A week after Benedict XVI's shock announcement, an important statement he once made comes to light
A restructured Church with far fewer members that is forced to let go of many places of worship it worked so hard to build over the centuries. A minority Catholic Church with little influence over political decisions, that is socially irrelevant, left humiliated and forced to “start over.”
But a Church that will find itself again and be reborn a “simpler and more spiritual” entity thanks to this “enormous confusion.” This was the prophesy made 40 years ago on the future of Christianity by a young Bavarian theologian, Joseph Ratzinger. Digging it out again today perhaps provides us with another key to understanding Benedict XVI's decision to resign, because it traces his gesture back through the course of his interpretation of history.
His prophesy concluded a series of radio preachings which the then professor of theology gave in 1969 at what was a decisive moment in his life and the life of the Church. These were the turbulent years of the student revolts and the landing on the moon but also of the disputes over the Second Vatican Council which had only recently come to a close. Ratzinger, who was one of the Council's protagonists, had left the riotous university of Tübingenseeking refuge in the calmer city of Regensburg.
He found himself isolated as a theologian, having split with liberals Küng, Schillebeeckx and Rahner over their interpretations of the Council. It was in this period that he concolidated new friendships with theologians Hans Urs von Balthasar and Henri de Lubac, with whom he founded Catholic theological journal, Communio. Communio soon became a training ground for young “Ratzingerian” priests who are now cardinals and all seen as potential successors to Benedict XVI: Angelo Scola, Christoph Schönborn and Marc Ouellet.
In five little known radio speeches made in 1969 and published again a while ago by Ignatius Press in the volume“Faith and the Future”, the future Pope gave his vision of the future of man and the Church. His last teaching, which he read out on “Hessian Rundfunk” radio on Christmas day, had a distinctly prophetic tone.
Ratzinger said he was convinced the Church was going through an era similar to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. “We are at a huge turning point – he explained – in the evolution of mankind. This moment makes the move from Medieval to modern times seem insignificant.” Professor Ratzinger compared the current era to that of Pope Pius VI who was abducted by troops of the French Republic and died in prison in 1799. The Church was fighting against a force which intended to annihilate it definitively, confiscating its property and dissolving religious orders.
Today's Church could be faced with a similar situation, undermined, according to Ratzinger, by the temptation to reduce priests to “social workers” and it and all its work reduced to a mere political presence. “From today's crisis, will emerge a Church that has lost a great deal,” he affirmed.
“It will become small and will have to start pretty much all over again. It will no longer have use of the structures it built in its years of prosperity. The reduction in the number of faithful will lead to it losing an important part of its social privileges.” It will start off with small groups and movements and a minority that will make faith central to experience again. “It will be a more spiritual Church, and will not claim a political mandate flirting with the Right one minute and the Left the next. It will be poor and will become the Church of the destitute.”
The process outlined by Ratzinger was a “long” one “but when all the suffering is past, a great power will emerge from a more spiritual and simple Church,” at which point humans will realise that they live in a world of “indescribable solitude” and having lost sight of God “they will perceive the horror of their poverty.”
Then and only then, Ratzinger concluded, will they see “that small flock of faithful as something completely new: they will see it as a source of hope for themselves, the answer they had always secretly been searching for.