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Bad Shepherds

by Rod Bennett

Sophia Institute Press


Bad Shepherds : The Dark Years in Which the Faithful Thrived While Bishops Did the Devil's Work. Rod Bennett, Sophia Institute Press, ISBN 978-1-622827-145

Review by Tim Matthews


Surveying the current grim landscape of scandal in the Church, many shocked Catholics are tempted to leave their Church, forgetful of how far back runs the story of betrayal from within.

In this book, journalist-historian Rod Bennett protests (in easily-read and conversational style), that he would have preferred to have written about saints than the '
poisonous rats who infest the pages ahead' but considers it necessary to report on an extensive gallery of rogue shepherds, from Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia who sold out Church to the Roman Emperor, to the bad shepherds in France whose faults led to the Reign of Terror in the 18th-century, and of more besides.

And why?

Because, he says, if more of us realised just how bad our shepherds can really get, and ever have been, we might, for lack of surprise, be better fortified when these new Judases turn up in our own day.

A major key running through the book is the striking fact that it is always the laity who tend to stand firm when the rogue shepherds are at their worst.

In some vivid detail Bennett examines some of the horrors the Church has had to face, beginning with the Arian heresy of the 4th century.

Bad shepherd Arias died at the beginning of the affair making '
a cranky tone-deaf speech' to the founding delegates of Nicaea. These followers were 'quislings, the new Pharisees' who divided their attentions on how to stay on good terms with the surrounding culture and how to gain influence in government. (What here is new?).

Cowardice was the keyword. '
Practically every horror of which the Arian party descended was occasioned by fear - fear of losing the 'lifestyle to which they had become accustomed'.

This period was perhaps, says Bennett, the closest the Church has ever become to being overthrown
eight out of ten Catholic bishoprics worldwide were in the hands of counterfeit Christians; the number of Sees remaining in orthodox hands could be 'counted on the fingers of one hand'. And yet, not for the last time, it was the laity that stood firm.

Next, came the Barbarians' rush to the gates. This emerged only after many years of rust and decay in the Roman Empire, a period of laziness and luxury. The years between 552-1123 might be considered a sort of Mad Max period of the postapocalyptic Church. Bad bishops returned with a vengeance, and it became a period from which Luther and the Protestant Reformers were to draw their juiciest horror stories.

While the East stood firm, the central control over the western portion of the Roman Empire fell and bad shepherds around the fringes of the Empire sowed the seeds of future trouble.. The Prophet of Islam found two nations, East and West, weakened by bad Christianity and the Catholic authorities showed little haste to reform. In 742 St Boniface wrote a letter to Pope Zachary; '
all of ecclesiastical order and discipline has been set at nought and trodden underfoot . . . No wickedness is a bar to the priesthood or the episcopacy'.

When Charlemagne died he left his realm to unworthy heirs, and the whole undertaking disintegrated, dragging the Western Church down to a degree few of us today can even imagine. The papacy was up for grabs. Scandal was rife: house servants testified that the Pope practically made the sacred Palace into a brothel. When Pope John XII's confessor was to witness one of his indiscretions, the Pope had his eyes poked out; The sodomite Pope Benedict IX was elevated by his father to the Fisherman's See possibly at the age of 12. Simony became the besetting sin of the age. And Islam grew stronger and stronger.

But the Church did overcome this Age of Iron. It survived the bad shepherds
and the men and women who responded to the call were, once again, the laity. People like Chaucer, Dante, Giotto, Petrach, Marco Polo, St Louis IX, and Richard the Lionheart.

But then, come the 14th century, deprived of solid doctrine, the laity began to take on bad ideas, often spread by shepherds who were simply ignorant; sub-Christian notions crept back into distorted Catholic teaching. Efforts were made to sort out these fables and false ideas
but only after the Protestant revolt.

Bennett writes, "
It ought to go without saying, but all the men who created Protestantism were Catholics' Wycliffe, Hus, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, a Swiss seminarian. They saw that things were wrong and were in revolt with a bewildered laity in the middle. The whole tragedy was summed up by Chesterton: 'The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right'. Nationalism was born; former brothers and sisters in Christ were becoming foreigners to each other. Each new church quarrelling and anathematizing, yet each had been Catholic to begin with."

Bennett's next bad shepherd is Cardinal Richelieu whose determination to put France back on top, even at the cost of the Catholic Faith, achieved ugly long-term results and were the first steps leading towards the conflagration that almost destroyed Christian civilisation in the 20th century. Bad shepherds became an excuse for slaughtering the sheep and the government attempted to suppress the Catholic Faith altogether.

But again the laity spoke. Two regions, The Vendée and the City of Lyons put up a valiant fight, but one that, alas, eventually failed and between September 1793 and July 1794 the revolutionary leaders raged their Reign of Terror, with up to 50,000 civilians massacred.

Eventually Napoleon Bonaparte rose up to salvage what was worth saving, He had witnessed how, just as in the Arian crisis, the laity had stood strong while so many of their shepherds turned bad. He realised that the Catholic faith was permanent and immovable in the hearts of the people. To wage war against it would be '
like trying to extinguish the sun'.

Rod Bennett tells a sobering story which, he warns, 'reluctant, unenthusiastic, sad and forbearing' will certainly continue. The conflict is not yet over.

This review first appeared in CFNews No 2267

This version: 19th February 2019

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