We often hear that religion is a very private matter. It’s a nice sentiment. It’s inclusive and non-judgmental. And nice non-religious people are really quite pleasant to be around. Catholics can be nice people too. We drive to work to nice offices—I walk to work from a nice rectory—and we return to our households with a nice “live and let live attitude.” And nice people keep religion to themselves, aside from a pious bumper sticker or two.
The other day I found myself pondering a WWII photograph. It’s a famous picture, maybe you’ve seen it. A German soldier is about to execute a Jewish prisoner and the body of the prisoner will soon tumble into a mass grave. About a dozen soldiers are looking on. The facial expression of the executioner is not particularly cruel but it is matter-of-fact. The face of the prisoner, a split second before the soldier would pull the trigger, is angry and defiant. The prisoner doesn’t look like a very nice man.
I zoomed in to view the faces of the bystanders. They are all soldiers, but they could have been people like you and me. I didn’t see expressions of horror. I didn’t see any of them averting their eyes. Nobody is weeping or expressing distress. And if any of them are praying they are keeping their religion to themselves. Individually, they look like they could be very nice people.
A couple of soldiers appear curious and attentive. One is stretching his neck to get a better look. Others seem to be bored. But all eyes are on the scene of the impending execution—a bullet in the back of the head. There’s a time for war, and there’s a time for peace, and there’s even time for entertainment. And this is high entertainment in the execution of Jews in the midst of the prison camp boredom. Taken as a whole, I saw sheep.
After the war many of the soldiers probably lived happily ever after, allowing for the pain of reconstruction. In time, what they witnessed and what they did likely became distant memories. Perhaps they could take comfort in saying to themselves that at least they did not pull the trigger. Or they pulled the trigger with reluctant necessity. Life in the close quarters of Army barracks can be uncomfortable if there are divisive and polarizing views. Disrupting the process wouldn’t be nice. It’s nicer to have unity in the community, as spectators, allowing the cruelties of war to go without comment.
After pondering the picture for about ten minutes, I averted my eyes. As I said, the image isn’t particularly horrifying. The soldier had yet to pull the trigger, but I had a thought that became difficult to bear. The more I pondered the faces, the more I was able to see my own face among those soldiers. I saw the faces of my parishioners among them as well. Except for the angry face of the prisoner, they looked like nice people and we’re nice people. We are also sheep.
Catholics make up only 25 percent of the U.S. population. And most of us live as if religion is a very private thing. It’s nice to have unity in the community. So it’s tempting to suggest that we good Catholics had nothing to do with the moral collapse of our culture. It must have been somebody else, those people. We didn’t pull the trigger. We’re not executioners. We’re nice people. And we belong to the flock of Jesus.
But if Jesus the Good Shepherd defines his flock, one would think that 25 percent of our culture would be recognizably Catholic. So what went wrong? Maybe too many of us are huddling in the barracks of our workplaces, our families. Pretending that if we have our families in order—a continuing holy imperative—we need not busy ourselves with the plight of our neighbors. Families, like religion, we may insist, are very private things.
Or maybe we’ve reduced our faith to a spectator sport. So we look on with fascination as others pull the trigger. Because expressing disapproval wouldn’t be nice. And we might be accused of hate for identifying and opposing sinful behavior. A few of us—Catholics in very high places—are actually pulling the triggers, executing the enemies of progress. Regardless, the gunshots coming from the camps or the smoke belching from the ovens somehow happen without us. Religion is a very private thing. And it’s not nice to be divisive.
In truth, we are all visible members of a flock of sheep. The defining flock is either the polite company of our social or political circles or the flock of Jesus. What we believe is observable, verifiable, and points to our shepherd, whoever he or she is. So our religion and our morality really are not private. And our professed Catholic faith indicts us when we really belong to another flock.
Except for Confession, the Catholic faith is not at all private. And the Catholic faith is not a spectator sport. The Good Shepherd directs and defines us because we are the valuable sheep of his flock. We are his witnesses. Our job is to be nice and faithful sheep, but when there is a conflict, to cluster around the Shepherd, to be truly faithful in the face of adversity.
At the moment we still have the freedom in this country to punch back—even beyond a pious bumper sticker or two—and to reclaim our membership in Christ’s flock. A few modest suggestions:
- Risk alienating friends and family by using words like fornication, adultery, sodomy, immorality, and perversion when the subjects invariably come up at social gatherings.
- Write your pastor or bishop and asking him to replace his use of “transgendered” with “surgically mutilated”—and while you’re at it ask him never to use the word “gay” except in quotation marks.
- Write monthly letters to the editor (wherever) pushing back on the Sexual Revolution.
- Cancel cable TV and let people know why (other than saving a few bucks).
- Take on your Congressman for his pro-abortion and pro-“gay” voting record and don’t let up when you fail.
With Jesus as the Good Shepherd, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” (Mt 10:28)
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a 1941 photo taken by an Einsatzgruppen (SS) soldier titled “Last Jew of Vinnitsa” (Ukraine).