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Father Joseph Ratzinger on genuine reform

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We post, without commentary for now, the following excerpts taken from THE RATZINGER READER (accessed 24 May 2012), doing so because we believe it optimal to study some of then-Father Ratzinger’s own words in order better to understood what he understood — and to some extent likely still understands — to be causes of the current crisis: which he calls a “crisis of faith”.

If to no other purpose, this post should move Catholics who aspire to remain loyal to the Holy See to study the Pope’s opinions when he was a young Priest, so that we can better assist him in the “renewal” (some prefer the term “reform”) he has called for — and to do so neither as “yes-men” or as presumed “critics” of the Supreme Pontiff, but rather as his loyal subjects who will speak truth to His Holiness in charity at every opportunity in a spirit of humble sonship, for the edification of souls in the Church.

The same text is available by clicking here in order to read The Ratzinger Reader: Mapping a Theological Journey, by Joseph Ratzinger, edited by Lieven Boeven and Gerard Mannion, T & T Clark International, an Imprint Book, London – New York, 2010 pp. 114 ff.

The first several paragraphs which follow are the opinions of the editors of the book, commenting on then-Father Ratzinger’s essay: they are NOT then-Father Ratzinger’s opinions.

The essay written by then-Father Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI,  follows in “block-quote” farther down in this post, below the commentary.

gpl, Executive Director, NCCL


3.2 The Babylonian Captivity of the Post-Conciliar Church [pp. 95-98, THE RATZINGER READER]

In the early 1970s, Ratzinger painted a bleak picture of the challenges facing the church in our times. He argued that the church was in ‘a situation of Babylonian captivity’, where division and mistrust ruled. Declaring that too many rush to divide those within the church into progressives and conservatives, the then Professor Ratzinger went on to suggest attention would be better focused on other themes – ones which would increasingly come to dominate his own thinking down to the present day. These are ‘the Church’s true mission’ vis-à-vis the prayer life of the ‘ordinary’ faithful, the disillusionment that set in amongst many in the Church after Vatican II when so many had felt a new Pentecost was about to dawn, and a return to a focus upon the fundamentals of the faith that had been clouded by obsession with those ways of the contemporary world and with cultural as well as intellectual novelty and fashion. The final fundamental theme of the professor would be a renewed emphasis upon the universal Church and, in particular, upon a renewal of its teaching authority over all believers. Naturally, this also focused attention upon those Catholic theologians deemed to be espousing ideas that prolonged this ‘Babylonian captivity’. These themes would become increasingly familiar ones in Ratzinger’s theological corpus.

Here, as throughout his writing, Ratzinger displays dismay at and, indeed, disdain for those whom he perceives to be allowing the Church itself, and theology, alike, to be led astray by secular ideas and trends. As indicated, he has consistently been keen to preserve the ‘purity’ of both.

Ratzinger speaks of guarding against ossification in the Church, here echoing sentiments of his earlier writings as well as those of his co-author in the volume from which our reading comes, Hans Urs von Balthasar. But he goes on to state (something echoed again in the final chapter of his later book, Called to Communion) that ‘true reform’ attends to repentance, to matters of faith. ‘False reform’ seeks change, indeed, salvation even, ‘merely by changing others, by creating ever fresh forms, and by accommodation to the times’. Too many, he continues, have become obsessed with changing church structures, patterns of ministry and the like, so that the Church itself becomes of secondary importance. Ecclesiology becomes bogged down in a ‘battle about machinery’. The ‘real problem’, however, is the ‘crisis of faith’.

Ratzinger continues by asserting that instead of renewing the Church in order for it to speak all the more effectively the gospel of love to the world, the aftermath of Vatican II saw a blurring of distinctions between belief and unbelief. Those outside the Church applauded the Council because it seemed to take the Church in the direction of their own ways and views, rather than the other way around. Addressing the theological ebb and flow of the 1960s and early 70s, Ratzinger thus offers a lament at the current ‘state of the Church’ and especially of theology.

His conclusion is that unbelief has taken a firm foothold in the Church, thanks to this blurring of distinctions. Tellingly, he laments that elements of the vision for the Church that were pronounced at Vatican I have been lost. The lament continues: the theology of the Church espoused by many in the post-conciliar age seeks to turn away from the Church’s theological attributes towards its political ones, whereby sociological theory dictates ecclesial organization and the sacramental principle is replaced by ‘democratic control’.

This writing reflects many of the key concerns of Ratzinger and those who shared his worries about the direction in which the Church was moving post-Vatican II. But critics would point out that here again Ratzinger is employing rhetorical flourishes to promote the ‘restorationist’ agenda of the then fledgling Communio project. [24] His assertions concerning theology, the Church and Vatican II would be contested by many, all offering markedly different interpretations. His well-known anti-ideological bias is again to the forefront here.

The blueprint offered in this text would be replicated in each analysis concerning the state of the Church offered by Ratzinger in the years to come. The schools of thought and the trends he attacks would change as Ratzinger turned his attentions over the years to new perceived threats, with forms of religious pluralism and moral relativism being the foremost amongst them. But the essential thesis and preferred solution would remain the same and the essential ecclesiological picture would remain constant. Critics would suggest that the latter does not become more nuanced, but simply more assertive and more all-encompassing in its ecclesial and theological remit. Even those critical of Ratzinger’s stewardship of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) would acknowledge that many of the ‘enemies’ he identifies in this text would be dealt with one by one during his time at the CDF – the private theological vision being brought to bear upon the future direction of the Church and theology alike.


24. See reading no. 3.5, below [in the cited book; weblog editor]. The work it appeared in was produced along with Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of Ratzinger’s key collaborators in the Communio project.

[ Here ends of the above commentary written by the editors of the cited book. ]

[ Here follows the portion of then-Father-Ratzinger’s essay published in the same work above cited, continued. ]

The Church now finds itself in a situation of Babylonian captivity, in which the ‘for’ and ‘against’ attitudes are not only tangled up in the oddest ways, but seem to allow scarcely any reconciliation. [25] Mistrust has emerged, because being in the Church has lost straightforwardness and no one any longer risks attributing honesty to another.

Romano Guardini’s hopeful observance of 1921 (A process of great moment has begun, the Church is coming to lie in the souls of men) seems to run thus: Indeed, momentous things are in progress, the Church is becoming extinguished in men’s souls, and Christian communities are crumbling. In the midst of a world striving for unity the Church is falling apart in nationalistic partisanship, in calumniation of the alien and glorification of self.

There seems to be no middle way between the iconoclasts and a reaction that clings too much to externals and what always has been, between contempt of tradition and a mechanical dependence on the letter. Public opinion places everyone inexorably in his precise category, for it needs to have clear-cut rules, and admits of no nuances: a person has to be either a progressive or a conservative. But reality, however, is different.

Silently, with no voice to speak for them, even at this time of confusion, the simple faithful carry on fulfilling the Church’s true mission: prayer, bearing daily life with patience, always listening to the word of God. But they do not fit into the picture that people want to see; and so, for the most part, they remain silent, although this Church is by no means invisible, though hidden deep beneath the powers of this world.

So far we have discovered our first clue about the background against which we must ask: Why am I still in the Church? In order to find a meaningful answer we have first of all to scrutinize this background, which is linked directly to our topic by the little word ‘today’, and, having described the situation, go on further to seek for its causes.

How was it possible for this Babylonian captivity to arise at a moment when we had been hoping for a new Pentecost? How was it possible that just when the Council seemed to have reaped the ripe harvest of the last decades, instead of enjoying the riches of fulfilment we found only emptiness? How could disintegration emerge from a great surge towards unity? [25]

For a start, I shall try to reply with a metaphor designed both to clarify the task before us and to begin to reveal how it is possible for every No to contain a Yes. It would seem that in our efforts to understand the Church, efforts which at the Council finally developed into an active struggle for the Church, and into concrete work upon the Church, we have come so close to the Church that we can no longer see it as a whole: we cannot see the city for the houses, or the wood for the trees.

The situation into which science has so often led us in respect of reality seems now to have arisen in respect of the Church. We can see the detail with such precision that we cannot see the whole thing. As in scientific study, so here, an increment in exactitude represents loss in truth. Indisputably precise as is all that the microscope shows when we look through it at a section from a tree, it may obscure truth if it makes us forget that the individual is not just an individual, but has life within the whole, which is not visible under the microscope and yet is true – truer, indeed, than the isolation of the individual.

The perspective of the present day has distorted our view of the Church, so that in practice we see the Church only under the aspect of adaptability, in terms of what can be made of it. Intensive efforts to reform the Church have caused everything else to be forgotten.

For us today the Church is only a structure that can be changed, and which constantly causes us to ask what can be altered, in order to make the Church more efficient for the functions that someone or other thinks appropriate. In all this questioning the concept of reform as it occurs in the popular mind has largely degenerated and lost its essence.

Reform originally meant a spiritual process, very much akin to repentance. A man becomes a Christian only by repenting; and that applies throughout his life; it applies to the Church throughout its history. The Church, too, keeps alive as the Church by turning again and again to its Lord, by fighting ossification and comfortable habits which so easily fall into antagonism to the truth.

When reform is dissociated from the hard work of repentance, and seeks salvation merely by changing others, by creating ever fresh forms, and by accommodation to the times, then despite many useful innovations it will be a caricature of itself. Such reform can touch only things of secondary importance in the Church.

No wonder, then, that in the end it sees the Church itself as of secondary importance. If we become aware of this, the paradox that has emerged apparently with the present efforts at reform becomes intelligible: the attempt to loosen up rigid structures, to correct forms of Church government and ministry, which derive from the Middle Ages, or, rather, the age of absolutism, and to liberate the Church from such encrustations and inaugurate a simpler ministry in the spirit of the Gospel – all these efforts have led to an almost unparalleled over-emphasis on the official elements in the Church.

It is true that today the institutions and ministries in the Church are being criticized more radically than ever before, but in the process they attract more exclusive attention than ever before. For not a few people the Church today seems to consist of nothing but these. And so, questions about the Church exhaust themselves in a battle about machinery; one does not want to leave such an elaborate piece of mechanism lying about idle, yet finds it wholly unsuited to the new functions it is expected to fulfil.

Behind this the real problem appears: the crisis of faith which is the true heart of the process. The socio-logical radius of the Church still extends far beyond the circle of the genuine faithful.


25. From Joseph Ratzinger, ‘Introductory Thoughts on the State of the Church’, in Two Say Why. Why I Am Still a Christian, by Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Why I Am Still in the Church, by Joseph Ratzinger. trans. John Griffiths. London: Search Press, Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1973, pp. 67-75


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