At seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest. Samuel Johnson
I have sometimes puzzled over that sentence—so portentously pronounced by perhaps the most earnest Englishman I can think of—and have asked myself why anyone would advise another to wait so long before becoming earnest. Shouldn’t we always be in earnest? Also, isn’t it a bit odd that if Dr. Johnson had taken his own advice, he’d never have lived long enough to observe it? He pegged out, as they say, at age 75, missing the mark by two years.
As for myself, I won’t be 77 for at least another year. Does that mean I am free to remain unserious until then? If so, I shall be in very good company, not a few bishops under seventy-seven having already cornered that particular market for some time now. Bishop Georg Bätzing, for instance, current Chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, is only sixty-one, and what a strikingly unserious specimen he seems to be. Indeed, judging from remarks he recently made while in Rome with sixty or so fellow prelates for a chat with the pope, one might almost think the poor fellow had no faith at all.
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“It hits me personally very hard,” he admitted the other day, surveying the growing exodus among Catholics in Germany, “that so many people are leaving the Church. In doing so,” he continues, “they are casting a vote and showing me that they no longer agree with the way the Church presents herself. The reasons are certainly varied and, for the most part, justified (italics added). Nevertheless,” he concludes, “there are reasons to stay.”
Really? Why should anyone stay having just been assured by Bishop Bätzing of all the reasons for leaving? And, come to think of it, how exactly should the Church present herself if, by her failing thus far to do so, one is entirely justified in leaving her? Obliged to do so, in fact, if Bishop Bätzing is to be believed. People have no alternative but to leave, he is saying, given her continued recalcitrance on so many fronts. His Excellency has certainly not been at all shy in telling us this.
On all the hot button issues, from sex outside marriage, to the ordination of women, to blessing same-sex marriages, to extending Eucharistic privileges to non-Catholic Christians, he is square in the camp of the dissenters. On the matter of women priests especially, he has been most vociferous in his criticism of Rome’s continuing refusal to ordain them: “Popes have tried to say the question of women priests is closed, but the fact is that the question exists. Many young women say, ‘a church that refuses all of this cannot be my church in the long run.’” And, putting himself into this little drama, he would himself leave the Church if he “got the impression that nothing would ever change.”
What’s keeping him, I wonder? Because the Church, which he and his allies are so eager to change, is simply not going to change. She will never change. And where does one get the idea of “my church,” as if one somehow owned the institution of which one had agreed to become a member? One would think even German bishops would know that it is not my Church, or their Church, but Christ’s Church. And have they already forgotten that the last time changes of the sort welcomed by people of their persuasion took place, it was called Lutheranism? Is that what they want? Then maybe they should just say so and get on with it.
I am reminded of a telling comment once made by Karl Rahner about his erstwhile colleague and friend Hans Küng, whose flirtations with heterodoxy pretty much left him bereft in the end. Fr. Rahner stated that he could so much more easily read and understand Küng as a Protestant. It was only when he sought to present himself as a Catholic, you see, that his writings became unintelligible. Could it be that the Bätzing crowd are only coherent to the extent you view them as non-Catholics—straightforward secularists, in fact—effectively disconnected from the Church whose teachings they no longer share?
Why won’t someone tell them this? Like the pope, for example. It’s his job, after all, to tell us all about the Church, beginning with, one would think, the truth that Jesus Himself fashioned her to be the extension of Himself and His work in the world. And that whoever hears her, hears Him, and the one who sent Him. Why is that so complicated? Philip, one of His followers, certainly didn’t think so when, putting the question to Jesus about when they might all see the Father, Jesus in effect tells him, “Look, Philip, old boy, the Father and I are one. When you see Me, you see Him.” In other words, if Christ instituted the Church to prolong His saving presence in the world, does it not follow that in seeing and hearing her, one necessarily sees and hears Christ?
So, why do they refuse to listen to her voice? Are their own voices so compelling that the rest of us are expected to listen, heeding advice which overturns two-thousand years of Catholic Christianity? Are the witness of countless saints and scholars, popes and martyrs, to count for nothing? The authority, no less, of Christ Himself, who made provision for none of the changes being proposed today?
Alas, they know nothing of the Church at all, her mystery eludes them entirely. They really are unserious people. Not even a line from Henri de Lubac will move them. But I shall quote him anyway because he gets the juices flowing for those of us who not only love the Church but feel the need, especially now, to defend her.
“The richness of the thing is unique,” he tells us in a particularly beautiful and luminous passage from The Splendor of the Church, his masterpiece, which was first published back in 1953 but has since gone through multiple editions. He continues:
nothing comparable has ever been thought up by men, let alone realized…. And this richness is marvelously multiform. If we wanted to explore every aspect of it there would be no end to the business. But let us look for a moment at the whole great panorama of the twenty centuries. It begins in the wounded side of Christ on Calvary, goes through the “tempering” of the Pentecostal fire and comes onward like a burning flood to pass through each of us in turn, so that fresh living water springs up in us and new flames are lit. By virtue of the divine power received from her Founder, the Church is an institution which endures; but even more than an institution, she is a life that is passed on. She sets the seal of unity on all the children of whom she gathers together.
She will certainly survive the insanity now engulfing her. And so, too, her members, however beleaguered.
[Photo: Bishop Georg Bätzing (credit: Tobias Steiger)]