Lift Up Your Hearts! Faith Has a Future
More than 50 years ago, Joseph Ratzinger said that the life of the Church would be the outcome of her death, just as Easter Sunday was the outcome of Good Friday.
‘Think you, when the Son of Man comes, he will find faith upon the earth?’ (Luke 18:8)
If the Lord were to come again — say, in the next half-hour — what would the Church look like to him? Would it resemble the one he founded more than 2,000 years ago? That is, in its basic and essential lineaments, would it still be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic? How vibrant and convincing a faith would he find moving among the People of God?
There are only two possibilities, aren’t there? Either the future will faithfully replicate the past as vouchsafed to us by Christ and his successors, the bishops, or certain adjustments having been made along the way to appease the spirit of the age, the Church will cease to be recognizable, despite the numbers that still nominally belong to her.
But even that (have you noticed?) is changing. I mean, institutionally speaking, we are seeing a Church in freefall. Amid the spreading decadence of the West, the demographics are all moving in the opposite direction, in ways many of us had not foreseen even as recently as a generation or so ago. In other words, the march of decline continues unabated — indeed, in most First World places, it has become almost a gallop. Not even the mystique of synodality can arrest the spread.
Not everyone back then, however, failed to notice the implosive forces underway. In a series of Christmas radio broadcasts made soon after he was appointed Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the University of Regensburg in 1969, the future Pope Benedict XVI had seen it all coming. The future of the Church, declared then-Father Josef Ratzinger, would not be onward and upward. There would be no parallels to match the usual, predictable ascent found in the corporate world. The Church will fall on hard times, he warned, losing much of her erstwhile power and prestige. “She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning,” he said, and continued:
She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminish, 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. As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.
What are we to deduce from all this? That institutional extinction is imminent? That despite the promises of Christ, the Church will not finally prevail against the gates of hell? Will that be the judgment of history? That like all the other religious eruptions of the past, from the Assyrians to the Zoroastrians, her time in the sun will soon be done? And so we must just deal with it? Is that the future we are to expect? Along with the sobering recognition that, from the beginning, her pretensions have always been over the top?
But hold on a minute. If those are the facts and only delusional people persist in thinking otherwise, why wasn’t that the conclusion to which Father Ratzinger’s analysis drove him? Because he comes down in a very different place. By the strangest of all paradoxes, he believed that the life of the Church would be the outcome of her death, just as Easter Sunday was the outcome of Good Friday. The way up and the way down will turn out to have been the same way. Only thus will the true nature of the Church be seen once more. That in everything that stands athwart her life, in the teeth of all the forces arrayed against her,
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.
The springs of rejuvenating life lie very deep down, far below the findings of science and sociology, where the data are all neatly laid out like Tom Eliot’s “patient etherized upon a table.” We are not to look upon the Church as though reduced to so many numbers set out on a spreadsheet. It is precisely what cannot be seen, nor measured by busy little bean counters, that finally matters.
The Church’s future, said Ratzinger,
will issue from those whose roots are deep, who live from the pure fullness of their faith. It will not issue from those who accommodate themselves merely to the passing moment … nor will it issue from those who take the easier road, who sidestep the passion of faith, declaring false and obsolete, tyrannous and legalistic, all that makes demands upon men, that hurts them and compels them to sacrifice themselves.
In a word, renewal will come from the saints, from those on whom the Church has always depended, even as they depend upon her for the grace to perdure. And when the time of trial is over, when the period of sifting ends, about which we haven’t the skill set to fix a date, real power will flow forth from her loins. Because she will then have become, says the future Pope Benedict XVI, “a more spiritualized and simplified Church.” Meanwhile, the denizens of “a totally planned world will find they themselves unspeakably lonely.”
If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover her as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.
Seeing all this unfold from the vantage point of more than a half-century ago, knowing the certainty of the coming crisis and fearing the awful scale of the devastation it will bring, he nevertheless ends on a note, not just of realism, but of hope:
The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is already dead … but the Church of faith … no longer the dominant social power to the extent that she was recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.