Message for the 4th Sunday of Easter
Fr. Joseph Levine; May 3, 2020
Readings: Acts 21:14a,36-41; Psalm 23:1-6; 1 Pe 2:20b-25; Jn 10:1-10
One thing that the present pandemic should reveal to us is the radical deficit of truth telling, even in matters pertaining purely to this world.
It seems certain that the pandemic is a real thing (exactly how serious is another question) and that some sort of restrictive measures have indeed been needed, and it was proper at first to give the benefit of the doubt to the ‘authorities’. Clearly there has also been a lot of confusion just because we have been dealing with something unknown.
Nevertheless, what we have gotten from the ‘authorities’ has not been truth, but propaganda for the sake of controlling our actions. Masks or no masks, changing timelines, changing projections: information or misinformation is given out, not because it is true, but in order to get us to act in a certain way.
On top of this, different politicians and media outlets have been pursuing their agendas, seeking to exploit the situation for their own purposes. We have long grown accustomed to ‘spin’, but this year the ‘spin’ has truly reached a dizzying velocity.
Mark Twain is the one who popularized the saying: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” We live in the age of statistics, which is not the age of truth, but the appearance of fact, manipulated by ‘experts’.
Remember this a computer model or a statistical study always employs variables and presuppositions. You have to read the fine print very carefully to penetrate the dense network of variables and presuppositions before it is possible to make a sound judgement as to the real value and import of the statistics.
Now that the country – and the world – has adopted a certain strategy in face of the pandemic, those responsible for the choices made have a vested interest in justifying their course of action. They certainly do not want to take responsibility for all the collateral damage, such as economic ruin, increased domestic abuse and child abuse, and increase in suicides.
Should we trust these authorities? Do they have our best interests at heart? Well, if we just start with their general attitude towards human life the clear answer would be ‘no’. They will talk about the value of human life when it comes to the remote danger of someone dying of COVID, to the point that the least violation of lockdown decrees is almost equated with murder, but they celebrate abortion.
Lacking truth, we lack a shared vision of the common good. This gives us a ‘lowest common denominator’ common good of public health and economic prosperity, which are now at odds with one another.
Public health and economic prosperity are conditions of the common good, but they are not properly elements of the common good since they are not truly shared; my health is not your health and vice-versa; your prosperity is not my prosperity and vice-versa. Public morality, which includes sexual morality, is actually at the very heart of the common good, because it directly serves a life of shared virtue that makes both friendship and justice possible. Right religion is even more necessary for the common good because God is a reality we truly have in common and the relationship to God through religion can truly unite people on more than a just a superficial level of utility.
Precisely because there is no shared vision of the common good, we are left with utilitarian agendas, more concerned with getting people to act in a certain way, than with what is true, good, and right.
Well, what does all this have to do with this 4th Sunday of Easter, Good Shepherd Sunday?
The Good Shepherd teaches us the truth about the meaning and purpose of human life; he even lays down his life that we might achieve the purpose for which we were created (cf. Jn 10:15); he gathers us into the unity of the true and highest common good, God himself, the Most Holy Trinity.
Our Lord refers to all the liars and deceivers, all the manipulators, as wolves, thieves, and robbers.
We need to reject the liars and deceivers, the thieves and the robbers. We need to learn to recognize the voice of the Shepherd so that we can follow him to what is true, good, and right. That is the path of abundant life, the path of eternal life.
Nevertheless, we cannot hear the voice of Jesus Christ, the Shepherd without hearing the voice of the shepherds who come through the gate, Jesus Christ. He is both the Shepherd and the Gate of the sheep. That is why we cannot hear the voice of Jesus Christ without hearing those who come in his name and by his authority. We cannot hear the voice of the Shepherd without hearing those who share in the authority of the Apostles, first of all the bishops, then in a secondary way, the priests.
Jesus said to the Apostles: As the Father sends me, so I send you. (Jn 20:21) And, Whoever receives you, receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. (Mt 10:40) And, Whoever listens to you, listens to me. Whoever rejects you, rejects me. And whoever rejects me, rejects the one who sent me. (Lk 10:16)
Now we really have a problem here.
I started off questioning the reliability and motivations of civil authorities and public health authorities. Note well, I was speaking globally (institutionally you might say) not of individuals. If we turn our attention to the Catholic bishops, the successors of the Apostles, we might well have the same problem. Speaking ‘globally’ or ‘institutionally’ they no longer seem to be very reliable.
Simply by being a Catholic bishop (or a priest) a man has the primary criterion for coming to us through the sheep gate, in the name and person of Jesus Christ. He has the authority that comes from God, but in addition to that he needs to act within that authority, he needs to teach rightly, and he needs to give us the example of his life. Three things guarantee the voice of the Shepherd: authority, teaching, and example.
The good example of the bishop or priest confirms and guarantees the authority, but lacking the example, we must still try to discern the voice of the shepherd in his words. Jesus told us in this regard: Do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. (Mt 23:3)
The authority of a bishop is first of all in the area of what is called ‘faith and morals’: he has the authority to teach what we must believe and do in order to attain eternal life. Second, the bishop’s authority pertains to the realm of the administration of the sacraments, which communicate the reality of divine grace, and the regulation of the community life in relation to the sacraments. The bishop’s authority in these matters is always subject to the rule of faith and morals and the law of the Church.
In the letters of St. Paul we find him talking about handing on what he has received. In general, he hands on ‘traditions’ that he urges the faithful to hold fast to and keep. (1 Cor 11:1; 2 Th 2:15) Concretely, he refers to handing on the teaching on the Holy Eucharist and on Jesus Christ, who dies for our sins and rose from the dead. (1 Cor 11: 23-32; 1 Cor 15:3-4)
A bishop (and even the Pope) can only hand on what he has received from the apostolic Tradition. He is obligated to hold fast to, guard, and hand on the ‘deposit of faith’. (cf. 1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 1:13-14) His office and authority belongs completely to the realm of the transmission of sacred Tradition. If a priest departs from this – even though he is not called to account by his Bishop – he acts beyond the scope of his authority; he does not come to the flock of Christ through the gate but comes as a thief and a robber. If bishop departs from this – even though he is not called to account by the Pope – he acts beyond the scope of his authority; he does not come to the flock of Christ through the gate but comes as a thief and a robber.
Not even the Pope has any authority to teach in opposition to the deposit he has received through the Tradition of the Church. For example: Pope Pius IX solemnly proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. That dogma belongs to the deposit of the faith. No Pope has any authority to teach the contrary. No Pope has the authority to say, “My predecessor proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, but now I say to you that you need not believe it.” Quite simply, even the Pope is bound by the Tradition of the Church, which comes from Jesus Christ by way of the Apostles.
This is why traditionally, the Church has been careful of all the traditions, which are vehicles by which the sacred deposit has been handed on. This why traditionally, the Church has been careful about phrasing things in a very exact manner. She is handing on something that does not belong to her, a trust that she has received from her Lord, Jesus Christ. She must be careful not to alter it in any way. This is also why, even though understanding grows, the Church has traditionally been suspicious of ‘novelty’.
We do not await some new revelation. We do not wait for a new covenant. We have already received the new and eternal covenant in the Blood of Christ. The very Son of God, the 2nd person of the Most Holy Trinity was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man; now we wait only that the same Jesus Christ might come again in glory to raise the dead to life and judge the living and the dead.
The Church has a word for someone, be he bishop or priest, who would alter the deposit of faith; he is called a ‘heretic’. He is a thief and robber. We must not listen to heretics, thieves or robbers, but we must listen only for the voice of the Good Shepherd.
Last year I began speaking about the peculiar modern heresy called ‘modernism’. Modernism is radically anti-traditional. Modernism wants a new Church. Nevertheless, modernism very often will not change the words, but will change the meanings.
Since the Second Vatican Council there has been a widespread resurgence of modernism in the life of the Church, among many bishops and priests, in seminaries, and in Catholic universities, reaching from there into every aspect of the life of the Church. Modernism has sapped the Church of her vitality. Modernism has made the Church to be anemic and impotent in the world today.
One tell-tale expression of modernism is the reference to the ‘Pre-Vatican II’ Church. People who use this expression are not necessarily modernist, but the language is modernist. The expression raises the question: is the Church now the same Church as the Church before the Second Vatican Council? For the modernist the answer is ‘no’, but he usually will not put it quite so bluntly. If the answer is ‘no’, then the Church is no longer the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Then we might just as well hang it up and go home.
If, however, the answer is ‘yes’, then there is no validity to the rejection of things that belonged to the Pre-Vatican II Church. If the Church today is in continuity with the Church of Tradition, then what was true and valid before 1960 is true and valid today. The Church has not been mistaken for 19 centuries or more, only to discover the truth in the early 60s.
This all brings us back to hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ: we cannot hear his voice unless we hear him speaking to us through the Tradition of the Church, faithfully handed on by the bishops and priests.
Since bishops and priests are not always faithful and not always called to account by their superiors, we cannot blindly follow them. We each are responsible for our own faith. We need the instinct of right faith, which is belongs to the Holy Spirit’s gift of knowledge. In order to collaborate and cultivate this gift we need humility, docility, and a love of the truth. So, we must also, above all, follow the basic law of truth, the law of non-contradiction: something cannot be both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. What was true yesterday is not false today. We must also possess a basic knowledge of our creed and catechism. If I don’t know that there are seven sacraments and what they are, then I will not notice if someone tries to add an 8th sacrament, or changes one of the sacraments around.
Ignorance sometimes excuses and sometimes doesn’t. We cannot count on going before the judgment seat of God and telling the Lord, “I didn’t know.” We will likely get the answer, “Why didn’t you find out?”
Do we choose to stray, or do we return to the shepherd and guardian of our souls, who bore our sins in his body on the Cross, not so that we might do as we please, but that free from sin, we might live for righteousness?
Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.