Father Ratzinger’s vision for the future of the church

The 1960s were turbulent times, and Catholics in Europe faced storms of radical change that left many people tired, even cynical.

In 1969, one of Germany’s most promising theologians – a liberal Vatican II priest who later became a conservative – was asked what he saw in the future.

“What Saint Augustine said is always true – man is an abyss; what will arise from these depths, no one can see in advance,” Father Joseph Ratzinger told German radio. “Whoever believes that the Church is not only determined by the abyss that is man, but that she descends into the greater and infinite abyss that is God, will be the first to hesitate with her predictions .”

Ratzinger’s words rose to prominence in 1977 when he became Archbishop of Munich and soon became a Cardinal. Then Pope John Paul II appointed him prefect of the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where his orthodoxy led liberals to call him “God’s Rottweiler”. In 2005, he became Pope Benedict XVI.

German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, US Cardinal Edmund Casimir Szoka and Syrian Cardinal Ignatius Moussa I Daoud arrive to celebrate an outdoor mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican in April 2005, in memory of Pope John Paul II.

Catholics continue to meditate on his words from 1969: “Out of today’s crisis, the Church of tomorrow will emerge – a Church that has lost much. … As the number of its adherents diminishes, it will lose many of its social privileges. Unlike at an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, it will require much more initiative from its individual members.

The future pope predicted a process of “crystallization” creating a “more spiritual church, not presuming a political office, flirting as little with the left as with the right. … This will make her poor and make her become the meek church.”

The retired pope celebrated his 95th birthday on April 16 – Holy Saturday. In an earlier meeting with Jesuits, Pope Francis called his predecessor a “prophet” and cited Benedict’s predictions of a “poorer” and “more spiritual” church.

“Let’s prepare to be a small church,” Pope Francis said, in remarks published in a Jesuit journal. “It’s one of his deepest intuitions.”

Indeed, German ecclesiastical tendencies are sending shock waves through Catholic life. Ratzinger’s words have become a double-edged sword.

Catholic churches in Germany lost 221,000 members in 2021. But that pandemic fallout was actually an improvement from 2019, when a record 402,000 Catholics reached the exits.

The decline may be consistent with elements of Ratzinger’s 1969 vision, but other German Catholic trends are more shocking. Consider these words from a recent “Out in Church” program organized by the Diocese of Limburg – which is led by Bishop Georg Batzing, head of the German bishops’ conference.

The Catholic hierarchy remains obsessed with homosexuality and, instead, should shift to accepting trans and intersex people and other “other forms of love that are still in the dark”, the leader of Catholic Youth Eric Tilch, in a summary from the Diocese’s website.

“I fear the church is getting too attached to a 1950s family picture, that is, father, mother, child. There is so much more than that, for example hybrid families, changing relationships , polyamorous love.”

Meanwhile, a recent ‘Synodal Way’ gathering of German Catholic leaders overwhelmingly backed a document titled ‘Celebrations of Blessing for Loving Couples’, as well as a ‘Masterful Reassessment of Homosexuality’ text. calling for the modernization of Church teachings on chastity and LGBTQ issues.

This sparked a “fraternal letter of concern” to German bishops from a coalition – from four continents – which as of April 11 included 92 bishops, archbishops and four cardinals. Many signatories have close ties to Pope Benedict XVI.

The synodal process, as it unfolds in Germany, has already caused confusion around the world, creating “a potential for schism in the life of the Church,” the letter says.

“The need for reform and renewal is as old as the Church itself. … Yet Christian history is littered with well-meaning efforts that have lost their foundation in the Word of God, in a faithful encounter with Jesus -Christ, in a true listening to the Holy Spirit, and in the submission of our wills to the will of the Father.”

The vision emerging in Germany, the coalition said, could lead to “precisely such an impasse”.

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