An Out-of-Touch Pope?

Disappointment has been a common reaction from “progressive” sources inside and outside Germany in response to Pope Benedict’s September visit to his homeland. These disappointed progressives say they hoped Benedict would speak a good word for changes that they want in the Church, and he didn’t. Here, then, was an opportunity lost.

“A number of commentators and Catholics who followed the visit to Germany suggested that Benedict’s three decades in an office in Rome had put him further out of touch with the Church in their country,” writes Robert Mickens in The Tablet. Poor Benedict — if only he’d stayed in touch.

What sort of changes do these people want? I am reminded of a friend’s lapidary observation that the progressives’ long-range goal is “Archbishop Patricia of Chicago attending a pro-choice rally with her partner Susan.” Be that as it may, the short-range list is familiar: married priests, the ordination of women, communion for the divorced and remarried, intercommunion with Protestants, approval of homosexual unions, a general loosening-up on sex, democratization of governance in the Church, and quite a bit else.

Alas, instead of opening the doors to any or all of these things, our out-of-touch pope insisted in Germany that the change that really counts is the one that begins in conversion of heart and flowers in the renewal of Christian living. That, to say the least, wasn’t what the disappointed progressives had been hoping to hear.

As one reflects on all this, several things come to mind.

One is that it’s a relevant question who is really out of touch, Benedict or those elements of the Church in Germany (and elsewhere) reflected in Mickens’ remark.

Consider that German Catholicism is very rich — wealthy, that is — largely because of the “church tax” obligingly collected for religious bodies by the German government. Here, of course, is a clear case of a potentially corrupting church-state entanglement that ecclesiastical leadership nonetheless complacently embraces and defends.

As a result of its wealth, the institutional church presents the alarming picture of an overgrown bureaucracy. “The Church in Germany is superbly organized,” Benedict said pointedly September 24 to the Central Committee for German Catholics, an umbrella group for lay organizations. “But behind the structures, is there also a corresponding spiritual strength, the strength of faith in the living God? We must honestly admit that we have more than enough by way of structure but not enough by way of Spirit.” But bear in mind that Benedict is out of touch.

Germany itself is among the most secularized countries in the Western world, and the state of religion there reflects that. Certainly there are many good German believers, and lots of them turned out enthusiastically for the pope’s visit and welcomed what he had to say. But there are others who, some time ago, took their stand on the fringes of German Christianity, and clearly their views were disproportionately reflected in the expressions of disappointment that the media were so pleased to report when the visit ended.

As for the changes championed by the progressives, without going their pros and cons yet again, it can be said that Benedict has considered them and concluded that accepting them would be a betrayal of the truth. Strange to say, the advocates of change take an old-fashioned, legalistic view of Catholic teaching and practice. From that perspective, change is always possible because teaching and practice express nothing more than time-conditioned human formulations and rules. That we may be touching on fundamental principles rooted in revelation itself seems not to occur to them. But many faithful Catholics understand that and were anything but disappointed by the words of the pope.


Finally, it’s important to point out that the disappointed critics missed the radical character of much that Benedict had to say. In this regard, I found genuinely remarkable his September 25 remarks in the Freiburg concert hall to an audience of committed Catholics, in which he pointed to the service that even secularization renders to the Church. Benedict said in part:

Secularizing trends — whether by expropriation of Church goods or elimination of privileges or the like — have always meant a profound liberation of the Church from forms of worldliness, for in the process she as it were sets aside her worldly wealth and once again completely embraces her worldly poverty…. Once liberated from material and political burdens and privileges, the Church can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world…live more freely her vocation to the ministry of divine worship and service of neighbor.

Pope Benedict was at pains to make it clear that “it is not a question here of finding a new strategy to relaunch the Church.”

Rather, it is a question of setting aside mere strategy and seeking total transparency, not bracketing or ignoring anything from the truth of our present situation, but living the faith fully here and now in the utterly sober light of day, appropriating it completely, and stripping away from it anything that only seems to belong to faith, but in truth is mere convention or habit.

I don’t hear many disappointed progressive Catholics, whether in Germany or the United States, addressing ideas like those. What I do hear is interminable chatter about their own privileges and rights. Is it possible they are a little out of touch?

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

  • bill bannon

    So Benedict is not a progressive? Let’s go to section 42 of his Verbum Domine in which he sees the massacres of the Old Testament as immoral whereas Scripture says the ones against the Canaanites and against the Amalekites are directly from God….here he is….

    ” Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things…”

    Strange passage since Scripture not only does not denounce but says multiple dooms were from God. Benedict is indeed progressive as in liberal Protestant derived hermeneutics….ala 19th century. But Shaw above played to sexual issues as the only progressive ones…..and that’s what the underread prefer. Corapi did a similar simplistic read on progressive problems as sheerly sex.
    There is not a soul watching the last two Popes on progressive hermeneutical issues because the doctrinal oath that Catholic theologians take… forces them to submit even in the non infallible….if they want to teach rather than drive a taxi with their theology degrees.

    • Sarto

      The gospel according to a Catholic fundamentalist who needs to do more reading. The Pope might have asked and answered this question: The Old Testament sometimes turnes God into a monster who could demand the human sacrifice (the meaning of the word “ban”) of every man, woman, and innocent child in a city. Now, he seems to be against such a thing. Does that mean he has changed his mind? Or does it mean that the human author of the story tried to explain away an atrocity by blaming it all on God?

      • bill bannon

        And you should change your user name to Sartre.
        What you are missing is the difference between pre grace and grace. Christ brings grace and God’s power switches from drowning the Egyptian army in the Red sea to Christ helping Peter walk on the sea…..from God destroying Dathan and Abiram and their entire families by being swallowed by the earth in Exodus… to God simply killing only Ananias and Sapphira and none of their family…by their simply falling to the earth in Acts 5. Earth swallows….versus….falls to the earth. He is still fearful under grace but power is drawn back somewhat. The death penalties for personal sin cease….the death penalty by states continue in Romans 13:4.

        Prior to grace, God exhibited His power and its destructive side because without grace, mankind
        needed great threats ( “I have sat alone because thou
        hast filled me with threats”). And he required great threats just to be faithful to his wife….so there was a death penalty for adultery and for most mortal sins.
        But the came from God which Christ said in the passage about the pharisees misusing “corba” wherein Christ mentions the death penalty for abuse of parents
        “let them die the death” and Christ calls it twice the “command of God” and “the word of God”.

        You are against the massacres of the Canaanites because you don’t notice that even now God takes about 6 million children a year through starvation, disease, auto accidents ( “not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s leave”….Christ on sparrows) and I’m sure He is doing that that they may better be saved.

        Likewise the Canaanite adults were being punished by God in the bans while the children were going to
        Heaven lest they be brought up to be like their parents who were killed by God for sacrificing their children to idols and eating them. If you actually read….actually read Wisdom 12, it will tell you that God only got to the point of the bans when light slow punishments from God did not work on the Canaanites.

        Your last two Popes though…think like you but neither has the stones to remove any of the violent passages from the scriptures as non canonical. If scripture says God commanded the bans and He did not, then those scriptures logically should be removed from the canon. Never happen. Clever men will dance around them but leave them until Elijah returns right befire Christ. You remember Elijah. He slit the throats of 450 Baal prophets and he is the only one God removed from earth in a fiery chariot so that he might return before the world’s end.

        ere your and Benedict’s abhorrence of OT violence correct, then Benedict needs to extirpate from the canon all those passages including the whole of Wisdom 12 which indicate that Gid ordered the bans and the death penalties.

        • Sarto

          “God takes about six million a year through starvation etc.??!” Whew. Did he order the angels to do this? Your tortured account about how God works is astonishing. God is love, St. John said…oh, I mean the New Testament God…the Old Testament God slew and slaughtered. You are bringing us back to the God of the Nominalists during the late 1400’s, who said that God was not bound to do good because that would limit his freedom and therefore he could do evil and call it good. Of course that emphasis on a God not bound to do good was a symptom of the collapse of Catholic belief that led to the Protestant Reformation.

          • bill bannon

            Do some research on how many children die each year…or just research those dying in East Africa right now…..then connect that to Christ noting that no one not even a sparrow can die without your Father’s leave. Research….then combine with Christ’s observation. Or do you think people die and it’s outside your Father’s leave even if Christ said it only happens with your Father’s leave.

          • Sarto


            I was a missionary in an enormous slum in Colombia, where the children were dying around me like flies. After a particularly difficult day in which I carried a dead little girl in a pillow case through the streets to her parents house, I began my long discussion with God.

            Finally, the cross became more important than ever. Not only do children die and God knows who they are, but his Son, tortured and nailed, made God one with the most lost…the babies who die of hunger…the aborted child…and on and on.

  • K. C. Diaz

    Thank you Mr. Shaw for an enlightening article. And to Mr Bannon,for an “underread” like me I don’t look at progressive problems as only sex, but also self
    -love and self-interest, its the ME that they want. For an “underread” like me at least I know the bottom-line sir, its really about God and going to God, if those progressive and you couldn’t see the simple reality that those changes DO NOT lead to God then I would rather stay “underread”…and to those theologians that stray themselves and others from the path to God, better shove their degrees where the sun doesn’t shine.

  • Sarto

    And you might be for the burning of witches, the stoning of disobedient children, and torture for all the wretches hauled in by the modern Inquisition.

    • pammie

      “In his trip to Germany, the Pope wore a stole with the arrogant symbol of the triple tiara (symbolizing the rule of the pope over earth, the Church, and even heaven) during his meeting with the Lutheran bishops.”

      Thank you for making my day!

      • Sarto

        Through this strong symbol, he was telling the Lutherans that all their long ecumenical discussion with Catholic theologians appointed by Rome had only been a gimmick. That the ecumenical dialogue which had occupied so much time and energy for the last forty years was not to be taken seriously. Please. Is a pope guided by the Spirit or not? Pope John XIII was in favor of ecumenism…if Pope Paul VI was in favor of ecumenism… Pope John Paul was in favor of ecumenism. But Pope Benedict is not. So, would the pope guided by the Holy Spirit please stand up!

        • Alan Church

          Sarto, your kind of ecumenism sounds like syncretism. True ecumenism is just evangelism to the Catholic faith.

          • Sarto

            You need to read the Vatican Council decree on Ecumenism, which has a different opinion.

  • Sarto

    At the request of my diocese, I just did a long study on ecumenism, reading tens of books. I saw the growth of the movement and the hope it offered for a restored union among Chrisians, and now I am disappointed to see Pope Benedict clearly moving back. “Communio” was a oft-repeated phrase up to and including Pope John Paul. In his trip to Germany, the Pope wore a stole with the arrogant symbol of the triple tiara (symbolizing the rule of the pope over earth, the Church, and even heaven) during his meeting with the Lutheran bishops. In his speeches, he asked for “cooperation,” but did not say a word about “communio.”

    • Alan Church

      Sarto said –
      In his trip to Germany, the Pope wore a stole with the arrogant symbol of the triple tiara (symbolizing the rule of the pope over earth, the Church, and even heaven) during his meeting with the Lutheran bishops.

      Actually, the triple crown represents the three persons of theTrinity and their Divine Kingship.

      • Sarto

        Nice try. But Wikipedia gives a couple of versions that are a lot closer to what I read when I studied Church history.

      • Joan

        If one is a ruler, why is it “arrogant” to wear a crown? In fact, I would say His Holiness is quite modest to put the ancient symbol of his spiritual authority, God given, in just a little embroidery on an occasional stole.

  • Several comments have been removed from this thread for name-calling; please remember to adhere to the Terms of Use and keep the discussion focused on the article at hand. Repeat offenders will be banned. Thanks.

  • Bob

    All Protestant faiths need to come back home to the Catholic Church, and the beauty of the magisterium, Tradition and Authority over scripture of the Catholic Church. They too will find the peace and grace of the only faith given by Christ the keys to the kingdom and the ability to “bind and loose.” Seriously, there are 30,000 different Protestant faiths all to a degree teaching different things on Christ and all in disagreement with eachother……….should the Pope enter in to some type of ecumenical middle-ground dialog with all of them? Or should the Protestant Churches admit that at their core they never had the authority to start a church in the name of Christ to begin with? God bless Pope Benedict. Charity is giving the Truth, not some 50 yard line “I’m OK, You’re OK” process.

  • M.

    Perhaps it is the ‘progressives’ who are out of touch. Their time is past. They have lost the argument.

  • Luke

    I think it’s amusing how the label of ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ are thrown about so quickly, without thinking. Before Vatican II Ratzinger and JPII were considered extreme liberals for embracing the fruits of historical study. Yet just a few years after the council condemned as extreme conservatives!

    Bill: Please read Dei Verbum. Historical studies are absolutely required due to the historical, i.e. real interactions between God and man in history and the dual-authoriship of scripture. You have to know the genre, history, and cultural background of the ancient author to know what he intends to express, because what he intends to express is what God intends to express to us. Of course, dogma is not relative to history. I think this is what you are afraid pope Benedict is doing. However, he has been one of the strongest opponents of the new theology when it comes to the relativity of doctrine, knowledge, etc. He is no liberal in this respect.

    • bill bannon

      I’ve read two huge books by Raymond Brown, the king of historico- critical ruminations. He served under John Paul II and Ratzinger on the PBC. He was a genius and he was wrong many times as when he flippantly maintained that Mary never said the Magnificat but Luke got it from Palestinian Anawim….but he didn’t really find any documentary evidence….but he had a historico- contextualist hunch. Thanks anyway but I’ll go with Christ instead…. who said the death penalty attached to reviling one’s parents and the prohibition both… was “the word of God” and the ” commandment of God”…. google the passage on Christ denouncing the misuse of Corban.

      • bill bannon

        PS….the death penalties for mortal sins like reviling parents were only for the Jews….the death penalty for murder only… Gn9:6…applied to both Jews and Gentiles once there were kingdoms unlike in the Cain case when execution would have been vigilante. Kingdoms begin with Nimrod in Genesis 10 later on. John Paul never noticed that and thus saw the immunity of Cain as significant vis a vis the death penalty….no….it’s significant against personal revenge.
        Even with kingdoms, they first simply made rules for the avengers of blood…like sanctuary cities.

  • Mouse

    Thank God our Pope is “out of touch” with the desires of some of those misguided souls!!!

  • Alison

    Viva Papa! The Holy Spirit guides him in truth.

  • Wow, who is this Sarto guy? Unfortunately, some of the misled simply will not come back into the flock.

  • Laura

    One of the more shocking conversations I had with my German mother-in-law was when she informed me, that ‘Of course she is Christian! She pays her Church Tax!’ As if that is all there is to it…

    After living in Germany for five years as an American, married to a German, I have to say I was quite shocked at HOW secular society is, even compared to American society (though we are getting worse here…). Those big and small beautiful churches, unless on the tourist routes, are often quite empty…