At Christmas 1969, Professor Joseph Ratzinger gave a radio talk with the provocative title, “What Will the Future Church Look Like?” (You can find it in Faith and the Future, published by Ignatius Press). One of the concluding paragraphs was destined to become perhaps the most quoted excerpt from Ratzinger’s extensive bibliography, when Professor Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI:
From the crisis of today a new 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 she will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only be free decision . . . But in all [this] . . . the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world.
Our soundbite world quickly reduced this vision to Ratzinger’s “proposal” for a “smaller, purer Church,” as if Pope Benedict, thirty-five years before his election, was already calling for—indeed, was looking forward to—a winnowing of the wheat and the weeds, long before the Lord’s return in glory. Echoes of this misreading can be found in certain Catholic circles today, where there seems to be a passion for writing Build-It-Yourself Catacomb manuals. Be that as it may, there’s real insight in Ratzinger’s 1969 meditations on the future, so some winnowing of the wheat from the misinterpreting chaff might be in order.
First, Pope Benedict was certainly not urging, during his pontificate, that the Church should deliberately downsize. No pope wants to shrink the Church. And in any event, the notion of the Church as a pristine, pure, unsullied community of the already-perfected is radical-Protestant, not Catholic, in character.
Rather, Ratzinger in 1969 was describing what he imagined to be inevitable in his German situation, given the acids of secularization that were then at work, often aided and abetted by avant-garde forms of Catholic theology. In a society increasingly defined by the pleasure principle and a culture whose first premises included aggressive skepticism about biblical religion, Catholicism could no longer live by the old ethnic transmission belt. In the future, people were not going to say they were Catholic because their grandmothers had been born in Munich.
And that was an insight with applicability far beyond Ratzinger’s native Bavaria.
The bishops of Latin America saw a similar phenomenon in their own countries, where Catholicism had long been “kept,” first by legal establishment and then by cultural habit. “Kept” Catholicism, they saw, had no future. So in 2007, the Latin American bishops called for the Catholic Church to rediscover its missionary character—to become, as Pope Francis would later put it, “a Church permanently in mission,” in which every Catholic understands that he or she was baptized into a missionary vocation.
This same judgment—Catholicism by osmosis is dead—and this same prescription—the Church must reclaim its missionary nature—are at the root of every living sector of the Catholic Church in the United States: parish, diocese, seminary, religious order, lay renewal movement, new Catholic association. And while it is true that the Church in these United States is going to have to fight hard, both internally and externally, to maintain the Catholic integrity and identity of what Ratzinger called those “edifices . . . built in prosperity,” there is no reason to think that that fight is already lost and that it’s time to head for the catacombs.
The further truth to be taken from Ratzinger’s vision of the Church’s future is that 21st-century Catholicism “will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.” Lukewarm, pick-and-choose Catholicism will not survive the cultural and political tsunami that’s coming. All-In Catholicism can do more than survive; it can convert.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.