Watchdogs and Wolves

“Do you not know,” says Saint Paul to the lax and factious Corinthians, “that we shall judge angels?” For they had ceded to the unbelievers around them the authority to judge a controversy between Christian brothers.

But Jesus says, “Judge not, lest you be judged,” because the criterion by which we measure others will be our measure, too, and we are not likely to pass that test. Does Paul contradict Jesus? Not at all.

Consider the Pharisees who liked to pray and fast conspicuously, pulling long faces so that everyone would know they were in the grip of holiness. Jesus calls them hypocrites, the same name he gives to the man who would take the speck out of his brother’s eye while he has a plank in his own. The word hypocrite, too, relates to judgment: the Greek word is krinomai—to answer for, to give an eloquent reply, as if in a court of law. Hence, hypokrisis—the practice of sub-locution, surreptitious behavior; to hide what you really are beneath playacting. The Pharisees are hypocrites both because they pretend to judge others by standards they themselves do not meet, and because they are actors of holiness, presenting themselves for the judgment and the applause of men.

Jesus tells his apostles that in the kingdom they will sit upon thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. To them also, and to Peter in particular, he gives the power of judgment, for whatever they bind on earth will be held bound in heaven, and whatever they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. But they must hold doggedly to the faith, because they must show their love for Jesus by obeying his commandments. Saint Paul demands the same obedience to Christ. We are to weigh all things for their truth, keep what is good, and discard the false and wicked.

 

We must judge—with justice and mercy, and a keen sense of our unworthiness, for we are all unprofitable servants, and all our righteousness is as unclean rags. “Not to us, Lord,” says the psalmist, “not to us be the glory, but to thy holy Name.” We must judge, because judgment pertains to those who govern, and no society can exist without law. We are not at liberty to be at liberty, i.e., to be free of the burden of judgment. This especially pertains to the office of bishop, both in the choosing of who shall be bishop, and in the exercise of the bishop’s authority. “Now a bishop,” says Saint Paul, “must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. He must manage his household well, keeping his children respectful and submissive in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s church?”

When we judge such a man for such a position, we do not pretend to know how his soul stands before God. We do not need to know this. We need only to see what can be seen by ordinary observation. Compare the person in charge of souls with someone in charge of other people’s wealth. If John is caught taking money from the company till, he may repent and we might forgive him, but it would be utterly irresponsible of us to entrust to John a widow’s bequest. We may be free and easy on our account, but we may not be free and easy with what belongs to others. This, too, would be a kind of theft.

Imagine a director of an estate, a Mr. Vescovo, who exercises appalling judgment in delegating to unworthy persons the use of funds. Suppose he plays at a life of high responsibility. He occupies three floors in a city-center tower. He shows up at all manner of conferences for business and charity. If a ribbon is cut for a new park, he is there. If the foundation stone for a new school is set, he will find his way into the photograph. He establishes a reputation for liberality, but with wealth that is not his. Imagine also that you are his accountant and that one day you go to him and say that a Mr. Peculator, to whom he entrusted seven million dollars, has not only sunk most of it in a paper charity meant for the promotion of other Peculators, but that he had done so in the past, as Mr. Vescovo must know.

“I know no such thing,” says Vescovo.

“Pardon me, sir,” you say, “but I have a letter from Mr. Stuart, from the Securities and Exchange Commission, addressed to this office, and outlining in specific terms the abuse of authority that Peculator made his habit. It is damning.”

“I never saw the letter,” says Vescovo.

“Sir, it was addressed to you.”

“Do you believe,” says Vescovo, “that a man who sins must continue in his ways? Do you not believe that he might turn over a new leaf?”

“Peculator seems to have turned over plenty of new leaves. They have dollar signs on them.”

“Ah, perhaps,” says Vescovo, clicking his tongue, shaking his head, and making as if to care very deeply about the evanescence of the good things in this life of ours.

You persist. You hold forth the sins of Peculator, and you grow indignant on behalf of the elderly people who gave their life savings to your superior, not to be frittered away, but to be put to solid and wholesome use. Then you are condemned. You are a rigorist. You are unforgiving. You have not learned the lessons of Jesus. Hypocrite, you.

But you have the soul of a watchdog. I am referring to the guardians in Plato’s Republic, fierce to enemies but gentle to friends. They must be carefully trained to take up such lives, and only the lads with the noblest minds and hearts are admitted to the training. The watchdog is too preoccupied with protecting what is most precious to him to think of how he appears to others. His blood is up when danger threatens. This is as it ought to be.

Many a Catholic leader used to call Joseph Ratzinger the “Rottweiler” of Pope John Paul II. He was and is a shy and gentle man. But he is orthodox, and he would sometimes, going against his own temperament, administer some well-needed correction, because for twenty years these same people sniffed at John Paul, saying that he was an eastern autocrat, or that he—an intellect who was a Mont Blanc to their Port Esquiline—was too mired in the backward East to understand the progressive West. John Paul was no disciplinarian, more’s the pity. But spoiled children always are the worst accusers of their parents.

We need watchdogs. The watchdog cannot do his work unless what Plato calls his “spirit,” i.e., the thymos, is developed to an extraordinary degree, and is directed toward guarding what is good and right. He hates the wolves because he loves his masters. The sheep he guards must come to mean more to him than his own life. His life is one of continual vigilance—an inner sense of episcopus. It is not easy, and it is no object of a slack man’s ambition.

We have been granted a precious inheritance: the invaluable deposit of faith. It is a living faith not because we do what we want with it, and not because it is alterable with the times, but because it is the gift of the eternal and living God. Every portion of it is gold. Its tenets are ours in trust to pass faithfully along to our children and to the world, not to be deformed by them or the world, but so that the faith may transform the world and become the inheritance of generations to come. We must judge, always. We must not playact by being protectors who do not protect, trailing skirts of conspicuous clerisy, if not also those of piety. We have no right not to exercise the most devoted judgment, both as to what is in accord with the faith and as to who is fit to guard it, promote it, love it, and even die for it.

Old soldiers in Rome used to bare their chests to show the handsome scars they had received in battle for their country. I want, before I die, to see bishops with white streaks on their faces and necks from the wolves they wrestled to the ground. Dine on the sheep no more.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “A Saint Bernard Comes to the Aid of a Lost Woman with a Sick Child,” painted by Charles Picque (Belgian, 1799-1869) in 1827.

Anthony Esolen

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Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); and Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018).

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