The Ratzinger Option

We live in a time of dissolution, in which natural and traditional ties are growing thinner, and also in a time of consolidation – in which all life is being absorbed by a global economic machine. The results, of course, are becoming less and less livable for most people.

The Church is presented with an opportunity. She is still what she has always been, and as long as she presents what she is, people will continue to find in her what they are missing. As Peter asked, “Where else is there to go?”

Then I noticed that then-Father Joseph Ratzinger said the same thing fifty years ago in a short radio address he presented on Christmas Day in 1969. He told his listeners:

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Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new.

The phrase “totally planned world” is typical of the day’s progressive optimism, reflected in many Church documents, regarding the possibilities of social management. But he turns that optimism around. Fr. Ratzinger suggests that such total planning would devalue individual agency – along with human connections, like family and local community – replacing them with an impersonal, all-pervading bureaucratic scheme. The result? This unspeakable loneliness; the feeling that, since everything is already taken care of, one’s life and efforts are pointless.

A secular utopia wouldn’t be a utopia. But such dubious ideas caused quite a stir in the late Sixties and are still found in vogue today. It was in the midst of this confusion that Fr. Ratzinger gave his talk. He saw no quick end to the disorders or the conditions that lay behind them, and commented that “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.”

Fr. Ratzinger thought these events would sift the Church: make her smaller, poorer, and less institutionalized. She would still have her clergy, for example, but priests serving “smaller congregations” and “self-contained social groups” would often have to serve part-time so they could provide their own support.

But these events would also purify the Church. She would no longer be able to rely on wealth, power, prestige, or social position, and would “have to start afresh more or less from the beginning.” She would thus become rather like the early Church.

And that would bring important benefits. The loss of social standing, while bad in itself, would increase the personal demands of membership for those who remain and focus attention on the Church’s essential nature. It would put paid to the Church as a political movement or a means to worldly ends. Priests would no longer be looked upon as social workers or bureaucratic functionaries. In fact, that conception of the Church is “dead already,” Fr. Ratzinger told his listeners, and will disappear. Instead, we will see ever more evidently the Church that focuses on God incarnate and eternal life, and so provides what only she can provide.

But the way to this future “more spiritual” Church will require overcoming stubborn ecclesiastical vices. These include accepting the world as the standard, and the equally destructive tendency to treat ourselves that way. The latter can come about, Fr. Ratzinger notes, through either the “pompous self-will” present in any organization, or through the “sectarian narrow-mindedness” that seems hard to avoid in a small self-selected Church with an outlook radically at odds with the rest of society. Both will have to go.

What the Church will need to overcome these faults is what she always needs: sanctity. Sanctity requires the selflessness that sets us free and allows us to see reality. To that end, we will need to overcome self-centeredness and self-indulgence, whether in the everyday form of pursuing pleasure or the more systematic form of denying the need for discipline and renunciation. That process will involve a daily effort that gradually reveals to us how far we still have to go.

All this sounds very difficult, a job for saints or at least those with a serious aspiration to become saints. But that, I suppose, is the point. The smaller, poorer Church of years to come can’t afford mediocrity. It must more devoted than what we see around us today, and that renewal begins within ourselves. But, as the ark of salvation in a less and less livable world, she will more than compensate for the effort and sacrifice.

How long will all this take? Fr. Ratzinger expected “hard going” and a “long and wearisome” process. Even so, the title of his talk was “What Will the Church Look Like in 2000.” He (or whoever assigned the title) was evidently something of an optimist.

Since the time Fr. Ratzinger presented his address the sexual, financial, and doctrinal disorders in the Church – not to mention the worldliness, clericalism, bureaucratization, rejection of the need for personal discipline and practical reform of life – has compounded the liberationist tendency to treat the Church’s basic mission as secular politics and social services. The prospects for reform seem to have gotten worse. The laity have fallen away, Church leadership seems at times to have collapsed, and the purification Fr. Ratzinger foresaw appears hardly to have begun.

But who knows? Life goes on, and tomorrow is another day. Exposure of evil does not always mean evil is becoming worse. And, beyond the corruptions, there are counter-movements and signs of new life – some evident, and some invisible to people who spend too much time reading Twitter and weblogs. No doubt there are others that are hidden from almost everyone. “The kingdom of God,” we are told, “cometh not with observation.” And, as always, there continue to be people who discover the Church as an island of life in a desert. As a convert, I’m one of them.

So, what do we do? Whatever the future may hold – whatever may be happening on TV, the Internet, or behind the scenes entirely – we should follow the way Fr. Ratzinger pointed out fifty years ago. We should be constantly overcoming that within ourselves which makes us “scarcely able any longer to become aware of God.” This is, quite certainly, the way that points to a better future for the Church.

Photo credit: Frippitaun /

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