One the eve of Benedict’s recent trip to his German homeland, Der Spiegel ran a predictable story with the title Der Unbelehrbare—The Unteachable One—complete with an unflattering cover shot of the Pope. The piece presented the routine critique made by many Germans: this Pope refuses to accommodate the faith to the obvious truths of modernity; in his obstinacy or ignorance, he either won’t or can’t learn.
The situation in German-speaking Catholicism is indeed grave. Germans are formally defecting from Catholicism in droves, and across the border in Austria, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has his hands full with an organized group of dissenters—about ten percent of the nation’s presbyterate, and led by Schönborn’s erstwhile vicar general, Fr. Helmut Schüller—who have signed a “Call to Disobedience,” clamoring for the usual laundry list of reforms which would supposedly end the crises in vocations, mass attendance, and membership. Many German-speaking Catholics are demanding the Church change its rules and structures, thinking that in the accommodation of the faith to the mores of modernity lies its salvation. Indeed, journalist and papal interviewer Peter Seewald nailed it when he said, “Before, the man in Rome was considered the anti-Christ. Today he is seen as anti-modern.”
Is he? Little that Benedict has done or said since his election has mollified his critics on this score, for he knows that for all its real goods, modernity is sterile, and accommodation to it will not serve the health of the Church. The problem with Benedict is that he really believes. He believes in transcendence, which modernity cannot stomach, and thus for Benedict the gospel and the Church that bears it forth do not fundamentally accommodate to culture, but confront, challenge and convert culture, building upon what’s good in its nature with divine grace. And so Benedict traveled to my beloved Germany to unleash the rain of reason and the river of the gospel upon a land and a Church long parched by the withering winds of modernity.
Now Benedict is not simply anti-modern. He appreciates the positive contributions modernity has made, even going so far as to praise scientific positivism in his speech before the Bundestag. Neither is he advocating a blind retreat to the thirteenth century, for history cannot be remade. In good Catholic fashion he holds fast to the good whenever it may be found, whether the fifth century or the twenty-first. That said, in reading Benedict’s remarks, homilies and speeches in Germany it’s clear that he identifies naked modernity as a problem. But while Benedict may have been blunt, as an appreciative article on Der Spiegel’s website suggested, he wasn’t a scold. Rather, he pointed positively to the truths of the gospel and reason, in many ways truly transcending the mundane debates about ecclesial and political structures and courses of action on the ground by focusing on the realities of creative reason, the eternal Christ and the mystical Church.
For instance, in a speech the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung praised as “a once-in-a-century event,” Benedict reminded the Bundestag, a group of politicians, who, like most politicians, think in the modern terms of utility, power and technique, that the accomplishments modernity claims for itself have their roots in the creative synergy of the cultures of three cities, Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome, in the encounter of Jewish monotheism, Greek reason and Roman law, and that a strict reliance on positivism in law does not create “a culture corresponding to the full breadth of the human condition,” but rather “diminishes man” and “threatens his humanity.” He invited them to reconsider natural law, to ask “whether the objective reason that manifests itself in nature does not presuppose a creative reason, a Creator Spiritus.”
As concerns the Church, Benedict did not drop hammers (even if he dropped hints). Instead, he preached Christ and taught about the nature of His Church as both a mystical but also a mixed body. For Benedict, the ills ailing the Church cannot be healed by thinking and acting within the reductive modern categories of utility, power, and technique. He suggested to the powerful Zentralkomitee of lay Catholics that “the real crisis facing the Church in the western world is a crisis of faith,” and that without genuine renewal “all structural reform will remain ineffective.” In his homily at Mass in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium he preached on John 15, pressing home to his hearers that having been made through baptism branches in the vine of Jesus Christ, they share a sacramental, metaphysical, ontological relationship with Jesus Christ and each other, that the Church is not merely a voluntary organization on earth but a metaphysical entity spanning heaven and earth: “‘I am the true vine’ actually means: ‘I am you and you are I’—an unprecedented identification of the Lord with us, his Church…The Church, as the herald of God’s word and dispenser of the sacraments, joins us to Christ, the true vine.” If this is the case, if Christ and the baptized are really one, if the Christus Totus is Christ and his members, then Christ’s divine life flows to us, making genuine renewal possible.
And renewal is obviously needed. Benedict draws subtly on Augustine to remind his hearers that the Church is a corpus permixtum, a mixed body of mixed people, of saints and sinners and saints who sin:
Many people see only the outward form of the Church. This makes the Church appear as merely one of the many organizations within a democratic society, whose criteria and laws are then applied to the task of evaluating and dealing with such a complex entity as the “Church.” If to this is added the sad experience that the Church contains both good and bad fish, wheat and darnel, and if only these negative aspects are taken into account, then the great and deep mystery of the Church is no longer seen. It follows that belonging to this vine, the “Church,” is no longer a source of joy. Dissatisfaction and discontent begin to spread, when people’s superficial and mistaken notions of “Church,” their “dream Church,” fail to materialize!
Benedict reminds us that many have a vision of the Church that is too flat because, being modern, they have neither a sufficient sense of sin nor a robust metaphysics permitting a profound appreciation of their sacramental sharing in the mystical ecclesia. The key to real renewal and reform, then, is to participate ever more fully in the reality of Christ, as indeed with him, in him, and through him, and with all the saints, we are Church. If we remain within the Bride of Christ, we will live with him now and forever. But if we marry the spirit of the age, we’ll find ourselves widows in the next.
Leroy Huizenga is Director of the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota. His most recent article in First Things is “The Collins Bank Bible.”
“Die Würde der Erde” [Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung; German]
Pope Benedict’s Blunt New World [Der Spiegel; English]
Pope Benedict's Blunt New World
Address of Pope Benedict XVI to the German Parliament (Bundestag)
Homily of Pope Benedict XVI, Olympic Stadium, Berlin, 22 September 2011
Remarks to the German Catholic Zentralkomitee
Fall Web Campaign: Please donate to support the online mission of First Things.