Catacomb time?

At Christmas 1969, Professor Joseph Ratzinger gave a radio talk with the provocative title, “What Will the Future Church Look Like?” (You can find it in Faith and the Future, published by Ignatius Press). One of the concluding paragraphs was destined to become perhaps the most quoted excerpt from Ratzinger’s extensive bibliography, when Professor Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI:

“From the crisis of today a new 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 she will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only be free decision…But in all [this]…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.”

Our soundbite world quickly reduced this vision to Ratzinger’s “proposal” for a “smaller, purer Church,” as if Pope Benedict, thirty-five years before his election, was already calling for – indeed, was looking forward to – a winnowing of the wheat and the weeds, long before the Lord’s return in glory. Echoes of this misreading can be found in certain Catholic circles today, where there seems to be a passion for writing Build-It-Yourself Catacomb manuals. Be that as it may, there’s real insight in Ratzinger’s 1969 meditations on the future, so some winnowing of the wheat from the misinterpreting chaff might be in order.

First, Pope Benedict was certainly not urging, during his pontificate, that the Church should deliberately downsize. No pope wants to shrink the Church. And in any event, the notion of the Church as a pristine, pure, unsullied community of the already-perfected is radical-Protestant, not Catholic, in character.

Rather, Ratzinger in 1969 was describing what he imagined to be inevitable in his German situation, given the acids of secularization that were then at work, often aided and abetted by avant-garde forms of Catholic theology. In a society increasingly defined by the pleasure principle and a culture whose first premises included aggressive skepticism about biblical religion, Catholicism could no longer live by the old ethnic transmission belt. In the future, people were not going to say they were Catholic because their grandmothers had been born in Munich.

And that was an insight with applicability far beyond Ratzinger’s native Bavaria.

The bishops of Latin America saw a similar phenomenon in their own countries, where Catholicism had long been “kept,” first by legal establishment and then by cultural habit. “Kept” Catholicism, they saw, had no future. So in 2007, the Latin American bishops called for the Catholic Church to rediscover its missionary character – to become, as Pope Francis would later put it, “a Church permanently in mission,” in which every Catholic understands that he or she was baptized into a missionary vocation.

This same judgment – Catholicism by osmosis is dead – and this same prescription – the Church must reclaim its missionary nature – are at the root of every living sector of the Catholic Church in the United States: parish, diocese, seminary, religious order, lay renewal movement, new Catholic association. And while it is true that the Church in these United States is going to have to fight hard, both internally and externally, to maintain the Catholic integrity and identity of what Ratzinger called those “edifices…built in prosperity,” there is no reason to think that that fight is already lost and that it’s time to head for the catacombs.

The further truth to be taken from Ratzinger’s vision of the Church’s future is that 21st– century Catholicism “will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.” Lukewarm, pick-and-choose Catholicism will not survive the cultural and political tsunami that’s coming. All-In Catholicism can do more than survive; it can convert.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.