, it can’t credential religious professionals the way it does doctors, engineers, and the like.) So anyone with the rent for a storefront (or, today, a website) can set him/herself up as an authority on spiritual matters. Much confusion and many conflicting claims result, with spiritual damage following along.
I’d be inclined to say that this isn’t a problem for Catholics, except that my experience has shown that Catholics aren’t immune to cultural influence. Some of you who are older may remember when Catholics weren’t allowed to read spiritual books unless the book had the approval of a bishop printed in front. Catholics weren’t allowed to attend non-Catholic religious services or lectures on religion by non-approved speakers. These regulations, though perhaps too-strictly enforced sometimes, had the effect of sparing Catholics the perhaps well-meant, but nonetheless off-track, ideas of non-credentialed preachers. But that world is gone, thanks to modern communications, a misunderstanding of “ecumenism,” and the erosion of Catholic intellectual discipline.
There’s always been a “folk-Catholicism,” handed down by maiden aunts and grandmothers, which mixed genuine Catholic doctrine with local piety and (sometimes) personal idiosyncracies. (No, burying a statue upside-down to sell your house is not approved Catholic practice – that’s grandma.) But today it’s widely out of control. (Did you know that once you reach age 65 the weekly Sunday Mass obligation no longer holds? Neither did I. But I’ve heard it as “gospel” from a few people who heard it from…well, someone.) And sometimes the ideas are not just wacky, but genuinely dangerous. (The church still has strong teaching against “consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums,” as well as magic and sorcery, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC 2116-17].) Some people and groups consider these things “entertainment”: I consider them dangerous to mess around with, even “for fun.”
And even more dangerous to the practice of the faith are the influences of “experts” who represent traditions of “religion” (often homegrown) that confuse and misdirect people. You can go to a wonderful, inspiring church service and hear that the Bible is the only source of God’s teaching, or that Christ is not truly present in the Blessed Sacrament, or that Catholics are not truly Christians. Or you can read “inspiring” books that subtly or not-so-subtly distort Catholic teaching, either ignorantly or intentionally.
I find it funny and sad that at a time when we’re rightly so careful about pollutants in the physical environment and few of us would willingly eat food that contained toxins, some people aren’t nearly so careful with their spiritual diet. Today’s Gospel says that Christ, the Good Shepherd, is also a gatekeeper to guard the sheep. The wisdom of our church and its theologians and saints is the shape of that gate, keeping in what’s useful and barring what’s dangerous. The wise take heed. Until next week, peace.