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Lost Sheep, Modern Pharisees

Where are the shepherds? (Laurent Dechoux/Flickr)

Several of you have sent me this spectacular essay by the Catholic writer and professor Anthony Esolen, addressed to certain bishops of his Church. Excerpts:

So I am looking at a world in a shambles. We do not have Pharisees who preen themselves for having followed the letter of the law and missed its soul. We have Pharisees who preen themselves for disobeying the law, even the most serious admonitions of the law, even your own clear words on marriage and divorce, while presuming to have discovered a soul-of-the-law whose existence has eluded two thousand years of martyrs, saints, popes, bishops, and theologians. “I thank you, O God, that you have made me a sinner and a publican, and not like these others who set their aim so high.”

In this world that I see, there is no sheepfold left. “What man among you, having a hundred sheep, and seeing the fold smashed and hirelings among the flocks, men who, while wolves are tearing the bellies of the sheep, are themselves roasting mutton on spits, will not leave the ninety nine and go into the wilderness to find one, and when he finds it dead already, will not hold his head high and say, Well, I did my best!”

It will be said that the one—the unrepentant or semi-repentant sinner, the one who wants to have the faith on his own terms—is “marginalized,” a word I detest, but which may serve my purposes this once. If adults in immoral sexual relationships are “marginalized,” Lord, let me speak up now for people who do not even make it to the margins, for the poorest of the poor, for people who have no advocate at all.


Let me speak for the children exposed to unutterable evils on all sides. Here is a girl at age twelve who has seen things on a screen that her grandmother could never have imagined. She is taking pictures of herself already, and making “friends” among the sons and daughters of Belial. This is happening under our very eyes. She goes to the drug store and must confront magazines for “women” blaring out their headlines about sex and what without any irony goes by the name of “beauty,” and nobody says, “Why should this be?” Who speaks up for her innocence? Where are the leaders of my Church, helping her to become a gracious and godly Christian woman, rather than a poor self-prostituted wreck, more cynical about the opposite sex at age twenty than the hardest thrice-divorced old woman would be? Who pleads for her protection? Who notices her?

Let me speak up for the young people who see the beauty of the moral law and the teachings of the Church, and who are blessed with noble aspirations, but who are given no help, none, from their listless parents, their listless churches, their crude and cynical classmates, their corrupted schools. These youths and maidens in a healthier time would be youths and maidens indeed, and when they married they would become the heart of any parish. Do we expect heroic sanctity from them? Their very friendliness will work against them. They will fall. Do you care? Many of these will eventually “shack up,” and some will leave dead children in the wake of their friendliness. Where are you? You say that they should not kill the children they have begotten, and you are right about that. So why are you shrugging and turning aside from the very habits that bring children into the world outside of the haven of marriage?

Read the whole thing. It is powerfully prophetic. Every bishop and every minister of every church, not just the Catholic Church, should read this and take it to heart.

UPDATE: A reader e-mails:

What resonated most with me in Esolen’s piece was “the young people, who…follow the moral law and the teachings of the church…suffering intense loneliness.” I was raised as the prototypical “good Christian girl”: youth group, stellar Christian college, etc. And I lived my life in a way that I thought would ensure a bright future with a Christian man. I’m 31 now, educated, professionally successful, attractive, and to this day, no “Christian” man has ever asked to date me. No church I’ve been to in the last 10 years has done anything to help single people find partners (“Hey, you’re 30 and still single? Why don’t you come hang out at our college/young adults group where everyone else is 19!”), and Esolen’s piece made me realize what I think I’ve known all along. The church doesn’t care–much–about me and how I live my life anyway.

When I was 29 I was dating a nice man–not a Christian–and decided to sleep with him. Other men I dated in grad school dumped me when they found out I was a virgin, and no Christian man had stepped up to the plate. A friend of mine told her boyfriend she was a virgin and he left her, thinking she must have been raped or abused as a child and “didn’t want to deal with that”. She’s now living with a new guy she’ll probably marry.

So at 29 I had sex for the first time and was blessed in that he treated me kindly and with respect for a few months. But it didn’t last. I knew it wouldn’t, but I couldn’t take the loneliness, the feeling of being a pariah, and I needed physical affection. My Christian friends without exception accepted this rationale. When I hear from the pulpit that we should “accept Prop. 8 because it’ll be the law of the land soon anyway” and that we should bless those who’ve been living together before marriage, I know the church leadership largely shares the attitude of my friends. I feel like I’ve been had; I waited until I was 29 because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do, only to find out that no one really believes that anymore. Indeed, “by your silence and your telling deeds, you confirm in them the terrible fear that they’ve been played for chumps, that their own leaders do not believe, that they would have been happier in this world had they gone along with the world, and that their leaders would have smiled upon them as they’d done so.”

I don’t know what my future holds, but I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll sleep with the next man, and hopefully he will be the last, hopefully we’ll marry. I won’t ever live with him until we take our vows, but that’s because of my own personal desire to save some things for marriage, not because I think the church cares one way or the other.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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