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Is Francis Building Benedict’s Church?

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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  • 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.