Debate: Are we better off with a smaller, purer Church?

The shrinkage of the Church into a creative minority may leave churches empty in some countries (Photo: PA)

It is often claimed that Benedict XVI wants to see a “smaller but purer Church”. This is cited as evidence that he is a hard-line Pontiff who has given up hope of winning Europe back to the Catholic faith. But on his Commonweal blog this week Fr Joseph Komonchak suggests that Joseph Ratzinger has never, in fact, said this.

One possible source for the claim is Salt of the Earth, a series of interviews conducted with the Pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, by the Bavarian author Peter Seewald.

In it the cardinal was asked about the Church’s failure to “bring about a broad movement against the currents of our time and a general change in mentality”. He responded by saying he never imagined he could “redirect the rudder of history”, and that the Church was not a “business operation that can look at the numbers to measure whether our policy has been successful”. He added:

“Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures. Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterised more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world – that let God in.”

Fr Komonchak suggests this is more “prognosis than programme”.

But would a creative minority of loyal, committed Catholics be preferable to a broader Catholic culture? Is the faith weakened and distorted when it is practised nominally by a large swathe of the population? Or should it be shared with as many people as possible?