Ratzinger on What the Church Will Look Like

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s prophetic words from Faith and the Future often are quoted in part, but today’s story had me thinking about them again, and this is a good time to remind us of his predictions. When +Ratzinger became Benedict, he started easing us into this new future. (Emphasis added. Re-paragraphed for easier reading on screen.)

Even if you have read this before, read it all again with Pope Francis in mind.

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, 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. Undoubtedly she will discover new forms of ministry and will ordain to the priesthood approved Christians who pursue some profession. In many smaller congregations or in self-contained social groups, pastoral care will normally be provided in this fashion. Alongside this, the full-time ministry of the priesthood will be indispensable as formerly.

But in all of the changes at which one might guess, 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. In faith and prayer she will again recognize her true center and experience the sacraments again as the worship of God and not as a subject for liturgical scholarship.

The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystalization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek.

The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism of the eve of the French Revolution—when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain—to the renewal of the nineteenth century.

But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church.

Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.

And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. 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 dead already with Gobel, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.

The title of this section of the book? “What Will The Church Look Like in 2000.”

The future: we’re already here.

Let’s start acting like it.


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The Hour of Trial is the Hour of Fidelity
The Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel
How I Pray: Margaret Rose Realy, Obl. OSB
About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Dymphna

    It’s very helpful to be reading this in context–thanks. Not the “get those Catholics who are not ‘real’ out of the Church” as I had been lead to believe.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    The version that floats around the internet has edits that subtly change his meaning. The context is important. His reference to Gobel, the bishop of Paris during the French Revolution who went whole-hog into modernism and betrayed his office, is telling. Gobel followed the winds of change, and became atheist, only to lose his head (literally) when atheism went out of fashion.

  • Dymphna

    Thank you for the info re: Gobel. A good warning in the sometimes hurricane-force winds of change that are blowing around these days!

  • Frank Attanucci

    The first English translation of Cardinal Ratzinger’s book appeared in 1971.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    Yes, based on talks given in 69 and 70. They reflect his early turning away from some earlier views in the wake of the upheavals of 68.

  • Gail Finke

    I find this so depressing…

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    I try to see it more like a challenge. The decline of Christendom is indeed a sad and horrible thing to witness, yet we know the end already: we win. Anything between now and the final victory is just the road we must travel, hard though it may be.

  • Gail Finke

    That’s a better way to consider the matter, I guess. But still I’d like to not witness it. Oh well, so would we all I suppose.

  • Stefanie

    Love that pic of Papa B — what a cutie!

  • Julia B

    I think this is based on Benedict’s observations in Europe, particularly. Big shifts going on. Europe’s going atheist, the US and UK have immigrants as the current props of the church, Latin America is besieged by Evangelicals, Africa has the problems of the existing culture often not fitting well into Catholic culture, the Philippines vibrant with faith but no so strong on traditional theology.

    I see even bigger changes happening intellectually as time passes. Benedict has got that right, too – spirituality will be the future for the most part. The European – English speaking world’s focus on scholarship and Jesus seminars will become very passe. Catholics in the 1st world are not having babies or passing on the faith. The emotional, popular religiosity that Francis is very familiar with is what is going to be most publicly visible. The academics will still do their thing, but have less and less influence or visibility.

    The last vestiges of the Papal States are being stripped away and along with them, the Roman and Italian families’ hold on the Vatican will be broken. I mean the families that held sway in the Papal States and have striven to hang on to their influence. I predict the “Papal Gentlemen” will soon be gone – most Catholics don’t even know about these people. Check this out to see who these men are and why it’s been a long slog to get rid of the monarchical encrustations. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papal_Gentlemen

  • 1yRolandoOFS0

    Christendom may be in decline, but the Christian sisters and brothers among us are still alive and active, preaching the Joy of the Gospel as Francis of Assisi did, using words when necessary.
    You are right; we’re journeying Home together. God is expecting us.
    Paz y Bien, Rolando, OFS.

  • Thomas J. Lipton

    It is sad to think that we may already be in the remnant Church among so many who are effectively dead to grace. But I salute brave Pope Benedict for confronting the issue with vision, scholarship and wit, and pray that the seeds he has planted will invigorate the Communion of Saints to a degree hitherto unseen.

  • donttouchme

    I wonder if his becoming pope gives more credence to his thoughts long before he was pope. I believe Archbishop Lefebvre who made a lot of comments in the same era. If his efforts at that time had prevailed instead of Cardinal Ratzinger if he was a cardinal then, then we’d be in better shape as a Church today. In any case, I came to the faith in exactly the way he describes, by encountering a traditionalist parish and learning Catholic answers to the human questions.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I’m more optimistic than that. “Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely.” We are in this totally planned world now and we haven’t been decimated to a small church. We’re attacked, but the more we’re attacked the more we grow. While we’re being attacked and perhaps bleeding a bit, we are still holding our own and I believe we’ll do so in the future.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I agree. The prediction is Euro centric.

  • http://www.swordandstein.blogspot.com/ Shannon @ Sword&Stein

    “‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.’So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”-Fellowship of The Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien

  • Julia B

    Decimated means loss of 10%. Surely Europe has experienced much more loss than 10% – by lack of babies, if nothing else.

  • fredx2

    What an unbelievably wise man. At a time (1970) when people were celebrating Vatican II and how this was going to renew the church, he knew that we were going to have a very rough time ahead. His ability to see through to the essence of things, to the truth, is remarkable.

  • Frank

    Individually and collectively, the Church must follow the “ladder” of the Beatitudes. I think that is what Card. Ratzinger is talking about.

  • http://nathaniel-campbell.blogspot.com/ Nathaniel M. Campbell

    Only pedants insist that “decimate” still only means a loss of 10%. The term is now widely and consistently used to describe any catastrophic loss, without specific reference to the exact number or ratio.

  • http://nathaniel-campbell.blogspot.com/ Nathaniel M. Campbell

    I think actually the more important contrast that Ratzinger draws is between Matthias Fingerlos and Michael Sailer, the latter of whom Ratzinger praised for his “profound grasp of the theological and mystical tradition of the Middle Ages”. That was the very same tradition that Ratzinger focused on in his Habilitationsschrift on The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure — and although he didn’t discuss her much in the otherwise stellar ch. 3 of that book, you can still see traces of the thought of St. Hildegard of Bingen in the essay you’ve quoted today. (I’ve written more about the connections between the two in, “The Pope and the Prophetess: Benedict XVI, Hildegard of Bingen, and the Reform of the Church”.)

  • Julia B

    Pedant used to be a very negative descriptive. Is it still?
    I’m a 69 year old retired attorney with a Masters from Washington U where we studied the English language and how it evolves. I realize words change meaning but when it’s so far off the obvious meaning of a word it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard. I made my living for many years using words precisely. Old habits die hard.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Julia, that’s an ancient Roman definition. In modern diction it means to destroy in great numbers:


    Peace be with you.

  • MJD

    I unreservedly agree with Ratzinger’s view that the Church will continue to undergo a dramatic decline, but I am uncertain that this will engender a profound growth and renewal. Rather, like the present Pope, I am inclined to think that the persecution of the Church that we are beginning to see even in Western societies is a herald of the end times. Francis was quoted as saying: “You must obey the orders which come from worldly powers. You can do many things, beautiful things, but not adore God. Worship is prohibited – this is at the center of the end of time…[when we] reach the fullness of this pagan attitude…truly the Son of Man will come in a cloud with great power and glory.” I would guess that we are at the earlier stages in this development. Our Lord asked if, when he returned he would find faith. Increasingly, one sees reasons to take that question literally.

  • The Wumpus

    I find this encouraging! It is when the Church is suffering/attacked that new saints rise up to the challenge. I mean, if the secular world really thinks we are collapsing…we have endured worst attacks from our own Catholic brother’s and sister’s for the past 2,000 years, and we have come back stronger every single time we rise up to defend Christ’s bride, The Church. Rise up to the challenge we will!!!

  • Frank

    Thank you for posting this. It’s a wonderful piece. I have the impression it’s often been interpreted in sectarian fashion lately, but in my opinion it expresses with particular clarity an insight that was fairly common in many Christian thinkers in the 1960s, and it can be traced back at least to Kierkegaard. The general form of the insight is that Christian modernity had debased itself by its accommodation with rationalism, idealism, etc. (or, more radically, by its accommodation with Empire, via Constantine; or some subtler variation of the same theme), but that modernity now provides Christianity with the opportunity to strip itself of its superficial, external, worldly supports and will thus enable it to return to its essentials and to its deep truths. Joseph Bottum says essentially the same thing in his essay currently on the Catholic channel’s front page. Karl Rahner also expressed this insight in a different but profound way, though I can only quote him a bit here:

    “What we now see is the poor Church of sinners, the tent of the pilgrim people of God, pitched in the desert and shaken by all the storms of history, the Church laboriously seeking its way into the future, groping and suffering many internal afflictions, striving over and over again to make sure of its faith; we are aware of a Church of internal tensions and conflicts, we feel burdened in the Church both by the reactionary callousness of the institutional factor and by the reckless modernism that threatens to squander the sacred heritage of faith and to destroy the memory of its historical experience.” (He also speaks of the persecution of the Church from outside.)

    Rahner also said, more famously:

    “The devout Christian of the future will either be a ‘mystic,’ one who has experienced ‘something,’ or he will cease to be anything at all.”

    I’m not denying the differences between Rahner and Ratzinger … just pointing out the deep continuities. Perhaps Rahner also can shed light on Pope Francis.

  • Jesus A Perez Lavaud

    It invites us to discern: The Church founded by Jesus Christ will not disappear. Those who strive for a Church with secular mentality will leave. The threat is important: it takes just one generation of “catholic” secular mindset to stop going to Mass, two generations to join civic projects like abortion, same sex union, birth control to begin detect in the third generation: atheists and worldliness in the FAMILY.

    Only 25 % of Catholics are going to Mass today.

    We need Family Parents to join the New Evangelization.


  • Katalina

    Benedict like John Paul II before both made prophetic statements about the Church and the world back in the seventies and it looks like they were both correct.

  • centuryman

    “Let nothing disturb thee; Let nothing dismay thee; All thing pass; God never changes. Patience attains All that it strives for. He who has Godf finds he lacks nothing:God alone suffices.” – St. Teresa of Avila

    Bring on the rain!!

  • Mack

    Does this mean (please, God…) that we can at last see the end of Catholics taking their spiritual and cultural cues from a millionaire who dresses like a tree and who profits from Chinese sweat-shop labor?

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com/ Thomas L. McDonald

    I’m afraid I don’t understand this comment.

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    Having said that, I returned to the faith precisely because I was unspeakably lonely.

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    I’d certainly call the destruction the church has experienced from a rejection of Humanae Vitae a destruction that has happened in “great numbers”- not just the babies not conceived, not just the abortions, but the mounds and mounds of souls lost to Heaven due to sexual sin.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    God bless you. I’m happy you found your way back.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Yes, that is true, but my point is that there are still over a billion Catholics in the world. It’s not a church as Cardinal Ratzinger (who’s opinion I greatly respect) predicted in 1970, or whenever that prediction was made.

  • http://outsidetheautisticasylum.blogspot.com/ Theodore Seeber

    By this measure are there over a billion Catholics in the world?

    How many of those still go to church every Sunday?

  • Digital Hairshirt

    Excellent! I have been saying, “Not all will make it,” and I long to see this type of Church, all the more making me want to make sure I convert my ways to belong to it.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Yeah, but I’m willing to bet the good old days weren’t as good as perception and nastalgia thinks they were.

  • Boethius

    Everyone always seems to want a pure Church, a Church composed only
    of saints or only of 100% Orthodox believers. Has such a Catholic Church ever existed save as a construct of our imaginations of some safely distant past century. Consider the great heresies of the past, at one point as St Jerome says the Church awoke one morning to find the whole world Arian. The Church did not push out every Arian believer; she did not drive them away. Instead she re-evangelized them all.

    It took the Church the better part of two centuries to preach, persuade, reaffirm and draw the world back to Catholic orthodoxy and Arianism passed away but it was a hard slough. So too today, instead of wishing everyone who is lax or sinful or only 50% orthodox, we need to reconvert them not write them off. I believe that Ratzinger (as much as I loved him as Cardinal and Pontiff) wrote these words in a time of depression and a tinge of despair at what the Church was becoming but he never gave up working to turn the future in a different direction. And he completed the turn and it is up to the rest of us to carry that
    forward and restore the Church. The future is only dark if we allow it to be by our inaction. All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing so we ought to no longer sit on our hands but be up and doing and carrying on the work of Benedict and changing the face of the future.

  • Katherine Anne McMillan

    Now read his commentary on “the lesson of the golden calf.” This Pope blows me away! I love you Papa Benne!

  • centuryman

    I like what this Pope has to say. He’s right. Something has to change….we have to change. We’re so absorbed in the pursuit of mammon, we don’t recognize him in the suffering disguise of the poor, sick, and elderly. Every week I minister to the sick and aged elderly in a nursing home. I dearly love those people, and they love me. Their love cleanses my imperfect love, and gives me Peace. Through their unconditional and unselfish love I am being transformed before my very eyes. Die to self…so that you can be reborn. Now I understand why Teresa of Calcutta gave it all up. It is in losing your life….that you find it.
    Let them have their tax exempt status. I’ll take the Cross.

  • Phil Steinacker

    Thanks for posting this. As I was reading Gail’s sentiments I also thought of Frodo’s exchange with Gandalf.

    Good job!

  • Phil Steinacker

    Exhaustive research on the subject reveal there is NO evidence Francis ever said “use words when necessary.” His life of active preaching and speaking the Word everywhere underlines the opposite, in fact.

  • 1yRolandoOFS0

    Please forgive me. You are correct. The “use words when necessary” is an “according to legend” tradition. Exhaustive research reveals human (and Franciscan) endeavors to preach the Gospel is still a work in progress.
    Paz y Bien, Rolando, OFS.

  • Phil Steinacker

    You misread what other folks are saying completely. No one is sayng there ever was a pure Church.

    After reading your comments I can say I trust Benedict’s insights. he is far wiser than you or me. There was no objective reason for him to be depressed about the Church then, but today is easily the fulfillment of much he had to say then. We know from scripture there will be a remnant Church. It’s not here yet but we can see it coming; he’s not the only source of wisdom which sees it.

    It’s understandable your desire to overcome, but the truth has always been that we will never prevail until His return. J.R.R. Tolkien understood this through Galadriel’s reference to the “long defeat” in the Lord of the Rings, and later in a private letter to Amy Ronald, 15 December 1956, Tolkien wrote:

    “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect “history” to be anything but a “long defeat” – though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.”
    We will have our moments (even in the form of long periods of time) of victory, but we may savor them but not expect them to last.

    Tom’s original post and the prophetic words of John Paul II below stand on their own compelling merits.

    “We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has ever experienced. I do not think the wide circle of the American Society or the wide circle of the Christian Community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the antichurch, between the Gospel and the antigospel, between
    Christ and the antichrist. This confrontation lies within the plans of Divine
    Providence. It is, therefore, in God’s Plan, and it is a trial which the church
    must take up, and face courageously.”

    ~ Blessed Pope John Paul II, then Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, September 1976, from a speech to the American Bishops

  • http://www.cqv.qc.ca/ Georges Buscemi

    This to me is a key quote that wasn’t highlighted: The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism of the eve of the French Revolution—when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain—to the renewal of the nineteenth century.

    Remember that Vatican II was known as the French Revolution in the Church by progressive Cardinal Suenens (see: http://bit.ly/1af6IIL). Joseph Ratzinger therefore seems to be indicating that liberalism such as that has affected the church after the French Revolution only to be purged 150 years later has once again made an entry into the Chruch via the many improvident “reforms” of the 60s and now another purge must begin anew.