The shepherds’ dilemma is by no means easy to resolve.
The news that Cardinal Burke has withdrawn his support for Steve Bannon’s project to turn a disused monastery in Italy into a new, activist engine-room of the Faith raises what is for many pastors an agonising dilemma.
If they confine themselves to preaching the Gospel uncontroversially and safely, without direct reference to the prevailing political situation, they fear that they will be seen as out of touch with the needs of the poor.
If, however, they engage in politics from the pulpit, they run the risk of being condemned as mere politicians in drag, who have abandoned their true duty because they believe more enthusiastically in some tired and often murderous political dogma or another than in the glories of the Gospel.
The present Pope, from his native South America, and Steve Bannon, fresh from Breitbart News and Donald Trump’s frankly free-market West Wing, incline from different directions towards preaching what is sometimes called the “social Gospel”.
The word “social”, however, is a pietistic epithet that has the effect of negating any noun to which it is attached. “Social justice” means injustice; the “social contract” repudiates real contracts; “social cohesion” means enforced chaos; “social provision” means institutionalised equality (for all but the Party elite, of course) in abject poverty.
The Left regarded Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict as political conservatives, though both were careful to avoid direct engagement in politics.
One thinks, for instance, of His Holiness’ first encyclical, ‘Laudato Si’ with its detailed discourse on “global warming”, in which every alleged fact about the weather was demonstrably incorrect, as the Holy See well knew when it issued that misconceived and leaden document. Let us hope that His Holiness will learn from this mistake that if one strays into partisan politics one must take extra care to get the facts right.
On the other side of the political fence, Steve Bannon, whom I know and like, can too easily give the impression that he has taken too much to heart the wisdom of Ecclesiastes X:2: “The wise man’s heart inclineth him unto the Right; the foolish man’s heart inclineth him unto the Left”. In fact, Steve is more subtle than he sometimes appears, and I hope that it will be possible for him to reconcile himself with the good Cardinal.
How, then, to get the balance right?
“A false balance is abomination to the Lord,” says the author of the Book of Proverbs, “but a just weight is His delight.” Cardinal Burke’s recent statement about errors of doctrine that had crept into the Church is a model of how these things should be done. It had nothing of mere politics in it; it stated what the errors were; it explained why the errors were errors; and, in an impressively scholarly way, it referred appositely to previous statements of doctrine on the points at issue from the saints and fathers, popes and councils of the Church spanning two millennia.
One such ancient text is the splendid Commonitorium of St. Vincent of Lerins. If you can, read it in the original Latin, for Cicero himself would have been proud of it. To give you a flavour if this short but brilliant “memo to self” (that is what a Commonitorium is), here is a sample from it:
“The true and genuine Catholic loves the truth of God; loves the Church; loves the Body of Christ; holds divine religion and the Catholic faith in the highest esteem, above the authority, the reputation, the genius, the eloquence, the philosophy of everyone, however eminent.
“Steadfast and solid in the Faith, he resolves he will believe that, and that only, which he is sure has been held and taught by everybody – or by nearly everybody (fere omnibus) – universally and from ancient time.
“If he finds that someone or another has furtively introduced a new and unheard-of doctrine, contrary to the doctrine of all the saints, he will understand that this new doctrine does not pertain to religion but has arisen as a trial of his faith.
“He will be instructed especially by the words of the blessed Apostle Paul in I Corinthians II:9: ‘There must needs be heresies, that they who are approved may be made manifest among you.’ He will say to himself that the authors of heresies are not immediately rooted up by God, so that the teachers of whom He approves may be made manifest, and so that all may see how tenacious and faithful and steadfast is each individual in his love of the Catholic Faith.”
It is not just the eloquence of St Vincent but his cheerfulness that shines out from the pages of the Commonitorium. He does not merely accept the Faith. He does not merely rejoice in it. He revels in it.
In every age Church leaders confront politicians.
In every age, political leaders perpetrate outrages that cry out to Heaven for vengeance. In every age, Catholic leaders come forward and confront those outrages. But they do so above all by reminding the faithful of the relevant teachings of the Lord of Life and His Church.
Here, for instance, is the dying Pope Pius XI, in his 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Profound Concern”), warning the world that the Nazis were intent upon what he was the first to call “a war of extermination”:
“Take care, Venerable Brethren, that above all, faith in God, the first and irreplaceable foundation of all religion, be preserved in Germany pure and unstained. The believer in God is not he who utters the name in his speech, but he for whom this sacred word stands for a true and worthy concept of the Divinity.
“Whoever identifies, by pantheistic confusion, God and the universe, by either lowering God to the dimensions of the world, or raising the world to the dimensions of God, is not a believer in God.
“Whoever follows that so-called pre-Christian Germanic conception of substituting a dark and impersonal destiny for the personal God denies thereby the Wisdom and Providence of God who ‘reacheth from end to end mightily, and ordereth all things sweetly’ (Wisdom VIII: 1). Neither is he a believer in God.
“Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community – however necessary and honourable be their function in worldly things – whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.”
There is the voice of authority, and that is how to use it. The Encyclical was drafted by the then Secretary of State, who went on to become Pope Pius XII.
Let us pray, therefore, that the Pope from one direction and Mr Bannon from another will glory, as did St Vincent and as does Cardinal Burke, in proclaiming the Faith first and last. That, o shepherds, is what we, your flock, expect. And that is the answer to your dilemma.