Is Francis Building Benedict’s Church?

Timothy Kirchoff
By | January 13, 2014

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In Evangelii Gaudium paragraphs 93-97, Pope Francis lays out two forms of “spiritual worldliness” that he views as obstacles to true Christianity. A comparison of these passages with what one Joseph Ratzinger saw as the future of the Church suggests that our Pope and Pope Emeritus share a vision of what the Church will need to become in the years ahead. The things that stand in the way of the church Ratzinger envisioned are precisely those that Pope Francis identifies as problematic.

Ratzinger, writing at the end of the 1960s, seems to predict the total collapse of cultural Catholicism and the institutions that characterize it:

From the crisis of today the 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 will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision.

The Church, Ratzinger predicted, would lose its social prestige and many of its institutions. Compare this prediction with Francis’s condemnation of the form of spiritual worldliness that he calls gnosticism:

[T]his spiritual worldliness lurks behind a fascination with social and political gain, or pride in their ability to manage practical affairs, or an obsession with programmes of self-help and self-realization. It can also translate into a concern to be seen, into a social life full of appearances, meetings, dinners and receptions. It can also lead to a business mentality, caught up with management, statistics, plans and evaluations whose principal beneficiary is not God’s people but the Church as an institution.

In addition to treating the articles of faith only as “a set of ideas and bits of information that are meant to console and enlighten,” this Catholic gnosticism is focused on maintaining institutions and programs for appearance’s sake: It seeks to preserve precisely those social privileges and institutional edifices which Ratzinger predicted the Church would have to be prepared to abandon.

Among the edifices that will have to be abandoned, undoubtedly, are numerous Catholic schools, hospitals, and charities. Numerous parish schools and even parishes that were erected in any number of major US cities have closed down in the past few decades. Increasing cultural pressure for what is euphemistically called “reproductive care” and government oversight of the medical industry may lead to many of the Catholic hospitals that have emerged even in the last few decades to be bought out or forced out. The institution of same-sex unions has in various states led to the closure of Catholic adoption agencies that had previously been the most effective agencies in the state. Note in this last case that, even as most such agencies across the state closed, the agency in the Belleville diocese cut its denominational and doctrinal ties while attempting to cling to a Christian mission to social service.

There is a point at which we will have to be ready to abandon the prestige that comes from running a large number of “Catholic” programs, to cut the institutional cord that serves no purpose other than to identify the Church as the progenitor of these charitable efforts. If we insist on the Catholic identity of these institutions only because Catholicism provides some therapeutic effect and never was or is no longer truly integral to their mission, then we have fallen prey to this first form of spiritual worldliness.

Quite a bit of bandwidth has already been exhausted in discussions on the other form of spiritual worldliness, which Francis labels “self-absorbed promethean neopelagianism”: a spirituality fixated on certain rules or on a very particular historical manifestation of a Catholic cultural and religious identity. Others have analyzed and dissected the precise meaning of this phrase, but it seems to me that it is well-summarized in Ratzinger’s words: “sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed.” The obsessive adherence to a “particular Catholic style from the past” and inquisitional analysis that Pope Francis criticizes can easily fit under the label of sectarian narrow-mindedness. Similarly, pompous self-will is evident in the mindset of those who, in Francis’s words, “would rather be the general of a defeated army than a mere private in a unit which continues to fight.”

As others have shown, the more one compares Francis and Benedict, the easier it is to see that the continuities run deep while the apparent differences in style are just that. There is, however, yet one more comparison to be made.

In Matthew 23:5-7, Jesus issues sharp condemnations of the scribes and pharisees, criticizing their focus on appearances over the demands of the Law:

Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called “Rabbi” by others.

It does not take much imagination to see the connection between the poisonous spirituality of the scribes and pharisees and the appearance-focused spiritualities that Francis has recognized as obstacles to the realization of the Church’s vocation in the world. Francis and Benedict, in presenting their shared prescription for the modern Church, are not merely showing continuity with each other, but with Christ.

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  • Joseph Teye-Kofi

    Futuristic and straight forward in its dire prediction for the Catholic Church as we move forward. I agree we have already downsized parishes, schools and charities in big cities in the USA. New York City for example.

    I, however do not think, the downsizing part is true in Africa and Latin America where the flock are actually increasing in numbers and still building structures to support the growth of the Catholic Church.

    Time will tell on a global scale.

    Issues like same-sex unions would have to be swept under the rug here in the the USA but countries in Africa and other places in the Mid East actually have laws that do not allow same sex unions or homosexuality to be even discussed as an issue in nation building. The next few decades will be interesting as far as how the Church morphs.

  • William Johnston

    I don’t remember Jesus pushing the creation of “building structures” or “edifices.” These are not Jesus’s measure of the success of his teachings, but rather the infallible measures of man.
    But it is this quote from Ratzinger that is perhaps one of the most interesting and discussion-worthy aspects of this article:

    “In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision.”

    It almost seems that he longs for a day when Christianity was not a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. Certainly there was a time when being Christian was not always voluntary or entered into by free decision and indeed, those are some of the darkest days of the church.

  • Fr. Daniel

    William, I would not read that motivation into Ratzinger’s commentary. He knew very well what the Church’s mission is (and should be).

  • Alice Taylor

    While I generally agree with this article, I would like to state
    that Pope Benedict’s statements as Joseph Ratzinger in the 1960’s were during the discussions of Vatican II. In his
    pontificate he succeeded with some success to straighten
    things out and fix some of the issues. Therefore quoting from the 1960’s does not give the true story. We will be a
    smaller church but that is OK.

  • Very interesting. I think we need to consider the implications of a loss of social privilege for the Church, and think about taking it as an opportunity for prophetic witness – or even a sign we’re already doing something right – and perhaps stop fighting “culture wars” to maintain privileges we never should have come to depend on in the first place.

  • D.A. Howard

    Trying to harmonize Francis with Benedict is an effort in futility. Francis is outshined by Benedict as a star is by the Sun.

  • Peter

    I believe the changes are prominent in the West. But I’m thinking it’s the seed that will nurture new growth..

  • Lisa

    Social and political gain? Appearances, dinners, meetings, receptions? Hmm, talking about the Cardinals and Bishops in America, right?

  • Amy

    I wish we could spend more time measuring these men against Christ instead of one another. Like all of us, these men are saints in the making. Comparing their styles – of which much is owed to their God-given temperaments – is like comparing St. Theresa of the Child Jesus to St. Teresa of Avila.

    If compare we must, let us compare ourselves to the Catholics before the age of the internet, the Catholics of the ’70s to those of the ’50s, and so on.

    When we compare, let us see what each generation has offered that has been worthy of holding and transmitting and, too, be honest with what we have done poorly that we need to be repentant for.

    But one small thing, if by “the edifices” we mean the brick and mortar, I would ask each of us to get personal. I confess, though I am lowly and unskilled, most of my artistic expression – written and material – is an effort to show my love of The Father, His Son, and The Holy Spirit. I suspect that many Catholic souls also share that bent. In other words, there is a crudely executed “beauty”; however small His Church becomes, His people will not be able to help themselves but to make their places beautiful and will always be the envy and fascination of those outside of her. And envy has a way of wanting to destroy that which they cannot have.

    May God preserve us and keep us in Christ.

  • Matthias

    Interesting juxtaposition of Papa Francis/Joseph Ratzinger. I am confused, however, by this paragraph:

    There is a point at which we will have to be ready to abandon the prestige that comes from running a large number of “Catholic” programs, to cut the institutional cord that serves no purpose other than to identify the Church as the progenitor of these charitable efforts. If we insist on the Catholic identity of these institutions only because Catholicism provides some therapeutic effect and never was or is no longer truly integral to their mission, then we have fallen prey to this first form of spiritual worldliness.

    What exactly do you mean? I would expect that you are not downplaying the importance of Catholic hospitals (as you mentioned) that struggle against the dominant medical culture in providing life-affirming care. Do you just mean to say that the mission of these hospitals may soon be compromised by government intrusion and, then, it would be pointless to cling to them? Otherwise, in most cases, I have a hard time seeing truly Catholic hospitals (adoption agencies, etc.) as mere trophies.

  • Robert McCutchan

    To DA Howard: that is your opinion, but I’ll bet you Francis brings people closer to Christ than Benedict ever would. And as far as your astronomy comparison, for your information a star is a sun. Back to the drawing board DA!

  • Margaret O

    Well, let’s see Robert….. Pope Benedict’s act would be an enormous one to follow…. Have you read any of his books? The first one I read was The Ratzinger Report – it explained so much of Vatican II – I loved and treasured it and went on to read many others. I’m sure we all wish Pope Francis the best – but perhaps he needs a media ‘advisor’

  • alaskamom

    I can only say that two great saints like Bonaventure (a platonic thinker) and Thomas Aquinas (Aristotelean) both gave to the Church necessary spiritual guidance. Benedict and Francis are no different. Christ was not just a kind man, he also showed us a side of himself that could clean out the temple. We must examine all, keep what is true and helpful. That is the Catholic way since the beginning.

  • margaret1910

    Ummm..Joseph Ratzinger did not write The Ratzinger Report. I think it was John Allen?

  • Mme_Chantal

    The Ratzinger Report was a book -length interview with Joseph Ratzinger, conducted by the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori in the 1980s. It’s still worth reading.