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Editorial: Are we heading to a smaller Church? Today’s crises seem to suggest so
Back in 1969, then-Father Joseph Ratzinger gave a series of radio addresses in which he looked to the future of Catholicism and predicted turbulent times that would result in a smaller, more faithful Church.
Though the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI was speaking from the perspective of his own experience of the Church in Germany, his words have proved so prophetic that they have been much debated and discussed in the 50 years since. (A full speech on the subject was published by Father Ratizinger in 1970 and reprinted in English in 2009 by Ignatius Press as “Faith and the Future.”) He said, in part:
“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. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members. Undoubtedly it 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. Along-side 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 the sacraments as the worship of God and not as a subject for liturgical scholarship.”
The talk offers much food for contemplation, as well as hope for the future of a Church against which “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail” (Mt 16:18). As a new year dawns, we find ourselves not quite at the point of the Church of tomorrow, however. Instead, we seem to be mired in times of crisis that are leading to this “smaller church.” And the crises seem to be coming from all directions.
This month marks the somber 20-year anniversary of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight series that exposed the clergy sexual abuse crisis, which the Church continues to grapple with today. The crisis has cost the Church more than $4 billion, has fueled a drop of 20 percentage points in the number of Catholics who belong to a parish (according to Gallup), and, according to a 2021 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, has made more than a third of Catholics embarrassed to identify themselves as such.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated decline, with a significant number of Catholics choosing not to return (at least so far) to in-person Mass, even though dispensations from the Sunday obligation have been lifted.
Internally, factions of the Church continue to battle much too frequently — most recently over the Traditional Latin Mass and Pope Francis’ Traditiones Custodes and the subsequent responses released in December to questions that were submitted to seek clarification on the instructions found in the apostolic letter.
And, of course, the Church continues its uphill fight against a culture that joyfully promotes, under the guise of tolerance, so much that is antithetical to a Christian way of life.
We do not claim to have the answers to these many problems plaguing the Church today, but we hope to encourage our readers to consider what the future is shaping up to be, and how we might respond.
For our part, we offer two observations. First, with the upcoming Eucharistic Revival, Catholics have a real opportunity to connect more deeply with the Real Presence of Jesus. Let’s not let that opportunity pass us by. Second, though things may often appear bleak, we must not lose the hope that is part and parcel of the Christian life. The Church will “find her essence afresh” — we only need to keep the faith.
Our Sunday Visitor Editorial Board: Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott P. Richert, Scott Warden, York Young