Thursday, February 23, 2017

A smaller, weaker, impurer Church

Reposted from December 2015, since that Ratzinger passage is once more doing the rounds on Facebook.

An international pilgrimage: the traditional pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres.
From time to time people like to quote something Joseph Ratzinger wrote in 1969. Here's the key passage (source):

The church 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 . . . she will lose many of her social privileges. . . As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members….

It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek . . . The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution — when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain . . . But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. 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. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.

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.

I always like to oppose signs of false optimism, so I'll say something about this.

In relation to Cardinal Ratzinger/ Pope Benedict, this passage has to be read in light of his intellectual development. In 1969 he didn't have the same views as he did when he became a cardinal in 1993 or Pope in 2005. He might or might not have later actually disagreed with this passage, but his writings certainly took on a very different tone and emphasis. To put it crudely, he was a bit of a liberal in 1969. It is to his credit that he had the flexibility of mind and intellectual honesty to continue developing his thinking, in light of new research and the unfolding of events, as the decades passed.

An association of Chant choirs: the Gregorian Chant Network.
The reference to the 'Church of the political cult' is an example of liberal thinking and language. It is a disparaging reference to the role of the Church in society and politics, particularly in Catholic countries, in the old days. The loss of 'privileges' and 'edifices' noted in the passage was not, it should be noted, something which liberals saw with regret. They consciously and actively repudiated the Church's privileged place in society, which she had had in 19th century Spain, Second Empire France, and the like. They thought that political privileges and elaborate institutions made the Church worldly (in need of 'spiritualisation'), made her look arrogant in relation to other religions, and needed to be set aside for the sake of more effective evangelisation.

In light of this, at the time widely held, view, the passage makes a very different kind of sense to that sometimes, I think, attributed to it by conservative Pope Benedict fans. To a large extent it is not about the disaster of post-Conciliar collapse - which wasn't so visible in 1969 - as about the liberal hope for purification and growth following the sloughing off of the privileges and institutions which were cramping the work of the Holy Spirit. Of course, the two things are closely related. When Pope Paul VI talked about the 'autodemolition' of the Church, he was talking about the way that liberals were deliberately and joyfully smashing the place up, convinced that this would lead to a new springtime. The liberal attitude has not gone away entirely. Even now, bishops planning for the institutional disappearance of the Church in their dioceses give their discussion documents jaunty and optimistic titles like 'Leaving Safe Habours'. Only if we leave all those fusty old things like schools, hospitals, and parish churches, behind, can we really get going with our evagelisation. Hanging on to the old institutions is playing it too safe. If smashing up half of them didn't have a positive effect, then we should try smashing up the remaining half.

A pro-life witness: outside the John Radcliffe Hospital, in Oxford.
Pope Paul VI wasn't so sure this was a good idea, as the reference to 'autodemolition' in his famous, but somewhat mysterious, 1965 sermon indicated. What we have seen since then is the very effective destruction of the Church's institutions and place in society, but absolutely no sign of 'purification' or a 'great power' flowing out: quite the contrary. One reason is that secularised, formerly Catholic institutions don't always leave the Church's institutional orbit. For example, the completely secularised 'Marriage Care' counselling service of the UK, whose philosophy is radically opposed to the teaching of the Church, still gets a privileged place in the Church, in advising bishops, on parish noticeboards, in terms of references in Catholic newspapers, and in Catholic directories. The same is true of the Catholic school system. Such secularised institutions bring completely worldly thinking into the heart of the Church.

There lies at the centre of the liberal project a confusion about the Church's engagement with the world. In the old, confessional Catholic state, and to an extent in non-Catholic countries like the UK where there were well-developed Catholic institutions, the Church used to engage very closely with the world, but on her own terms. There were Catholic schools, hospitals, prison-visiting charities, and all sorts of professional associations, all with a genuine Catholic ethos. A slackening of that ethos would lead either to intervention and reform or repudiation. That was the way that a (relatively) pure Church made herself known to a perhaps hostile world. This manifestation made it possible for non-Catholics to recognise the Church's unique character, and what she had to offer, in even quite brief encounters with Catholic institutions. Non-Catholics who had experienced a Catholic hospital, or who had wandered into a Catholic church during Mass, came away with something to reflect about. When Malcolm Muggeridge decided to send his son to a preconciliar Downside School, the headmaster warned him that the boy was very likely to ask to be received into the Church: most non-Catholic pupils did, he said. And so it came to pass.

The liberal conception of engagement, by contrast, is exemplified by the fictional Pope Kirill in the film, The Shoes of the Fisherman (a 1968 film of a 1963 book), going off to mediate between Russia and China in a business suit, explaining that if you look like the people you are talking to, they are more likely to listen. The idea is that by making concessions (supposedly only concessions on outward, disciplinary, non-doctrinal matters) the Church can 'gain a hearing' with the world. The result has been, however, that there is nothing for the world to hear. Catholic schools, hospitals, and even liturgies have become next to useless as means of conveying anything about the truth of the Catholic religion, the Church's insight into human nature, or the supernatural virtues which the Church makes possible, to non-Catholics, or even to Catholics, because they have deliberately made themselves worldly.

And so it is that liberals criticise the old institutions of the confessional state for sitting down with secular leaders to negotiate privileges, like the opportunity for religious to catechise Catholic children at French state schools during the school day, state support for Catholic hospitals or leper colonies, or having crucifixes in courtrooms, because this kind of thing led to the Church becoming 'worldly', and even to the Church making concessions such as allowing state influence over the appointment of bishops. Instead, they propose that the Church sit down with secular leaders to evangelise them, having first made the evangelists themselves as worldly as possible. As a matter of fact, the Church continues to spend a huge amount of time and energy negotiating over Catholic education and the like - the column inches in the Catholic press on the subject of free transport for children at Catholic schools must surely exceed those on all matters of bioethics combined - though with a weaker bargaining position than before. Meanwhile, the appointment of a bishop unacceptable to the secular power is about as likely as snow in Hell. How this is supposed to represent progress, I am unable to explain.

What Joseph Ratzinger was certainly right about in 1969 was that the new situation would absorb much energy in introspection, and would lead to a crisis which would take many years to resolve. Where he was wrong is in the idea that the Church can evangelise without institutions, 'edifices', relying instead on individuals. Catholicism is an incarnate religion, and the Church is herself a human, as well as a divine, institution. Wherever Catholics set up shop they create institutions: first the family and the parish and diocese, and then schools and associations of all kinds. It is through human contact that the Gospel is spread, and institutions can manifest the Church, humanly, more effectively, convincingly, and consistently, than isolated individuals. We are inviting non-Catholics to join an institution, after all, and not simply become a personal friend. If the Church is to recover her evangelical zeal, she must rebuild her institutions, just as she did after the French Revolution and the English Reformation.

As you build new Catholic institutions, the key thing is not to let the liberals get their hands on them: they will instinctively destroy them. They can't help it. It is their nature.

A Summer School: St Catherine's Trust
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  1. I thought you were going to remark that the reason the Church is shrinking in size is because she is corrupt, and thus that a smaller Church is a worse Church. Conversely, purity and fidelity in the Church lead to her expansion, and if they are kept up, they will produce a large Church, as happened in the past.

    This text from Joseph Ratzinger is a transparent attempt to deny reality and to avoid responsibility for his involvement in the attack on the Church mounted by the modernist faction at Vatican II. I would be interested to know if the later development of his thought ever extended to repentance for and repudiation of his support of this faction. My impression is that it did not, but I am glad to be corrected on this subject. If this impression is correct, it gives the key to the failure of his pontificate.

  2. "Only if we leave all those fusty old things like schools, hospitals, and parish churches, behind, can we really get going with our evangelisation."

    Or for that matter: actual people as well. Apparently the Church doesn't require them, either.

  3. Thanks for this. I've been getting ready to launch a full-spread howitzer barrage against the next person sighing into their cornflakes for a "smaller purer Church."

    Do not wish it, Miss Dashwood...

  4. Excellent context. Thank you!