Benedict’s new letter is written from a unique perspective of experience of key positions in the Church. Hence, his retrospective on what happened in the Church after and partly because of Vatican II is valuable. Also, consider his direct and his remote audience. Since this was destined for the German Klerusblatt it is without question a deserved scolding of the German Church. However, he knew that it would make instant world headlines, so his audience is also everyone, everywhere.
Benedict opined in the past about the decline of the social influence and of the Church in the world and the resulting potential of an influential creative minority. He thinks that this time has arrived. Remember that he is a scholar. When he writes, he provides a status quaestionis. His digression on Job is surely about the state of the Church. For Benedict, Job is Christ foreshadowed. Foreshadowing is realized in Christ, but it must, therefore, also be realized in the Church before the Second Coming. It seems that Benedict thinks that the Church is in her Job phase, being challenged in her externals and in her identity. Has Benedict has an experience akin to that of Leo XIII hearing God and Devil dicker over a century of trials for the Church? We, as a Church shall prevail, but only if we are true to God. We are not being true to God if we try to recreate the Church in human terms. We must be faithful to the Church as God designed.
As a good student of Augustine, who labored through the Donatist crisis, Benedict underscores that the Church is corpus permixtum malis et bonis. The Church has highly visible weeds in her fields and deeply evil fish in her nets intermingled with the good. The times and challenges we face today reveal the reality of this mix and, in fact, the rapidly accelerating sorting of the two. The Church’s accelerating polarization is a sign of this. One could aptly interject into Benedict’s tripartite essay, motus in finem velocior!
The MSM will latch onto the essay’s title and be titillated by his comments on the 1960’s, aka oh so golden halcyon days for most liberals and progressivists. Benedict doesn’t offer specifics about solutions to the problem of, say, abusive clerics. His is a more integral view. He emphatically rejects any call to remake the Church in human terms to address our problems. How many times have we heard that the Church, to address “Burning Problem X”, must change and conform to the world! We need lay control of newly designed structures which, we are assured, are inspired by the “spirit”. We need married priests and women deacons! Away with patriarchy and distinctions and outdated theologies based on so-called natural law. We determine what’s natural now. We need change! While Benedict endorses a refining of the Church’s laws, he strongly warns in his latest offering against abandoning a natural law approach in our moral theology and discussions, or an overturning of constitutive elements of the Church. He gives us an autopsy of the post-Conciliar DOA attempt in Germany to split moral theology from natural law.
Benedict says, in effect, even as we are being tried like Job, stripped of everything as Our Lord was before the Cross, that reinventing the Church in human terms won’t solve anything. “[A] self-made Church cannot constitute hope.” And again, with surprising bluntness, “What must be done? Perhaps we should create another Church for things to work out? Well, that experiment has already been undertaken and has already failed.”
What Benedict surely means is that conforming the Church to the world, and sticking to the failed path we are on, will hand the Devil a victory. His approach is, and allow me to quote the spiritual, “Gimme that ol’ time religion”. In the wake of the terrible scandals which deluged Ireland, Benedict urged in a letter to the Irish people that they return to traditional faith and faith practices. He is doing the same here. Trying to reinvent the Church through changes in structures or the introduction of innovations that result in the jettisoning of the useful gains of our forebears will play into the Devil’s hands. However, if his words to Ireland were urgent, they are, today, imperative. And Benedict doesn’t want just a return to the practices or formulae of the past. His is a deeper call.
Benedict calls in his piece for a radical rediscovery and recognition of the love of God, both His love for us and ours for Him. He stressed that the content of our Faith is Love Incarnate. This is what is personalized in the Catholic Faith, and without which the Church’s structures and teachings are soulless. But with God’s love, they are alive and life giving. I am reminded of question I heard Ratzinger answer after a conference. He was asked about Karl Rahner’s notions about God as an Existenz-Modus. After delving briefly into what Rahner meant, Ratzinger concluded, “What Fr. Rahner forgets is that you cannot pray to an Existenz-Modus!”
Benedict today is calling for the formation of “faith habitats”, places where the Faith and love of God can “dwell” and be recognized. Though we are being emptied and becoming smaller as a Church – through the auto-enervation of the weeds – we can still be a creative minority, giving witness to the Truth to whatever end we are called to bear.
Something that critics and defenders of Francis are sure to notice, is Benedict’s reference to the Veritatis splendor and the context of its genesis. Pace today’s prominent papalotrous antinomian and theological vandals, Benedict defends Veritatis splendor, so undermined during this pontificate, as a guidepost. Veritatis splendor was, as Benedict explains, John Paul’s necessary response to a challenge from Germany that would have had disastrous results. Yes, the former Pope affirms, just as Pope’s of yore have always been willing to affirm, there are some things that are intrinsically evil. We jettison that truth at our existential peril, as a society and as a Church. But, nolens volens, that’s what’s happening. How must we respond?
In effect, Benedict’s unspoken line is the integral interconnection of Cult, Code and Creed. I think he would agree that his underlying foundation is the intimate and simultaneously operative ecclesial dynamic force inhering in lex orandi – lex credendi – lex vivendi.
For example, Benedict calls for a recapturing of Mystery in our liturgical worship when he speaks to how so many today receive Holy Communion thoughtlessly. “Our handling of the Eucharist”, he wrote, is a “central issue”. We must embrace the whole of the Church’s teaching on Faith and morals: the Church’s teachings and her laws are inextricably interwoven. “It is very important to oppose the lies and half-truths of the devil with the whole truth”.
Oh, yes. He calls – albeit implicitly – for new criteria for the appointment of bishops. That was fun. And, more seriously, we must be willing to die, to be martyrs. That was sobering.
What captured my attention in a more focused way, as I read through the often familiar themes, his Ratzingeriana as it were, was what must surely be a longing for us “to establish habitats of Faith and, above all, to find and recognize them”. What do I mean?
Benedict ranges around a bit as he puts down various markers, some familiar tropes, but there is a cri de coeur moment when he reveals his pain, how heartsick he is at what is going on today.
Apart from all the business about pedophilia and crises, etc., Benedict gets down to it, I think, when writes of the loss of Mystery, the Mystery in liturgical worship and the Mystery of the Church. For Ratzinger, and he even from the years I had the privilege to speak often with him, and for me, everything comes from and flows back to our sacred liturgical worship, which must bring us into transforming contact with Mystery, much as Moses left the tent of meeting shining so brightly his face could not be looked at. If we recognize the connect of Cult, Code and Creed, then even reflection on law reveals the Mystery of God, as does more obviously doctrine. Encountered rightly, they transform. However, after lamenting a loss of Mystery, Benedict poignantly turns inside out a phrase of his perennial spiritual guide, Romano Guardini, a phrase which in his earlier writings Ratzinger called a “standard quotation in German Catholicism”. Mind you, just as Christ’s quotes of the prophets were instantly recognized by 1st century Jews, the German clergy, Benedict’s immediate audience will get this. Guardini, writing between the wars and during the rise of the Liturgical Movement wrote positively, “An event of incalculable importance has begun; the Church is awakening in [people’ s] souls.” On the contrary, Benedict herein mourns that a negative event of incalculable importance has begun, namely, “The Church is dying in [people’s] souls.”
The last 50 years have borne that out and, in fact, the necrotic effects are accelerating, which makes them daily more obvious.
What could be the take away from this somewhat rambling collection of observations and Ratzingerian tropes? This may be Benedict’s prophetic call to those who are listening. We are seeing the Church experience a Job-like testing. If Christ endured a Passion, the Church must endure a Passion as well. The Passion reveals the radical, unfathomable depths of God’s love. We must learn to recognize this love, and manifest it. We are going to experience painful but purifying down-sizing. We must creatively form places where the Faith and love can “dwell”, habitats of Faith.
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