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Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Good Shepherd and the Meaning of Culture

I aim to write another post or two on Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, but the homily I heard at this Sunday morning’s Mass inspired a thought I’d like to share with you before I return to Crawford’s book later this week.

On this World Day of Prayer for Vocations, the priest at our Mass chose to meditate on the theme of Christ the Good Shepherd sounded in the Gospel (John 10:1-10). “But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as the shepherd calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice.” The priest focused in particular on the consecrated role of bishops and especially of the pope in imitating Christ the Good Shepherd by being the “voice” of Christ for our age.

The bishops and the pope, he went on to say, are the “vertical authority” of the Church. By this phrase he meant to refer to the way in which the bishops receive from Christ the authority to teach and form the laity in holiness, an authority that the pope, as the Vicar of Christ, is entrusted with above all. It is this very “vertical authority” that is missing, for example, in the Anglican Church, now hopelessly divided over the question of openly homosexual clergy because there is no shepherd with the authority to definitively settle the issue.

Our priest’s use of the phrase “vertical authority” reminded me of an almost identical phrase used by the sociologist Philip Rieff in his book on postmodern culture, My Life among the Deathworks. In this book Rieff defines culture as “the vertical in authority,” a terribly awkward phrase intended to express the idea that culture is defined by its attitude to what is “above,” i.e., to transcendent authority.

As the 20th-century German Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper reminds us in his masterful little book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, our English word “culture” has its root in the Latin cultus, a word that means the religious practices of a people. So both Rieff and Pieper understand culture as essentially an act of submission to divine authority.

When it comes to Catholic culture, we can see the “vertical in authority” literally embodied in the very stones of the medieval Gothic cathedrals which reach upward to the heavens in order to proclaim the glory—and the authority—of God. The Gothic cathedral is a joyful response of the sheep who hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and seek to follow him.

But the “vertical in authority” that defines Catholic culture is also present in the literature that portrays human beings as existing under the divine gaze; in the university that orders the pursuit of all truth to theology; in the family that strives to live as a domestic church; and in the government that bases its rule upon God’s eternal law.   

There is a principle here: any culture that is defined above all by the true worship of Christ the Good Shepherd is a culture in a healthy condition; and any culture falling away from such worship is a culture in the midst of decline.
Tell me, you whom my heart loves,
where you pasture your flock,
where you give them rest,
Lest I be found wandering
after the flocks of your companions
(Song of Songs 1:7).


  1. Very nice reflection. Using the cross as an analogy with the vertical part of the cross representing what you have written about here, and the horizontal beam of the cross representing our relationships with other people, society, etc.; it strikes me that the focus today is too much on the horizontal and this is reflected in contemporary Church architecture. In the not-too-distant past, churches were designed as worship spaces instead of the gathering spaces. The focus was on God and not the worshiping community. Hopefully, the tide will turn (and I see signs of that happening in my parish, thankfully) before it's too late.

  2. Jac, you might be interested in the journal, SACRED ARCHITECTURE, edited by Duncan Stroik, an architect and professor at the University of Notre Dame. Here's a link that will give you more info:

  3. I especially enjoyed the last two grafs; thank you for writing this!

  4. Thanks Dr. McInerny, I'll check that out.

    --Jeff C