Cardinal Joachim Meisner was a doctrinal conservative, and one of the four cardinals who signed the dubia questioning the orthodoxy of parts of Pope Francis’s encyclical Amoris Laetitia. Hours after the conservative Cardinal Gerhard Müller phoned to let the older German cardinal know that Francis had cashiered him at the CDF, the Vatican’s doctrinal office, Cardinal Meisner died. As Ross Douthat writes in his column this week, the death of Meisner was one of several events that removed significant opposition to Francis’s agenda among conservatives at the senior level of the Catholic Church.
At Cardinal Meisner’s funeral in Cologne today, a representative of the retired Pope Benedict XVI read a short message from him. (The original German statement is here.) It included this stunning paragraph:
We know that this passionate pastor and shepherd found it particularly difficult to leave his post, especially at a time in which the Church stands in particularly pressing need of convincing shepherds who can resist the dictatorship of the spirit of the age [Zeitgeistes] and who live and think the faith with determination. However, what moved me all the more was that, in this last period of his life, he learned to let go and to live out of a deep conviction that the Lord does not abandon his church, even when the boat has taken on so much water as to be on the verge of capsizing.
Keep in mind that Catholics think of the Church as the “barque of Peter” — a boat, captained by Peter. Benedict XVI is saying here that the Church appears to be going down, capitulating to the Zeitgeist. He is praising Cardinal Meisner for living with serenity, confident that come what may, Jesus will not abandon the Church.
I had to re-read that statement from Benedict several times to quite believe it. This is a staggering remark, one whose power is amplified by the fact that it was delivered at the requiem mass for a cardinal who challenged Pope Francis directly. I cannot read it as other than Benedict’s judgment of the state of the Catholic Church under Francis. If you have a more plausible reading, let’s hear it.
If I’m correct, contained within these few lines is Benedict’s counsel to the Catholic faithful who wish to resist this dictatorship of the Zeitgeist: you are not wrong; things really are as bad as they seem — but stand fast in the faith, and fear not.
What’s interesting too is that things may not seem that bad far from Rome. But Benedict XVI is at the summit of the Church, and has been for most of his long clerical career. He knows what’s going on in the Vatican. He knows what has been going on in the Vatican. He sees what few people outside of Rome can.
(By the way, Christians in the West outside the Roman fold who think this is purely a Catholic problem are whistling past the graveyard. We all live under the dictatorship of the Zeitgeist. There is no place completely safe from it.)
In the opening chapter to The Benedict Option, I characterized the contemporary situation as a catastrophe for Western civilization in general and faithful Christians in particular. I cited Benedict XVI’s likening of our time to that of the West in the fall of the Roman Empire (the then-pope was speaking specifically of Europe, but Europe is only slightly ahead of the United States in these matters). It is indeed an alarming scenario, one that some critics have derided as “alarmist”. I wonder if those same people would criticize Joseph Ratzinger for being “alarmist” in his statement today.
The thing is, Father Joseph Ratzinger, in 1969, predicted all of this would happen. “The real crisis has scarcely begun,” he said then. And here we are today. We are not nearly at the bottom. Ratzinger predicted a great trial and a winnowing. And after that:
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 crystallization 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 on 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.
Again, we non-Catholic Christians are by no means free from these trials. Any non-Catholic Christian who sees the agonies of the Catholic Church and feels a surge of triumphalism is a fool — as is any Catholic who feels triumphalistic over the rest of us. Open your eyes! Look around! All of us Christians who refuse to submit to the post-Christian Zeitgeist are in this together. This crisis is why I wrote The Benedict Option. But there is hope, real hope, not happy-clappy optimism. As I write in the book:
In this book, you will meet men and women who are today’s Benedicts. Some live in the countryside. Others live in the city. Still others make their homes in the suburbs. All of them are faithful orthodox Christians—that is, theological conservatives within the three main branches of historic Christianity—who know that if believers don’t come out of Babylon and be separate, sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally, their faith will not survive for another generation or two in this culture of death. They recognize an unpopular truth: politics will not save us. Instead of looking to prop up the current order, they have recognized that the kingdom of which they are citizens is not of this world and have decided not to compromise that citizenship.
What these orthodox Christians are doing now are the seeds of what I call the Benedict Option, a strategy that draws on the authority of Scripture and the wisdom of the ancient church to embrace “exile in place” and form a vibrant counterculture. Recognizing the toxins of modern secularism, as well as the fragmentation caused by relativism, Benedict Option Christians look to Scripture and to Benedict’s Rule for ways to cultivate practices and communities. Rather than panicking or remaining complacent, they recognize that the new order is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be lived with. It will be those who learn how to endure with faith and creativity, to deepen their own prayer lives and adopting practices, focusing on families and communities instead of on partisan politics, and building churches, schools, and other institutions within which the orthodox Christian faith, can survive and prosper through the flood.
This is not just about our own survival. If we are going to be for the world as Christ meant for us to be, we are going to have to spend more time away from the world, in deep prayer and substantial spiritual training—just as Jesus retreated to the desert to pray before ministering to the people. We cannot give the world what we do not have. If Israel had been assimilated by the world of the ancient Near East, it would have ceased being a light to the world. So it is with the church.
The reality of our situation is indeed alarming, but we do not have the luxury of doom-and-gloom hysteria. There is a hidden blessing in this crisis, if we will open our eyes to it. Just as God used chastisement in the Old Testament to call His people back to Himself, so He may be delivering a like judgment onto a church and a people grown cold from selfishness, hedonism, and materialism. The coming storm may be the means through which God delivers us.
I also write, in the book’s acknowledgements:
I also want to express my gratitude for the life and work of Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, who I consider the second Benedict of the Benedict Option.
I am not (or rather, no longer) a Roman Catholic, but I look up to Benedict XVI. He has shown us the way. He is still doing so. As he once wrote, in an essay collected in this book:
[F]aith is fundamentally a particular kind of passion, or, more correctly, a kind of love that seizes a man and points the way he must go, even if that way is wearisome. That way may turn out to be a mountain ascent that seems folly to the comfortable and narrow-minded middle-class citizen but, to the one who has committed himself to the adventure, the one and only way, which he wouldn’t not wish to exchange for all the comfort in the world.
Precisely. Things are terrible. There’s nothing but trouble ahead. If we’re going to sail through it without capsizing, there are things we need to be doing right now. Not five years from now, but right now.
I see that a fellow Orthodox Christian, Abbot Tryphon, who heads the Orthodox monastery on Vashon Island, Washington, is sounding a similar note of warning and of hope. Excerpt:
Many of us see the battle front as on the political side, and have committed ourselves to fighting for a return to the standards of the past. If we can just get honest Christians back in the saddle, all will be saved. Yet if we be honest, the signs abound that we have lost the battle.
Perhaps the answer is to be found in a sort of “circle the wagons” approach, where we build stronger parishes, and create safe havens for ourselves, and our children. Rather than continue the losing battle to return our nation to her Christian past, we build, like the early Christians, a nurturing place of spiritual support, and preserve what has always been within the walls of our churches and monasteries.
Like Saint Benedict, who built his monastery as a place of refuge and safety, preserving Christianity during a dark period in the history of the West, we create a place where the best of our Christian values and spiritual strength grow deeper and stronger. This holy place not only becomes our fortress against the sickness and perversion of a culture gone mad, but becomes the sought after place for others, when they’ve finally reached the end of their endurance.
As the corrupt society around us disintegrates into the cesspool of atheism and sensual abandon, our churches offer the safety and security of a God protected place of sanctuary, where we can be fortified as warriors battling the darkness of a world that has lost its way. And when the time comes, others will see what we have, and join us in the Ship that is the Church, and travel with us into that safe harbor, which is the Kingdom of God.
As Benedict XVI said in his statement today, even the Ship is taking on water — but we must know by faith that it will not sink. What are we doing to make it seaworthy, though? The Church is not only the institution or the clergy. The Church is also us. The longer we pretend that this catastrophe is not happening, the harder it is going to be to resist the forces that would pull us all under.
UPDATE: A reader comments:
Before you get too excited, the translation you are using is wrong and misleading (in contrast to the different version you are linking to). The German says: “und immer mehr aus der tiefen Gewissheit lebte, dass der Herr seine Kirche nicht verlässt, auch wenn manchmal das Boot schon fast zum Kentern angefüllt ist.”
The important word is “manchmal”, meaning “from time to time” or “at times”:
“and he lived more and more in the certainty that the lord will not leave his church, even when from time to time the boat is so full it is close to capsize.”
Maybe the old pope has more actual faith than the alarmists who are in constant panic.
I appreciate the clarification, as I don’t speak German, but I hardly see that as much different.
UPDATE.2: Reader Old West writes:
I do speak German, and the fact that manchmal means “sometimes” or “from time to time” doesn’t change the meaning of what you quoted.
I can see where someone wishing to minimize Benedict’s statement would leap on a poor translation in order to deflect from his point. But to do so is pedantic sophistry in action.