"From today's crisis, a church will emerge tomorrow that will have lost a great deal … She will be small and, to a large extent, will have to start from the beginning. She will no longer be able to fill many of the buildings created in her period of great splendor. Because of the smaller number of her followers, she will lose many of her privileges in society. Contrary to what has happened until now, she will present herself much more as a community of volunteers ... As a small community, she will demand much more from the initiative of each of her members and she will certainly also acknowledge new forms of ministry and will raise up to the priesthood proven Christians who have other jobs ... It will make her poor and a church of the little people ... All this will require time. The process will be slow and painful."
This past week, the above words ended the Time Magazine (June 7, 2010) front cover feature article on Pope Benedict and the sexual abuse crisis facing the Catholic Church. The quote was traced back to a 1969 radio interview given by the young German theologian, Josef Ratzinger, who had been an influential behind-the-scenes figure at the Second Vatican Council which had ended in December 1965. But by 1969 it seemed that all hell was breaking loose, not only in universities and on the streets, but even, to some extent, in the Catholic Church. Today that young theologian is an aging pope who is facing an even greater crisis than he could have imagined back in 1969, and one can only wonder: does he remember and still think like he did back then?
Perhaps so. In
fact, in recent years, although he has increasing complained about the seeming
betrayal by Europeans of their Christian heritage and stepped up his own
efforts to restore what some might describe as a return to the glories of
medieval “Christendom,” he has nevertheless repeatedly dropped hints that he
sees a future when the Catholic Church or even Christianity will no longer be a
dominant voice. Instead, he seems to be predicting a somewhat embattled
minority seeking to quietly influence humanity toward more transcendent and
lasting values, a sacred “leaven,” so to speak, permeating the secular dough.
In this aspect, at least, the pope’s views mirror those of the 20th
century’s most well-known Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, who compared the
situation of future Christians as not being unlike the Jews of the Diaspora, or
the early Christians under pagan
The reason, I suspect, is that Benedict’s heart and head aren’t entirely in sync. His emotions identify with the glories of the past, exemplified in his choice of St. Benedict (whose monks preserved European civilization in the face of the dark ages after the fall of Rome) as his patron, even while reason or logic (or even the turn of events) point to the future that he and Rahner both predicted—whether reluctantly or not.
There is more than irony in this, for the if the pope decides to try to remedy the situation by simply tightening the rules (like mandatory celibacy for priests) or revamping the Vatican-dominated hierarchy, he will most likely end up perpetuating the situation that led to the abuses in the first place. Yet the longer Benedict procrastinates and avoids taking the radical steps necessary to bring about the changes he foresaw as a young theologian back in 1969, the more painful the inevitable process shall turn out to be.