Fr. Ratzinger Speaks
“It seems a good time to take a break from all the culture war stuff.” So I said in the introduction to my last post. The Lord knows we could all use a break, and yet the hits keep on coming, don’t they? Well, as that witty old atheist Leon Trotsky might have said, “You may not be interested in the Culture War, but the Culture War is interested in you”. The forces pushing culture war don’t seem to feel the need for a break at all, and they’re coming right at us.
But the Culture War, you might recall, is only one front in the larger war. In some earlier posts (here and here) I used the image of a pyramid to illustrate the different levels upon which our society is built, with politics the top (and least important), with culture underlying politics, and religion as the bottom level, the basis for the whole structure. I’ve touched previously on the political and cultural fronts of the war (which is, at root, a spiritual conflict); today we’re going to look at the religious front.
Let’s start with one of the more famous non-doctrinal statements of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, going back to long before he became pope, or even a bishop: that the Church of the future would be a “smaller, purer Church”. While there’s no record of him ever saying it in exactly those words, that does fairly accurately sum up a number of statements Joseph Ratzinger made over the years. The earliest and perhaps most famous instance was in a Christmas Eve address on German radio in 1969, when the future Pope Benedict XVI was simply Fr. Ratzinger, a theology professor at the University of Tübingen in Germany.
“From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much.“
A Smaller, Purer Church
We’d be mistaken if we thought that Fr. Ratzinger was advocating a smaller, purer Church, or suggesting we’d be better off if we jettisoned members who don’t live up to a certain standard of purity. Nor was his address a “prophecy” in the Biblical sense, although the past half century has shown it to be prophetic in the more colloquial sense, in that it accurately foretold what was to come (this was the sense I meant in a previous piece several years ago called “Fr. Ratzinger’s Prophecy”). In reality, all Fr. Ratzinger was doing was looking at social trends, the “signs of the times” (see Matthew 16:3). He saw a society in which Christian belief was becoming less important with, as a consequence, progressively less social advantage to membership. As the advantage diminished and eventually disappeared, the less committed members would move out, and on to something else:
From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She 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, so it will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision . . .
Most of us would probably agree, half a century later, that Fr. Ratzinger was on to something. As for the Church becoming purer, he says:
The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. 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 all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed.
Signs of the Decline
Hard going, indeed: I suspect we’re still only beginning to see how hard it’s going to be. But let’s go back to the first part here, the “smaller Church”. Social science data gives us a more tangible idea of what the decline in Christianity looks like. The Pew Research Center has been measuring religious practice and attitudes for the past several decades. The decline in Christian belief and practice is very real, as a report published by the Pew Center a little over a year ago shows (In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace ). There’s not space to go into all the details here, but you can get the main idea from two of its numerous graphs.
The first graph shows that in the twelve years from 2007-2019 the number of Americans who identify as Christian has declined from 77% or 78%, depending on the which survey you look at, to 71% in 2014 and 65% in 2019. At the same time, the so-called “Nones”, Americans who have no religious affiliation increased from 16% or 17% to 23% in 2014 and 26% in 2019:
The second graph is even more sobering, because it strongly suggests the decline will only get worse. We see every succeeding generation less Christian and more disconnected. The Millennial Generation comprising those Americans born between 1981-1996 is the first in American history in which less than half identify as Christian:
Now, it’s likely that many of those Millennials will “find religion” as they get older. That’s not unusual. In order even to catch up with the not-terribly-religious Generation X, however, they would need to go through a Great Awakening greater than anything this country has ever seen. We can also be sure that some who now consider themselves Christian will fall away later in life. Given all that, it’s not unreasonable to project that, a generation or two down the road, Christians will be in the minority in the United States.
Those Who Lap Like Dogs
So, how are we to square this sobering prognosis with Christ’s promise that the Gates of Hell would not prevail against His Church (Matthew 16:18)? Well, first of all, Christ’s Church is not the same as our local churches. Large stretches of the Middle East and North Africa that used to be solidly Christian are now peopled overwhelmingly by Muslims; we have no guarantee that the Church in the United States will survive. We also have no guarantee that individual souls will be saved; even victorious armies suffer casualties, sometimes heavy ones.
At the same time, a trend is only a trend as long as it keeps going in the same direction. Consider the story of Gideon, in the Book of Judges. Gideon was bringing out his army to face the Midianites when he heard the voice of God:
The Lord said to Gideon, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, ‘My own hand has delivered me.’ Now therefore proclaim in the ears of the people, saying, ‘Whoever is fearful and trembling, let him return home.’” And Gideon tested them; twenty-two thousand returned, and ten thousand remained. (Judges 7:2-3)
That, however, wasn’t enough:
And the Lord said to Gideon, “The people are still too many; take them down to the water and I will test them for you there; and he of whom I say to you, ‘This man shall go with you,’ shall go with you; and any of whom I say to you, ‘This man shall not go with you,’ shall not go.” So he brought the people down to the water; and the Lord said to Gideon, “Every one that laps the water with his tongue, as a dog laps, you shall set by himself; likewise every one that kneels down to drink.” And the number of those that lapped, putting their hands to their mouths, was three hundred men; but all the rest of the people knelt down to drink water. And the Lord said to Gideon, “With the three hundred men that lapped I will deliver you, and give the Midianites into your hand . . . (Judges 7:4-7)
And of course The Lord did deliver Midian into the hands of Gideon, but not as we might expect. While Gideon and his three hundred blew trumpets, broke jars, waved torches, and shouted, among the Midianites “the Lord set every man’s sword against his fellow and against all the army; and the army fled as far as Beth-shittah toward Zererah” (Judges 7:22). It couldn’t have been clearer to Gideon and his followers that they didn’t defeat Midian through their own prowess: they themselves were rescued from Midian by the God in Whom they trusted.
Hope in The Lord
The story of Gideon should give us hope. It is clear we have just about come to that place Fr. Ratzinger foresaw when membership in the Church would no longer confer social advantages; it may even be that we are entering an era when being a Christian is an actual detriment (there are some places, such as academia, where it already is). The fearful and trembling are on their way home, and soon, perhaps, we’ll be down to the three hundred who lap like dogs. What happens then? Let’s go back to Fr. Ratzinger:
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.
This is where the story of Christ’s Church diverges from the story of Gideon. Gideon and his army chased down the confused and frightened Midianites with the sword; the reduced and purified Church will, instead, offer them a beacon of hope. The remaining Christians will truly need to be the salt that gives savor to a godless world, and the light to “shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16). Ratzinger accordingly predicts:
It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.
There is reason for Hope amid the gloom. Christ’s Church may need to suffer as Jesus himself did on the Cross, but there’s no Resurrection without the Crucifixion. As St. Peter reminds us:
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6-7)