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Debate: Are we better off with a smaller, purer Church?

Or should the Church always have a place for less committed Catholics?

By on Friday, 22 October 2010

The shrinkage of the Church into a creative minority may leave churches empty in some countries (Photo: PA)

The shrinkage of the Church into a creative minority may leave churches empty in some countries (Photo: PA)

It is often claimed that Benedict XVI wants to see a “smaller but purer Church”. This is cited as evidence that he is a hard-line Pontiff who has given up hope of winning Europe back to the Catholic faith. But on his Commonweal blog this week Fr Joseph Komonchak suggests that Joseph Ratzinger has never, in fact, said this.

One possible source for the claim is Salt of the Earth, a series of interviews conducted with the Pope, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, by the Bavarian author Peter Seewald.

In it the cardinal was asked about the Church’s failure to “bring about a broad movement against the currents of our time and a general change in mentality”. He responded by saying he never imagined he could “redirect the rudder of history”, and that the Church was not a “business operation that can look at the numbers to measure whether our policy has been successful”. He added:

“Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures. Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterised more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world – that let God in.”

Fr Komonchak suggests this is more “prognosis than programme”.

But would a creative minority of loyal, committed Catholics be preferable to a broader Catholic culture? Is the faith weakened and distorted when it is practised nominally by a large swathe of the population? Or should it be shared with as many people as possible?

  • Victorweston

    Wasn't the Holy Father, during his recent visit to the UK proposing that God ought not be abandoned from the public square, but rather reclaimed; isnt the who momentum of the Catholic Church in the UK now towards evangelism/evangelisation; ie towards the reaching out and redemption of the entire society

  • BachmannTO

    Cardinal Ratzinger was obviously musing on this point and in no way wishing it. It's not chiefly about numbers but surely every Catholic wants as many people to be Catholic so at least they have the chance to discover the fullness of the Truth.

  • Christopher Wright

    When the present generation of flipsy-flopsy, soi-disant liberal Catholics has departed, the Catholic Church will, I hope, be purer. It may even grow.

    God knows how many souls have been lost thanks to those who have tried to recreate the Church in the image of the times.

  • Campion

    We are better off with a purer Church. If it is smaller then this is regrettable, but if becoming smaller is necessary for purity; then so be it. A diluted Church which seeks to move it's doctrine with the times (I'm not opposed to adapting teaching methods) is likely to be no more enduring in its influence than a political party in democratic country . . . in vogue sometimes . . . out of it in others . . . constantly adapting its values to society and as opposed to trying to shape them for society's benefit. The Church's great blessing is that not having to be elected it can be pure if it anchors itself in God and its own Tradition.

  • Angharad

    Why shouldn't there be room for both?

    There's biblical/Gospel authority, as well as Catholic tradition, for both to exist

    How would Christianity have survived, if small Graeco/Jewish communities hadn't kept the tradition before Constantine adopted it?

  • SPQRatae

    The question is back to front. Choosing to be a Catholic and go to Mass is rightly a matter of free will. So there will always be a place for less committed Catholics, if they want to come. No-one will throw them out. Given the chance, they may even grow in faith and that's what we all want and need.

    The question is rather: Should the Church water down the faith in order to appeal to as many people as possible, and be a big, incoherent Church?

    And there the answer is an emphatic: NO!

  • Kennyinliverpool

    I think he was saying that most people won't go to church, and they only went before because of a cultural practice. If anything this will make the church a lot stronger because it won't have to water itself down to entertain / appease the people who don't agree with it. The church is going to shift from being an ethnic-cultural grouping to becoming defined by doctrine – which is going to make it a lot smaller, because most people do not know or agree with Catholic doctrine. This will either result in dogmatic changes, such as letting married priests lead parishes or push away reformers into quasi-catholic communities.

  • Robert T.

    I agree with Bachmann in saying the pope was not seeking a smaller church. There is no reason that a smaller church would be purer.

    Also, the Parable of the Wheat & the Tares comes into play here. Good & bad will exist side by side. The thrust of the gospels is that the church exists for sinners and seeks to save us all: those who are well do no need a doctor.” Of course, the point is that we all need God's forgiveness. As well as Newman, The Pope looks to St Benedict who gave guidance for a school for sinners. Whatever the outcome- and that may be known only to God- we must witness to Europe's Christian heritage.

  • Paul Spilsbury

    Our Lord himself found that some could not accept his teaching, and walked no more with him. He simply asked the faithful Apostles, “Will you also go away?” Peter replied, “To whom should we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Numbers do not matter, commitment to Jesus does.

  • MJCarroll

    It seems to me that there is very slowly a move away from liberalism within the Church and this seems to the possible trend over the next 100 years.

    I suspect that as a firmer doctrine takes over that the Church will naturally increase in size rather than diminish. I think that the newer converts to the church do not want liberalism but something that is closer to the truth. I also agree with Robert T. that there is absolutely no reason why a smaller Church would be purer.

    I can only hope that there will be a move away from the false 'interpretation of liberalism' that occurred at Vatican II. Pope Benedict has shown us the way and finally reassured priests that the traditional forms of mass should never have been over looked. This is only the start.

    The faith should be shared with as many people as possible but this will not occur by being liberal. I suspect that in the following 50 years that liberal bishops will slowly go out of favour.

  • golden

    a small but purer church definitely! a church that is more of a hospital for sinners and not a hotel for saints. a church that is for the holy and those aspiring to be holy. pure in the sense that we follow with our own free will the teaching of christ through his catholi church.

  • EA

    This is about what God wants whether one likes it or not. God's will is sometimes difficult to accept, however. But for some reason He wants things a certain way. The path to salvation is narrow, He warns. Commitment is central to his plan. The proof? Look at what He asked of Abraham. Consider what He asked of His own son, Mary and Himself.

    One approaches Him “in fear and trembling”, recognizing that without his grace, what Abraham accepted to do and salvation is just not possible.

    Now what was it that was being asked?

  • Gordon

    I'm not sure that 'water down' is the way to put it-yet a Church that is more compassionate and less dogmatic is really what is needed. It must be a Church that shows the love, compassion and acceptance that Jesus demonstrated.

    There is no room for an 'emphatic no' for followers of Jesus Christ. You know, until one finds themselves in a situation such as divorce etc. you really can't empathise with the statement,' so there will always be a place for less committed Catholics.'

    It is never that black and white. 'You can join us, but not fully, you can sit in the pew until we get everything straighted out in your life. If we can.'

    You know, this Catholic Church has turned more good folks away from it because of its lack of understanding and its legalistic approach rather than love.

    Thousands upon thousands have been hurt and turned away because of this. It will grow smaller. But not just in numbers, it will become smaller because of its reactionary conservative, dogmatic approach.

    Until it lets God be the judge and not man, it will continue to struggle… blessings… Gord

  • Dunstan Harding

    We are witnessing the death of Catholic culture everywhere because all cultures are dying. Cultural anthropologists have been predicting this gradual cultural demise for sometime.

    The internet is smashing all the icons of the past, religouis and otherwise. Peoples are alienated from their past and their associations because they have become member of a world culture. Just as the printing press competed with the organs of the Church for the minds and hearts of Europeans spreading the Reformed faith through pamphleteers. Radio and television accomplish the same results.

    A powerful factor in the demise of a Catholic culture here in the U.S.was following World War II. Catholics constituted a tremendous portion of the great trek from their base in the cities to the new suburbs. Thus ending the power of the city-based parish pastor over the social, religious, and political life of his flock. The same care and attention wasn't possible now. The sense of community was lost as well. American Catholics were becoming indistinguishable from their Protestant neighbors.

    So, should we be surprised to see the “Calvinizing” tendencies in Catholic liturgy flowing from Vatican II?

    The direct result of this has been this, almost half of all Catholics today never attend parochial school or a Catholic university. The U.S. business community and the professions–outgrowths of this post war suburbanization– have a very high level of their members who are Catholic senior executives, physicians, accountants, architects, members of the performing arts, middle managers, and lawyers.

    Those between 24 and 48 have become the backbone of the alienation from Catholic teachings on abortion, divorce, birth control, and gay marriage . They no longer identify with their old world Catholicism in any way. Today more of them aren't even attending the Catholic Church regularly.

    The Catholic cultural decline may be blunted somewhat by the fact that by 2030 three-fifths of all Catholics in the U.S. will be from Spanish or Portuguese speaking backgrounds. They will be far less affluent and decidedly less well educated too. A good percentage of them will be from Mexico and can be expected to be Mormons or pentecostals.

  • Anthony

    There are Catholic parishes that allow yoga classes and haloween parties in their church halls. All seemingly innocent on the surface, but in reality it is part of a creeping syncretism which is infecting the Church, to the extent that she may end up being indistinguishable from any other welfare organisation.

    If the Church has to became smaller, purer and more isolated from mainstream society by rejecting all association with any of these activities, then so be it.

  • Jhammer

    Yes, the Holy Father's comments are prognostications – he is clearly against 'strategy'. Pope Benedict's visit itself has shown that the church has something precious, 'pure' if you like, which we shall not compromise. The reassertion of this is not repugnant to those on the periphery of the church, or outside her. On the contrary it has attracted them! 'Going with the flow' is against everything the holy father said when he was here and would be the doom of the church. Emphatically this is not designed to keep people out, or to shake off 'flaking catholics'. Like Thomas Merton, I thank God there are churches open for prayer all day and for all comers.

  • Joss

    Exactly, Paul! But notice that Peter's principal commitment was not to Jesus – his commitment was to “words of eternal life”. He stayed with Jesus because he was sure that in the long run this would lead him where his heart wanted to go. Going to Mass is no sign of being a Catholic. The Pharisees also went to the Temple, but that didn´t make them better Jews. Christianity is a way of making sense of life and death, of living together in the world so that all of us head towards “eternal life”.

  • Pmangod

    Although many below have said truly what they were urged, this question, is like asking if Man wants to die.
    What's the point? No, man does not want to die. The problem is the 'lack' of Correct Teaching. We in the Catholic world have 'confused' the world by always changing Rules, VAT 1, VAT 2, as mentioned below. Christianity is really very straightforward. Trying to teach an mid-aged person to turn from their atheistic lifestyle with words, doesn't cut it. When a person is urged by the Holy Spirit, a non-believer to all of a sudden, become one, what happens? Nobodies there. The Priest is not around, the office personnel isn't well trained, and the person, goes to a Protestant, and then, the ball rolls down hill. Later that person is then, anti-Catholic, because the Protestants, are mostly anti-Catholic.

    Not enough properly Trained Catholics. Every Catholic by the definition, that is spelled out in the Gospel, should be able to properly bring new converts. The reception is limited on this side of things, while the Protestant side jump at new converts, converge on them, overwhelm the new convert and make them feel second to none. This does not happen on this side. Who's fault is this?

    The Acts of the Apostles, very straightforward. No Formulas, no delays, Direct. The Holy Spirit, moves like the Wind, one second He's here, the next, here's some place else. He has many hearts, asking many questions as to why, the True Church, is non-responsive. I'll give you a few reasons: Too dull to Gospel Words; everything is now made into a 'Cookie Cutter' wait in line and wait your turn. Just like the Heathen world when we stand in line for a driver's license.

    The Pagan's should be jealous of us, because we should be loving one another. The pagan world does not have this exclusive Love. They want it, but they are treated better in their places of work, which is 'sub-par.'

    Too much government in this side of things, a very simple, thing did Christ bring, but men have turned this into an 'Enterprise' where you take a number and wait. The Spirit does not work like humans. He is not Human. Humanity creates walls, and blocks, the humanity in us. We have to become spirit. Jesus was not a man like us, He was 'spirit.' He talked to us as infants, spirits still embryonic to help us grow our spirits.

    There are many embryonic spirits in the Church. They are starving.

    Peace be with you always

  • Leigh Anne P

    Germany also wanted a smaller purer Germany that was easier to control.  Could the retreat from Vatican 2 be a result of this earlier ideology?