Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Shiten Shepherds

The Good Shepherd (4th century)

In a fairly recent post, in which I tried to identify one important source of our political malaise in the appalling ignorance and/or credulity of the American electorate, I mentioned “Pizza-Gate.”  This was the name given to the “news” story that John Podesta and Hilary Clinton were running a pedophile ring out of a Washington stromboli emporium called Pizza Planet.  The manifest implausibility of this story reaches the threshold of the insane,” I wrote.  “Nonetheless it was duly believed by a sector of the American electorate.”  I now regret I wrote those words.  For even less plausible on the face of it is the undeniably true report that the Roman Catholic bishops of several dioceses in Pennsylvania were running a pedophile ring out of chancery offices in places like Pittsburgh and Altoona!  Three hundred priests.  Seventy years.  A thousand abused parishioners.

  Yes, I know “running” is putting it too strongly.  But the bishops were doing little to stop the sexual abuse and practically nothing to expose it—being principally concerned with covering it up, warehousing the perps, and intimidating or buying off the victims.   All this was being done with the ostensibly virtuous motive of avoiding scandal.  There is a great line in Ovid, in his description of the sculptor Pygmalion, who carved a simulated girlfriend so realistic that no human eye could distinguish between the finished stone and alluring female flesh: ars adeo latet arte sua, “with his art he covers up his art”.  Of the Pennsylvania bishops I would say that by scandal they covered up the scandal.  For here we find more scandals than one.  It is of course scandalous in and of itself that certain men take perverse sexual gratification in the exploitation and injury of children.  Surely it is a greater scandal that such crimes be covered up in the name of avoiding scandal.

A catchy political axiom became current in the national press in the wake of the Watergate Affair: it’s not the crime, but the cover-up.  This is not invariably true.  Jean-Paul Sartre is supposed to have said that the horrors of life under Stalin should not be made public lest their discussion might shake the socialist faith of French auto workers.  In that instance the cover-up—though a living monument to intellectual fatuity--did not surpass a crime that, from an historical point of view, may be unsurpassable.  But so far as the Pennsylvania episcopate is concerned it is a much closer thing.  One of the enablers, now of course in deep denial, is the current Cardinal Archbishop of Washington.  Unless this man resigns, trades in his crimson skull cap for a hair shirt, and hies him to a hermitage, the Pope’s platitudes will continue to ring hollow.

Though the Roman and Reformed churches vary greatly in their ecclesiastical structures there are certain overlaps in vocabulary.  The ordained head of a particular congregation is likely to be called a pastor.  I note that the newspapers seem increasingly to use the word as a semi-technical term, as for instance with regard to the American Protestant missionary currently being detained by the Turkish authorities.  Actually pastor (the Latin word for shepherd) is a biblical metaphor, as in old Protestant America’s favorite psalm, the twenty-third, “The Lord is my Shepherd”.  Jesus himself used the term as a metaphor for spiritual care-givers, even as he used the words sheep and flock for those receiving such care.  John the Baptist called Jesus the “lamb of God”, and that image is developed with elaboration in the Revelation of John.  One of the earliest artistic representations of Jesus in early Christian poetry and visual art is that of the Good Shepherd. 

The pattern of imagery, practically inevitable in the long-enduring agricultural and nomadic cultures of the ancient world in which Christianity was born, is for us archaic and rather forced.  For early Christian writers still everywhere surrounded by agricultural community it remained potent and precise.  Thus it is with Chaucer’s description of a good priest.  Among the Canterbury pilgrims there are many professional religious figures.  Mostly they run the moral gamut from hideous evil to vapid triviality.  One alone—a poor, rural parish priest—is presented for our unqualified approbation.  He is a true pastor (shepherd), and his description is a virtual riot of pastoral imagery.  He carries a staff.  He tends his sheep.  He presents to his lay flock a model for moral imitation.  He is called to a higher standard.  For if gold rust, what shall iron do?  And since unlike most modern pastors Chaucer actually knew something about animal husbandry and the habits of sheep in flocks, the text gets a little “earthy”.  The poet had observed, for instance, the tendency of sheep to get fouled in their own excrement.  How can you hope to have “clean sheep”, he wonders, if the sheep are in the care of a shiten shepherd?  Let alone three hundred of them.

The Church pretends to a unique magisterium—that is, to a divinely inspired power of teaching moral truth.  This means that every pastor is also a teacher; and on this score Chaucer has further wisdom.  Of his own good shepherd he wrote this: “first he wrought, and afterward he taught.”