Originally published as “Christus im Blick” in the March 28, 2019, issue of Die Tagespost. We are grateful for permission to publish this translation by Msgr. Hans Feichtinger.
Why the Church? Simple and banal as it may sound, this question is heard more and more frequently. And it is often answered bluntly: I don’t need the Church! God? The purpose of life? From whence do we come and where do we go? A growing number of people are answering these questions on their own, entirely without the Church. Others repress these existential questions—as long as that works. For many, leaving the Church is the logical consequence of unbelief; others concede the Church has at least a social role, a charitable use that legitimizes her existence and maybe justifies supporting her, even if they remain uninvolved. Christian values are not wrong, they say, and the Church does help people in need. Others appreciate the Church only as an element of our cultural tradition and an important employer. It is shocking and embarrassing how fewer and fewer people want to hear the message of salvation itself. They do not request the sacraments and view the gospel as pious gossip, the creed as magical thinking. Evidently, the messengers of the faith have failed.
All the more urgent, therefore, for the faithful to pose the question to themselves. Why the Church? We need to ask this question, treating it as a challenge and opportunity for reflection and self-assurance. Catholics should not simply suppose they have always known the answer. Rather, the answer has to be found anew. It must be re-learnt and re-understood. The evidence today suggests that the Church—all of us—have been failing to do just that.
There is an ongoing debate about necessary “reforms” in the Church in Germany. It reflects a sense of crisis. The Church feels her own mistakes and weaknesses acutely—weaknesses not triggered but dramatically heightened by the abuse scandal and the devastating loss of trust it has caused. But in these debates, the leading question is often turned upside down. We hear these sorts of questions: What do people want? What is expected of the Church? What goes down well and what doesn’t? Where does the Church have to adapt in order to find acceptance? From there, demands are quickly formulated that the Church has to let go of what is “outdated” and must be “up-to-date,” and that without concessions to what people demand she will simply have no future. Moreover, the Church has to recognize the reality of contemporary life, even conceive of it as an additional source of revelation. In a debate framed this way the discussion invariably culminates in a demand:“The Church has to reinvent herself.” To be sure, these questions and affirmations deserve respect, not a polemical reply. They originate in concerns and dilemmas I share in my own personal experience. But I come to different conclusions.
Reality is indeed a revelation, but not necessarily a divine one. Our motto is not one of adapting to contemporary reality, but rather of interpreting it in light of the gospel. The Church is called to discern the spirits. Never mind how strong the media’s pressure and the public’s expectations—the Church cannot be bullied into changing her doctrine if change contradicts the spirit of the gospel. That not only applies to the central dogmas about the trinity or the divine sonship of Christ, but also to other fundamental questions. It applies to the order of creation, the complementarity of man and woman, and to their love, fidelity, and openness to new life. As I am convinced, the Church’s necessary fidelity to the spirit of the gospel also applies where people, since New Testament times, have gained freedom for Christ and for those entrusted to them by renouncing marriage and family. Finally, it applies also to the fact that the Church, obedient to the example of Christ, is unable to ordain women as priests. These and similar decisions have a weight that cannot be changed by the stroke of a pen. For that would amount to declaring that the guidance God the Father gives through the Son in the Holy Spirit to the Church is untrustworthy, and the Church’s proclamation of her sacred foundation a lie. Such faint-heartedness does not lead into the future.
Neither am I convinced by the argument that the Church will have no choice, as people will “vote with their feet” and turn away from the Church. Christ’s own message has not been met only with approval and cheers but also with incomprehension and rejection: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60). Jesus did not adapt his teaching to the wishes of the people: Instead, for the sake of truth he accepted that “many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66). Sheer numbers and majorities can never decide truth; not only ecclesial but general historical experience shows that majorities can err and go astray horrifically. What are majorities anyway? To put it pointedly: Would the Church’s faith also bend to the pressure of doubts about Christ’s resurrection? Could majorities ultimately decide to remove guilt and sin from the Christian confession? What happens if those who “vote with their feet” one day reject the divine sonship of Christ, reducing him to an exemplary human person? In these cases, will what I have heard so many times in recent weeks still apply? Will the Church “have to act” because she has no choice? Are those “new realities” also to be affirmed as sources of revelation?
One more thing to consider: From media reports, one quickly gets the impression that sexuality, not faith, is the issue here. Somehow, everything seems to revolve around sex, directly or indirectly: celibacy, re-marriage, cohabitation without marriage, homosexuality, sex outside marriage. The Church should be careful not to confirm this distorted picture by limiting herself to these debates. And when the Church does speak about sexuality, she should reflect on what is essential, what is good and hopeful. At the center of her moral teaching are not prohibitions but a promise, a promise of happiness. Human sexuality is part of God’s plan of salvation, and lived consciously and responsibly it is a source of joy and new life. The Church’s moral teaching, oft-criticized and allegedly in need of reform, upholds a promise that is in danger of going extinct in our entertainment culture: The one great love does exist! It exists as God’s unbreakable promise to us. It also can exist and be experienced in our lives as stable marriage or as priestly devotion—and both with God as the focal point, consolation, and source of strength. In fact, these people exist here and now: married people who stick together through thick and thin and are faithful to each other all their lives; priests and religious who live their vocations in good days and in bad. Among the noise of urgent demands that something has to change and that all is outdated, these realities must not be forgotten.
Finally, all those inside and outside the Church who so vehemently push for changes (liberalizing celibacy, reconsidering homosexuality, ordaining women, accepting sex outside of marriage) have not answered one question: Why are Protestant Christians in Germany not flourishing? They have implemented all that is being demanded. Yet they are not in a better position—seen by their practice of faith, how few they recruit for pastoral ministry, and the number of people leaving their churches. Does that not indicate that the real problems lie elsewhere, and that the whole of Christianity has to confront a crisis of faith and understanding, rather than adapt to a “new reality of life” that is presented as irresistable?
In our present world, there is a widespread lack of understanding of central aspects of the Catholic faith, particularly concerning the sacraments and the priesthood, but also about basic truths of revelation and about how Christians practice their faith and live their lives. More than anything else, this pervasive lack of basic knowledge of the faith should wake us Catholics up! It makes clear that we are doing something wrong. We are talking too much about the Church in terms defined by the world, and not enough about Christ. Too often, we look at ourselves, and not often enough do we look to Him. From the beginning, Christianity was an alternative culture; it stood in the middle of this world, and entered a particular moment of history. It was neither a school of thought nor a philosophy, but from the start an encounter with a living person, a faith in flesh and blood, one that can be concretely experienced. This faith never made common cause with the world. Our faith has always pointed to a different, transcendent world.
Pope Benedict XVI recommended “de-worldlization” (Entweltlichung, detachment from the world) as the way for the Church. This important concept has been too quickly brushed aside, but should be reconsidered more profoundly. It does not mean retreating from the world, I think, but rather remembering the unique character of the Christian message of salvation. Only if the Church points beyond this world and testifies to the fact that God’s Son has redeemed the world, will she continue to win people and lead them to salvation.
To put it directly: We face a profound alternative: “De-worldlization” of the Church, or de-Christianization of the world—that part of the world, at least, in which we Germans live.
Do not misunderstand me: I am not proposing unreflective traditionalism, or a nostalgia for the allegedly good old days. Neither do I want us to circle the wagons, like a small pious flock entrenching itself. On the contrary, I want growth and revitalization; I want faith here and now. But our witness will touch and inspire people today only if we are faithful to our mission. The way of the Church can only lead into the future, not into the past. But she will only be able to shape the future if she re-commits herself to Christ, and returns to Him where she has lost sight of Him.
Why the Church? The answer needs to be searched for anew and found again, not reinvented. If we are honest, human beings did not invent anything—neither the world nor ourselves, neither the Church nor the faith. Everything is entrusted to us. It has been given to us without any merit on our part. Only in this spirit and with this humility can the Church renew herself. She must let herself be guided not by looking at herself or at the world, but only by looking at the Savior, by looking at Christ.
Rainer Maria Cardinal Woelki is the archbishop of Cologne.