Through the prophet Jeremiah, God rebuked the shepherds of Israel for their false teaching and bad example. (Jer 23:1-6) They allowed the sheep to stray and substituted their own opinions for God’s covenant, resulting in error and confusion. When Jesus came centuries later, the people were scattered like sheep without a shepherd. He loved them and took pity on them, teaching by word and example. (Mk 6:34)
Over the last century, many Christian leaders, including Catholic priests and bishops, have neglected or misled their flocks. This is especially evident in the widespread embrace of individualism, subjectivism, and consumerism and in the abandonment of Christian understandings of the human person, sexuality, marriage, family, and civic life.
Throughout the history of God’s people, shepherds and sheep repeatedly prove unfaithful because we’re prone to error, selfishness, and sin. That’s why each of us and the entire Church is semper purificanda (“always in need of being purified”) in order to be perfected in our knowledge, love, and generous service of God and neighbor.
To understand the current crisis, we must recognize that before our shepherds were ordained, they were sheep raised in particular families and parishes. Today, they no more intentionally teach error than their parents and pastors sought to mislead them. Yet falsehoods were and are taught. It happens frequently, or our parishes and families would be very different.
Most often, the clergy and laity don’t alter or abandon Jesus’ teaching because they explicitly want to contradict his love and truth. Instead, they believe their personal experiences have revealed a different and deeper meaning of the Gospel that is more compatible with their circumstances. They may even have been taught erroneous beliefs and practices at home, in religion class, or in the seminary. Of course, it’s also possible that such distortions are selfish efforts to make Christian faith and morals match their own opinions.
St. Paul calls the result being “conformed to the world” rather than to Christ. Facing that reality in our lives and in the Church can cause sorrow, shame, confusion, frustration, and anger. Those responses arise because we want everyone to know and love God and to share his abundant and eternal life. We recognize that living in false ways, innocently or culpably, is harmful to us and others, and we want to spare everyone the needless suffering caused by error and sin. We especially want our pastors to provide authentic witness and support.
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