A great sea change came over my life when, quite by accident, I first stumbled upon a copy of Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity. Based on a set of lectures, given in the summer of 1967, that captivated large numbers of German university students, it appeared in English two years later. I discovered it several years after while wandering about in a Catholic bookstore.
I’d never heard of Ratzinger before but was instantly struck on first opening the book and seeing the following sentence set down in the Preface, revealing the whole point of writing the thing:
Its aim is to help understand faith afresh as something which makes possible true humanity in the world of today, to expound faith without changing it into the small coin of empty talk painfully laboring to hide a complete spiritual vacuum.
Here was an exciting exposition of the Church’s Creed, one which I’d never been exposed to before, certainly not among the revisionist theologians I was then hearing so much about. With elegance and erudition, he outlined the ancient and apostolic faith so compellingly, I thought, that one would be a fool not to believe.
It was around then that—again, quite by accident—I learned of the death of Frank Meyer, who for years had stood tall in the saddle among the formative figures of American Conservatism. A unifying presence, he had long insisted on the essential harmony between freedom and tradition, a position that came to be called fusionism, for which he was a most eloquent and tireless promoter. At the time I, too, shared his enthusiasm and identified as a movement conservative.
What I did not know then, but would soon discover, was that, as Frank Meyer lay dying, he expressed a desire to become a Roman Catholic. However, there was one pesky little phrase in The Apostles’ Creed that held him back. He simply could not bring himself to say, “I believe in…the Communion of Saints.” With its vague collectivist air, it seemed an affront to his stern libertarian spirit. Frank Meyer was an individualist of the strict observance, you see, and so he bristled before the prospect of having to abandon so sacred a principle.
Happily, a wise priest, both a friend to Meyer and the movement he championed, was then summoned, who helped him clear that final hurdle. He died the very next day, a faithful son of the Church.
The Mystical Body of Christ. Is that what gave the poor man pause? Did Frank Meyer really think Christ came only for the individual, the solitary self? Me, but not Thee, and never We? If he had read Joseph Ratzinger, he’d surely have known better. “For the salvation of the mere individual,” he tells us in a splendid summary of the Catholic position, “there would be no need of either a Church or a history of salvation, an incarnation or a passion.”
It is because the faith of the Church does not demand that only atomized souls need apply that she makes no provision for solipsism in her presentation of it. To be, therefore, is always to be in relation to another. Even Robinson Crusoe, finding himself lost and alone on a desert island, for all his resourcefulness in survival skills, remains always on the lookout for a friend, a companion with whom to share the travails of solitude. Only when Friday arrives will he find a kind of fulfillment. “Man is himself,” explains Ratzinger, “only when he is fitted into the whole: into mankind, history, the cosmos.” And recalling one of the seminal figures of 19th century Catholic theology, Johann Möhler, the point is given paradoxical expression: “Man, as a being set entirely in a context of relationship, cannot come to himself through himself, although he cannot do it without himself either.”
And, yet, despite this evident need for others, it is often here that the chief impediment for so many persists. It is the sheer outwardness of the Catholic Thing that keeps people away. “It irritates us,” Ratzinger notes, “that God should have to be passed on to us through outward forms: through Church, sacrament, dogma, or even through the Gospel (kerygma).” All of which forces the question, “Does God dwell in institutions, events, or words? As the eternal Being, does he not make contact with each of us from within?”
The answer, of course, is a most emphatic Yes—if, that is, the relationship were entirely private, that of God relating directly and exclusively with each isolated ego at a time. “The salvation of the individual as individual can and could always be looked after directly and immediately by God…. He needs no intermediary channels by which to enter the soul of the individual, to which he is more intrinsic than he is to himself.”
But God wished to come among us in a very different way—not in a set of ideas, transmissible from one discrete mind to the next, but amid a body of believers joined to God and to one another in Christ. In other words, God allowed himself, on entering the human estate, to identify in the most complete and intimate way with a distinct people. Even as God made the Jew, it was the Jew who, in the human being Jesus, made Him.
Thus we find the fulfillment of this People of the Promise precisely in the Church whom God fashioned from the flesh and the blood of His crucified Son. Ratzinger is thus spot on when he declares: “Faith demands unity and calls for the fellow believer; it is by nature related to a Church.” Which is not, he adds, any sort of “secondary organization of ideas…and hence at best a necessary evil; it belongs necessarily to a faith whose significance lies in the interplay of common confession and worship.”
This was the great lesson St. Augustine needed to learn, one which he recounts in Book VIII of his Confessions and to which Ratzinger will refer in his own landmark study of faith. For too long, he tells us, Augustine hung fire, reluctant to join the Church, thinking it only a set of ideas. Like his famous contemporary the philosopher Marius Victorinus, he imagined himself sufficiently smart not to need the crutch of a community on which to lean. Having perfectly intuited all the necessary Christian ideas, “he no longer needed to institutionalize his convictions by belonging to a Church.
Like many educated people both then and now, he saw the Church as Platonism for the people, something of which he as a full-blown Platonist had no need. The decisive factor seemed to him to be the idea alone; only those who could not grasp it themselves, as the philosopher could, in its original form, needed to be brought into contact with it through the medium of ecclesiastical organization.
What Augustine discovered near the beginning of the 5th century was really no different from the discovery Frank Meyer would make near the end of the 20th, that the experience of faith necessarily includes membership in a Church, a communion larger and richer than oneself. “Christian belief,” writes Ratzinger in this wonderful book which I am no end of grateful for finding, “is not an idea but life; it is not mind existing for itself, but incarnation, mind in the body of history and its ‘We.’
It is not the mysticism of the self-identification of the mind with God, but obedience and service: the outstripping of oneself, liberation of the self precisely through being taken into service by something not made or thought out by myself, the liberation of being taken into service for the whole.
Thanks to the grace of God, Augustine learned that lesson early on. And while it took Frank Meyer a bit longer for the lesson to take, he too learned it in the end. I imagine the two of them in Heaven, joined forever in joy to that Communion of Saints before which we all stand as supplicants.
[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]