The image of the shepherd is a staple of Jewish and Christian religion. It’s comforted countless generations and still holds meaning for many. It’s becoming a problem, however.
As a symbol for a community’s king, shepherd called attention not only to the deep love and gratitude that the people felt for him but also to the absolute authority which he exercised over them. Sheep didn’t second guess the shepherd and the people didn’t second guess their king. A king, like a shepherd, had complete responsibility for those in his care. No one thought that members of a tribe or nation possessed the ability or the right to set their own course. That was the king’s, their shepherd’s, role. The king was God’s agent, not the people’s. Therein lies the problem.
For several hundred years folks’ ideas of how a community should work have been changing, especially, but not exclusively, in the West. With great effort and cost most of us have come to see that the responsibility and the right to rule reside within ourselves. Though we haven’t figured out all the particulars of making this work smoothly nor proven as enthusiastic about the responsibility it entails as the self-determination it promises, we’ve wholeheartedly embraced democracy.
Catholic authority rejects the idea that its authority resides within all the people. Some lay people find the idea obvious; others find it unimaginable. Though there are undeveloped theological principles that could support the concept, the dominant theology adamantly holds that God directly gives both ecclesiastical and dogmatic authority to those he ordains.
Our Church is in the midst of a struggle over authority that pervades every aspect of our self-understanding. The differences in points of view are basic and the implications immense. Historically such struggles have been protracted and exceedingly nasty.
The core task Jesus gave his followers was to exemplify the peace and love that faith in God makes possible. If we handle our differences the way others have handled such conflicts in the past, we’ve absolutely nothing to say the rest of the world and no real reason to exist as a Church.
God hasn’t revealed the direction or the timetable for change to any of us. We have to work that out over the decades to come. Hopefully we’ll prove smarter – and more loving – than sheep.