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 it will lose many of her social privileges (…) 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”
— Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI)
“A smaller Church”; Faith and Future
The above quote is an all-time favorite of a certain catastrophist mindset at the root of much of the current dissent against Pope Francis. People who criticize our pontiff often share memes with this prophecy from then Joseph Ratzinger, predicting the collapse of the Church (at least in the West) under the weight of an increasingly materialistic and relativistic society. They interpret the dwindling numbers of practicing Catholics as a confirmation of this ratzingerian forecast.
However, there is more to this than merely acknowledging the accuracy of Ratzinger’s prophecy. The quote is usually disseminated without any context whatsoever, besides the interpretation given by the person itself doing the quoting. And this interpretation usually has an ulterior motive: to advance a narrative.
According to this narrative, the “small Church” prophecy refers to the current crisis. As a ratzingerian myself, I agree with this. So far, so good. The problem is that these people view themselves as part of the reduced Church. There is no doubt in their minds that they are this smaller Church. It is incumbent upon them, therefore, to preserve the traditions and doctrines of the Church intact until the ecclesiastical renaissance comes again. They are… the remnant (a name they are very fond of, for various reasons.)
Enter Pope Francis, who in their minds has sacrificed the purity of unadulterated doctrine and tradition in order to appease modern-day sensitivities and become more inclusive to sinners. Since they dogmatically view themselves as part of the small Church, if Francis goes against their opinions, it must mean that Francis himself is outside of this small Church.
I can understand the idea of having a smaller Church, but I can’t grasp the concept of a Church so small that it doesn’t include the Pope. So, taking for granted Benedict’s prediction, one must wonder: if there is indeed a remnant, how can we identify who belongs to that remnant? And how should the remnant act?
The idea of a “remnant” in the midst of a perverse generation is so “traditional” that it is older than the papacy itself. It goes way back, right into Old Testament times. Before becoming a papal critic, notable conservative apologist Taylor Marshall published an excellent book about the Jewish roots of Catholicism, named “The Crucified Rabbi.” In it, he wrote:
“According to an ancient Jewish tradition, the universe is sustained by the presence of at least thirty-six tzaddikim, or “righteous ones”, in every generation. However, no one knows the identity of those tzadikim. They are humble souls who quietly pray and perform good deeds for the benefit of the world. It is believed that God does not judge the world on account of these saintly souls.”
As Taylor Marshall himself notes, this notion is rooted in Scripture. When Abraham, the father of our faith, found out that God was planning to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he tried to plead clemency for these cities by asking if God would destroy them if fifty righteous people lived there. Since God answered him that He would spare the cities on account of fifty righteous, Abraham progressively lowers the number, until we find out that God would spare those heavily populated metropolises if as little as ten righteous lived there (Gen 18:16-33).
In his book “Salvation is from the Jews“, Roy Schoeman, another conservative author, cites other examples in Scripture of biblical characters acting on a tzadik-like fashion. In Ex 32:7-14, God says that He will destroy the Israelites for having succumbed to the idolatry of the golden calf, and will rebuild a great nation solely out of Moses’ offspring. But Moses rejects this offer, and instead intercedes for the rest of Israel, who is thus saved from God’s wrath. Later on, in 1 Kings 18:41-45, God saves Israel from a drought for the sake of Prophet Elijah.
But let us not think that this tradition was broken once the Old Testament was finished. Roy Schoeman goes on to enumerate some examples from private revelations where the same logic seems to apply. At Fatima, the three little shepherds are asked to pray and offer sacrifices for the sinners of the world, so as to draw peace upon Portugal during World War One. And Jesus would’ve promised Saint Faustina too, that on account of her, He would bless her entire home country of Poland.
In fact, we need not go to private revelations to prove the compatibility of this idea with our religion. Christianity itself is rooted on the idea of vicarious atonement. Jesus Christ, all holy and without any trace of sin, died for the salvation of sinners. While hanging on the cross, He said of those who were torturing Him: “God, forgive them, they know not what they’re doing.“
A pattern seems to emerge here, and it’s as traditional as we can get. A 4,000 year-old tradition. The remnant does not delight in God’s wrath. Quite the contrary: the remnant exists to appease it. They never take advantage of their status as righteous ones in the eyes of the Lord to call fire and brimstone to rain on the sinners’ heads, but they pity the sinners and sacrifice themselves for them, even the unrepentant ones. They are not harbingers of God’s justice, rather they are the emissaries of His mercy. Through them, God’s mercy becomes manifest to all humankind.
It is, therefore, extremely ironic that those who so often misappropriate the title of “the remnant,” would decry Pope Francis on account of his emphasis on mercy. It seems like they didn’t understand what being a remnant actually entails. They entertain the exclusivity of the remnant, but not the essence of the remnant. In a most non-traditional way, they view themselves as the remnant all the while eschewing mercy, or imposing conditions on God’s mercy that the Vicar of Christ himself does not impose. Was there ever a remnant so disgusted with mercy? I don’t think so.
However, if we take Ratzinger’s prophecy seriously (as I do) that the Church will get smaller, then isn’t it fitting that the Holy Spirit would send a Vicar of Christ that would guide the Church when that happens? In other words, if the Church is going to shrink (at least in the West) so much that only a remnant will remain, shouldn’t there be a Pope emphasizing mercy to those who remain loyal? So that the remnant may be able to fulfill its age-old function?
If we define the size of the Church — as papal critics often do — on the basis of those who are fully orthodox (something I am not in agreement with), then it is true that the Church has taken a huge down-sizing. In the West, only a residual percentage of Catholics adhere to all of the Church’s Social and Sexual Doctrines. Dissent from Humanae Vitae is so widespread that many Catholics have turned assent to this encyclical into a litmus test for “true Catholicity.”
However, since there are so few who remain faithful to sexual doctrine, isn’t it only logical that something like Amoris Laetitia would come along, so that those who remain faithful would be able to understand the best way to deal with the multitudes who have deviated from Catholic teaching on sexuality? Isn’t it necessary that the remnant must remain faithful while showing mercy to the masses who have turned away from God?
Unfortunately, many of those who have remained faithful to the teaching of Humanae Vitae dissent from the teachings of Amoris Laetitia. These new dissenters don’t understand that (based on their definition of Catholicism as including only those who adhere to the fullness of doctrine) they are now in fact fulfilling Ratzinger’s prophecy. They are making the Church smaller by putting themselves outside the boundaries of the Church as they define it. For they have become dissenters, and dissenters (in their book) are outside the Church! But they don’t have enough discernment to understand that. Instead, they just wrestle authority away from the Vicar of Christ, while claiming that they themselves are the remnant. This is so tragic that it can only be described as a diabolical trap.
In the meantime, those who have remained loyal to the fullness of doctrine have become rarer and rarer. It is very difficult to find someone who has a positive idea of both Humanae Vitae and Amoris Laetitia in the current landscape. Someone who finds Catholic Social Doctrine and Catholic Sexual Doctrine equally convincing, without any caveats. Someone who respects and follows every pope, from Francis to Benedict XVI, to St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II.
Those few who do have found themselves, suddenly, in isolation. After the promulgation of Amoris Laetitia, they watched helplessly as a great number of their friends, family members, and public figures they once admired descended into the spiral of dissent and anti-papal hatred. Blog sites and news media they once trusted suddenly became vessels of anti-papal propaganda as bad as any secular outlet. People who they viewed as profoundly Catholic simply fell away, showing the fragility of their apparently vigorous faith.
These isolated few have watched this unfurl before their very eyes with a sense of confusion, sadness, loneliness, and bewilderment in their hearts. We read about it everyday in our comboxes, when new readers discover our blog in the midst of so much anti-papal criticism in the once Catholic social media. Theirs is not a triumphalistic attitude, a sense of belonging to an elite, or an identitarian defensiveness. Theirs is a sense of smallness, weakness and powerlessness, the kind of attitude that lets God act, because they let themselves be guided instead of thinking they have everything figured out.
We need more people who are faithful to both Humanae Vitae and to Amoris Laetitia. As St. John Chrysostom urges, we need people who are strict with themselves and lenient with others, as a true remnant should be. Not the other way around, as the false remnant purports to be. Only then may the lapsed ones feel not judged and, shedding their natural distrust against established religion, start opening up their hearts to the life testimony given by faithful Catholics. Only then will our religion expand; not by proselytism, but by attraction, as both Francis and Benedict have told us.
My only quibble with the piece is with this passage – Was there ever a remnant so disgusted with mercy? I don’t think so. Because there was an extremely self-conscious and self-styled remnant that hated mercy as much as the Righteous do today. They were called Pharisees and their contempt for Christ’s mercy to outsiders, losers, oddballs and factory rejects was motivated by the same sort of purity ethos that appears to motivate the Righteous today–and for the same reason, lack of faith in Christ.
I could be wrong, but it looks for all the world to me like the reason the Fortress Katolicus Reactionary hates Francis–and hated JPII–is because, like the Pharisee he has no belief in the power of Christ to transform people by the power of the Spirit. I can’t read hearts and minds, but I am commanded to measure fruits by Jesus himself. And the consistent fruit of Reactionary Catholics is a deep hostility to evangelism that looks for all the world as though it is rooted in a deep disbelief in any hope of reaching people who are not themselves other Reactionary Catholics. All outsiders to the Church and most of those inside as well are consistently spoken of and treated as enemies, not as potential saints. The idea that God might work to transform hearts and minds by the gospel seems never to occur to such enemies of evangelism. So holiness, of necessity, becomes a matter, not of transforming hearts and by minds by the power of the Spirit, but of drawing one’s skirts around oneself to avoid contamination. That was certainly the issue with the Pharisees, who saw Jesus’ eagerness to mingle with the riff raff not as a sign of hope for those they dismissed as sinners, but as a sign that Jesus was covered by sin cooties due to his contact with the impure. In the same way, missionaries like Francis therefore stand condemned by the Righteous for reaching out to the filthy world and getting the same cooties thereby. The goal of the Pharisee is to keep as many outsiders away from and to drive as many insiders out of the Church as possible.
In contrast, Francis has not only opened the doors to the Fortress, he has left the Fortress and gone out into the highways and byways. He is all about evangelization. His entire pontificate is easily summarized in the words, ‘He has preached good news to the poor.’ And he will, like Jesus, gladly ‘debase’ himself by, for instance, kneeling and kissing the feet of non-Christians if it will stop a war, much to the disgust of the Righteous. It is no accident that his first letter was Evangelium Gaudii and that the torrent of hostility that greeted it came entirely from Reactionaries who ignored the whole thing to hyper-focus on the three words that accurately diagnosed their hatred of the gospel as self-absorbed, promethean, and neo-Pelagian.
The self-absorption is seen precisely in the malignancy directed at evangelization, coupled with their self-absorbed complaints about being diagnosed as self-absorbed. What was funny, of course, was that Francis named no names. He simply pointed to a behavior and Reactionaries, of their own free will, chose to start griping that the shoe fit them. And so it did. Those who dream of a smaller, purer Church loathe those who seek to call into the Church the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame. It is no accident that what they do in spirit to those who seek entry to the Church they do with sadistic glee to those brother and sister Catholics who seek refuge from kill zones in their homelands at our southern border. It is the same fear of the Impure Other that drove the Pharisees, the circumcision party, the Donatists, the Lollards, the Jansenists, the Puritans and every sectarian that has ever imagined they are the only Righteous.
And when you do not believe that the Holy Spirit has the power to change and transform lives and hearts, you do what faithless people always do–try to effect that change by law, force, power, punishment, and threats. We see this most obviously in the abortion struggle. The idea that it might be incumbent on the prolife movement to win, not by lies and laws, but by winning hearts and minds, has been successfully killed by the Christianist choice to ally itself with a sadistic cult that practices cruelty, lies, theft, deceit, and the exercise of raw power against the weak to get its way.
That is the way you act when you have abandoned trust that your gospel can win by moral suasion and the power of the Holy Spirit. The early Church persuaded pagan Romans by self-sacrificial love. Today’s ‘prolife’ cult of force and fear tries to win by dementedly abandoning all interest in or respect for woman and threatening to kill post-abortive mothers–and then threatening to kill anybody who says that such an approach is insane and immoral, not to mention the polar opposite of respect for human life.
The thought that it is absurd to demand Christian morality of a population that does not hold the Christian faith never occurs to that crowd, in no small part because that crowd does not appear to hold the Christian faith itself. It behaves constantly as though it holds the vitiated husk of a post-Christian legalism that hopes to enforce a sort of pagan fertility cult which uses the unborn as human shields for all the cruelties, lies, and sadism it inflicts on the weak in the pursuit of its real goal–power.
The irony is that this attempt to impose a bourgeois conservative moral order on others–while exempting its god-king Trump from it–is the only form of outreach they seem to be able to imagine and they therefore attack the Pope when he says it is not our job to convert people. What the Pope, like his predecessors, means of course is that we are not the Holy Spirit and that we cannot save others by our good evangelistic works any more than we can save ourselves. But since neo-Pelagianism consists precisely in the belief that we are saved by our own good works since Jesus cannot save us, Francis-haters manage to hear this most evangelical of Popes as ‘rejecting evangelism’ even as they make war on him for calling the riff-raff into the Church and complain endlessly about all those in the Church who need to be driven out for purity’s sake.
When you are convinced that you are the Remnant and the Pope and most of the Church needs to be purged because they are too impure, you can be safe in assuming you are the problem. But exactly the trouble Pharisees in any age have is that the idea they are the problem and not the Saviors is last one to enter their proud heads and hearts.