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#23: Wicked Shepherds—St. Augustine on Remaining in the One True Church

The “Becoming Catholic” series presents the biblical, philosophical, and historical evidence for why Eternal Christendom Founder, Joshua Charles, became and remains Catholic. The series table of contents is here.

One of the most common objections against the Catholic Church is it is corrupt and full of wicked shepherds. This supposedly justified the protestant revolt, and people leaving the Church to this day. Whether through immoral living, or teaching bad doctrine, the Catholic Church may have been the original “mother church,” but it is now hopelessly corrupt, and the only way to respond to this problem is to separate from it.

But as I discovered when I began studying the Church Fathers, this is not a new objection. In fact, it’s a very old one, to which the Fathers offered a unanimous and resounding answer: separation from the Church is never justified.

The Fathers were under no illusions about the earthly pilgrimage of the Church. Like Israel’s forty-year journey through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land, the Church Militant’s pilgrimage to Heaven would be difficult. Indeed, Christ said the way to Heaven was narrow, few find it [Matt. 7:14], and they only get there by taking up a cross [Matt. 16:24]. Our Lord predicted false prophets who would come in like wolves [Matt. 7:15], and they would deceive many, even (if possible) the elect [Matt. 24:24]. St. Paul prophesied there would be heresies that would arise among Christians in order to prove those who were genuine [1 Cor. 11:19]. He warned that wolves would infiltrate the flock [Acts 20:29], and that many will follow teachers who suit their own likings [2 Tim. 4:3-4].

Like Israel in the wilderness, the one true Church would remain itself throughout all its tribulations, none of which would change its fundamental nature. Amalek could not destroy it from without, and Korah, Dathan, and Abiram could not destroy it from within. There was to be no “re-founding” of Israel. There was one and only one Israel, founded by God Himself, on a pilgrimage to the Promised Land. Those who endured to the end would see the promise.

At the same time, the Church, like Israel, is full of both the righteous and the unrighteous throughout its journey. The Fathers describe the earthly visible Church by appealing to several types in Scripture:

  • Noah’s ark, with its clean and unclean animals [Gen. 7:2, 8];
  • The “threshing floor” of the Lord, referring to the threshing floor that David purchased to build the Temple (the Catholic Church is the third, New Covenant Temple), and on which wheat is crushed so that it can eventually be separated from the chaff [2 Sam. 24:18-25; 2 Chron. 21:18-27];
  • The Parable of the Sower with the wheat and the chaff [Matt. 13:24-30; Mark 4:26-32]; and
  • The sheep and the goats within one flock [Matt. 25:31-46], among others.

While the Church during its earthly pilgrimage is full of the good and the evil, it was also permanent and unchanging. Those who endured to the end “came to life, and reigned with Christ a thousand years” (Apoc. 20:4) in Heaven. The ecclesiology of the Fathers drew extensively from the Old Testament on this point. For example, the prophets spoke of an everlasting kingdom. Daniel, in particular, prophesied that in the days of the Romans, “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, nor shall its sovereignty be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Dan. 2:44). Likewise, Isaiah prophesied, “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it…” (Isa. 2:2) This mountain, the Fathers asserted, was the Catholic Church.

In short, the Fathers well knew that the Church was the everlasting kingdom established by God, that it spanned both Heaven and earth, and its earthly remnant would be guided by Christ until his return [Matt. 28:20]. At the same time, this earthly element (the Church Militant) would be full of good and evil, righteous and unrighteous, sheep and goats, wheat and chaff, clean and unclean, until the Lord Himself did the separating. The Fathers knew there would be scandalous behavior from bishops. After all, of the twelve Apostles (the original bishops) appointed by Our Lord, one outright betrayed him (Judas), and all but St. John abandoned Him at His greatest hour of need. But just as unfaithful Israelites did not make Israel any less Israel, unfaithful Catholics do not make the Catholic Church any less the one true Church established by Christ. Scripture makes abundantly clear there is only one Body of Christ—which is the Church—and there is only one Church preaching only one Faith. (See forthcoming post) To speak in Old Testament terms, no matter how corrupt their fellow Israelites or their priests would get, faithful Israelites had no right to presume to establish the kingdom of Israel anywhere else other than in the Holy Land, or build the Temple anywhere else other than in Jerusalem. God reserved to Himself the prerogative of dealing with corrupt shepherds. And He did so.

“If I say to the wicked, O wicked man, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand” (Ez. 33:8). “Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account” (Heb. 13:17).

This is why the Church Fathers everywhere taught the necessity of unity with the Church for salvation (see Becoming Catholic #18), and that the Catholic Church was that one true Church (see Becoming Catholic #22).

Therefore, for a Christian to presume to re-found, re-form, or re-do what God Himself has established by teaching other than what the Catholic Church teaches (heresy) or by separating from the Catholic Church (schism) is folly. It is a form of ecclesial utopianism that, in its quest for a “pure church,” has murdered countless souls in the same way political utopianism has murdered countless bodies.

There are many examples of this theology throughout the Fathers. Here are relevant sections from a letter of St. Augustine written in AD 423 to a consecrated virgin who was scandalized by the behavior of bishops in her own time. One can recognize in this letter that while the severity of sin may increase or decrease in particular epochs, there is truly “nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9).

Here are the words of St. Augustine’s Letter 208 (§§2-4, 6-7):

(§2) I exhort you, therefore, not to be too much troubled by those offenses which for this very reason were foretold as destined to come, that when they came we might remember that they had been foretold, and not be greatly disconcerted by them. For the Lord Himself in His gospel foretold them, saying, “Woe unto the world because of offenses! For it must needs be that offenses come; but woe unto that man by whom the offense comes!” (Matt. 18:7) These are the men of whom the apostle said, “They seek their own, not the things that are Jesus Christ’s” (Phil. 2:21). There are, therefore, some who hold the honorable office of shepherds in order that they may provide for the flock of Christ; others occupy that position that they may enjoy the temporal honors and secular advantages connected with the office. It must needs happen that these two kinds of pastors, some dying, others succeeding them, should continue in the Catholic Church even to the end of time, and the judgment of the Lord. If, then, in the times of the apostles there were men such that Paul, grieved by their conduct, enumerates among his trials, “perils among false brethren” (1 Cor. 11:26), and yet he did not haughtily cast them out, but patiently bore with them, how much more must such arise in our times, since the Lord most plainly says concerning this age which is drawing to a close, “that because iniquity shall abound the love of many shall wax cold” (Matt. 24:12-13). The word which follows, however, ought to console and exhort us, for He adds, “He that shall endure to the end, the same shall be saved” (Matt. 24:13).

(§3) Moreover, as there are good shepherds and bad shepherds, so also in flocks there are good and bad. The good are represented by the name of sheep, but the bad are called goats: they feed, nevertheless, side by side in the same pastures, until the Chief Shepherd, who is called the One Shepherd, shall come and separate them one from another according to His promise, “as a shepherd divides the sheep from the goats” (Matt. 25:32). On us He has laid the duty of gathering the flock; to Himself He has reserved the work of final separation, because it pertains properly to Him who cannot err. For those presumptuous servants, who have lightly ventured to separate before the time which the Lord has reserved in His own hand, have, instead of separating others, only been separated themselves from Catholic unity; for how could those have a clean flock who have by schism become unclean?

(§4) In order, therefore, that we may remain in the unity of the faith, and not, stumbling at the offenses occasioned by the chaff, desert the threshing-floor of the Lord, but rather remain as wheat till the final winnowing [Matt. 3:12], and by the love which imparts stability to us bear with the beaten straw, our great Shepherd in the gospel admonishes us concerning the good shepherds, that we should not, on account of their good works, place our hope in them, but glorify our heavenly Father for making them such; and concerning the bad shepherds (whom He designed to point out under the name of Scribes and Pharisees), He reminds us that they teach that which is good though they do that which is evil [Matt. 3:12]…

(§6) Hence we understand both that the good shepherds are those who seek not their own, but the things of Jesus Christ, and that the good sheep, though imitating the works of the good shepherds by whose ministry they have been gathered together, do not place their hope in them, but rather in the Lord, by Whose blood they are redeemed; so that when they may happen to be placed under bad shepherds, preaching Christ’s doctrine and doing their own evil works, they will do what they teach, but will not do what they do, and will not, on account of these sons of wickedness, forsake the pastures of the one true Church. For there are both good and bad in the Catholic Church, which, unlike the Donatist sect, is extended and spread abroad, not in Africa only, but through all nations; as the apostle expresses it, “bringing forth fruit, and increasing in the whole world.” [Col. 1:6] But those who are separated from the Church, as long as they are opposed to it cannot be good; although an apparently praiseworthy conversation seems to prove some of them to be good, their separation from the Church itself renders them bad, according to the saying of the Lord: “He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathers not with me scatters” (Matt. 12:30).

(§7) Therefore, my daughter, worthy of all welcome and honor among the members of Christ, I exhort you to hold faithfully that which the Lord has committed to you, and love with all your heart Him and His Church who suffered you not, by joining yourself with the lost, to lose the recompense of your virginity, or perish with them. For if you should depart out of this world separated from the unity of the body of Christ, it will avail you nothing to have preserved inviolate your virginity…Committing to Him your heart, your vow, and your sacred virginity, and your faith, hope, and charity, you will not be moved by offenses, which shall abound even to the end; but, by the unshaken strength of piety, shall be safe and shall triumph in the Lord, continuing in the unity of His body even to the end. [Emphasis added]

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