|Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI|
I have often heard mention of a remark by Joseph Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict XVI, anticipating a “smaller, purer church”. I was reminded of the this remark last week as I was wrapping up my post on St. Julia of Corsica [here], and reflecting on the fact that we seem to need to suffer many smaller defeats on the way to enjoying Christ’s final victory over sin and death. I was curious to find out exactly what the future Pope said, and when and where he said it.
I found that the original statement came as the last of a series of radio addresses that Fr. Ratzinger, at that time a professor of Theology, delivered over the radio in Germany in 1969 [full text here]. His prophetic vision of a “smaller, purer Church” (someone else’s paraphrase, I think, because I don’t see that wording in the original text) was broadcast on Christmas day. It makes interesting reading 45 years later.
Fr. Ratzinger starts out saying that “The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and live from the pure fullness of their faith.” Ah yes, personal holiness: that sounds good. “It will not issue from those who accommodate themselves merely to the passing moment or from those who merely criticize others and assume that they themselves are infallible measuring rods . . .” Hmmm, sounds like time for some self-examination. “nor will it issue”, he says
from those who take the easier road, who sidestep the passion of faith, declaring false and obsolete, tyrannous and legalistic, all that makes demands upon men, that hurts them and compels them to sacrifice themselves. To put this more positively: The future of the Church, once again as always, will be reshaped by saints, by men, that is, whose minds probe deeper than the slogans of the day, who see more than others see, because their lives embrace a wider reality.
Got it. The future of the Church lies with those who are ready to make a deep commitment to self-sacrifice, who aren’t looking for easy answers. But how does this lead to a smaller Church? He goes on to explain:
We have no need of a Church that celebrates the cult of action in political prayers. It is utterly superfluous. Therefore, it will destroy itself. What will remain is the Church of Jesus Christ, the Church that believes in the God who has become man and promises us life beyond death. The kind of priest who is no more than a social worker can be replaced by the psychotherapist and other specialists; but the priest who is no specialist; who does not stand on the sidelines, watching the game, giving official advice, but in the name of God places himself at the disposal of men, who is beside them in their sorrows, in their joys, in their hope and in their fear, such a priest will certainly be needed in the future.
In other words, the corporal works of mercy may be an essential part of Christianity, but they can’t be the sole or primary focus of the Church (“I’ll show you the faith that underlies my works” James 2:18), since there are secular agencies and individuals who can perform them just as well. Who needs the Church, if you can get the same somewhere else? The thing that only the Church can provide is the encounter with Jesus Christ through his sacraments. Everything else, Fr. Ratzinger says, will be burned away, but much like the man St. Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 3:15, who “will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire”, what remains will be pure metal:
From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge - a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members . . . But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world.
This fire-tempered, more faithful Church, Fr. Ratzinger says, will stand as a refuge for those driven to “horror” by the spiritual poverty of a now Godless world.
The future Pope wraps up with a peroration that is both grim and hopeful:
And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man's home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.
Fr. Ratzinger’s “prophecy” can be misunderstood. Some commentators seem to believe that he is advocating a much smaller Church. Not so. He is looking at the “Signs of the Times” and extrapolating from that, tempering his predictions with the knowledge that Christ has promised that the Gates of Hell will not prevail against his Church (see Matthew 16:18). The past four and a half decades have certainly developed just as Fr. Ratzinger suggested they would. Church attendance has fallen as the weakly committed no longer feel the social pressure to attend Mass, the number of priests has plummeted, and most religious orders have shrunk dramatically. At the same time, religious orders grounded in a traditional understanding of the doctrines and disciplines of the Church are growing, and we have seen an explosion of lay evangelization unlike anything the world has seen in a long time.
It seems to me that Fr. Ratzinger’s vision of the near future of the Church, much like Paul VI’s admonitions in Humanae Vitae [here], has been more than confirmed by events since, and should serve as a serious warning of what is to come. Christ’s final victory is guaranteed, but individuals and whole nations can be lost before its consummation. We all still need to choose whether we’ll follow Christ’s Battle Standard, or Satan’s.
(An earlier version of this post was published on May 26th, 2014)
(An earlier version of this post was published on May 26th, 2014)