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Pope Benedict’s Benedict Option

A 1958 lecture by Father Joseph Ratzinger speaks to the heart of the Ben Op

A reader sends the text of a striking lecture delivered by Father Joseph Ratzinger in 1958. Here’s the dramatic opening:

According to religious statistics, old Europe is still a part of the earth that is almost completely Christian. But there is hardly another case in which everyone knows as well as they do here that the statistic is false: This so-called Christian Europe for almost four hundred years has become the birthplace of a new paganism, which is growing steadily in the heart of the Church, and threatens to undermine her from within. The outward shape of the modern Church is determined essentially by the fact that, in a totally new way, she has become the Church of pagans, and is constantly becoming even more so. She is no longer, as she once was, a Church composed of pagans who have become Christians, but a Church of pagans, who still call themselves Christians, but actually have become pagans. Paganism resides today in the Church herself, and precisely that is the characteristic of the Church of our day, and that of the new paganism, so that it is a matter of a paganism in the Church, and of a Church in whose heart paganism is living.

Therefore, in this connection, one should not speak about the paganism, which in eastern atheism has already become a strong enemy against the Church, and as a new anti-christian power opposes the community of believers. Yet, when concerning this movement, one should not forget that it has its peculiarity in the fact that it is a new paganism, and therefore, a paganism that was born in the Church, and has borrowed from her the essential elements that definitely determine its outward form and its power. One should speak rather about the much more characteristic phenomenon of our time, which determines the real attack against the Christian, from the paganism within the Church herself, from the “desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be” (Mk 13:14).

He saw this in 1958. He saw everything we’re living through now coming. Note well that this is before the Second Vatican Council. The rot was deeply set in years before the council opened.

Father Ratzinger says that the triumph of the church in the West in medieval times also meant her eventual downfall:

The Church was a community of believers, of men who had adopted a definite spiritual choice, and because of that, they distinguished themselves from all those who refused to make this choice. In the common possession of this decision, and its conviction, the true and living community of the faithful was founded, and also its certainty; and because of this, as the community of those in the state of grace, they knew that they were separated from those who closed themselves off from grace. Already in the Middle Ages, this was changed by the fact that the Church and the world were identical, and so to be a Christian fundamentally no longer meant that a person made his own decision about the faith, but it was already a political-cultural presupposition. A man contented himself with the thought that God had chosen this part of the world for himself; the Christian’s self-consciousness was at the same time a political-cultural awareness of being among the elect: God had chosen this Western world. Today, this outward identity of Church and world has remained; but the conviction that in this, that is, in the unchosen belonging to the Church, also that a certain divine favor, a heavenly redemption lies hidden, has disappeared.

Father Ratzinger says that whether the Church wants to or not, it is going to be disentangled from the world. This is not necessarily a bad thing:

In the long run, the Church cannot avoid the need to get rid of, part by part, the appearance of her identity with the world, and once again to become what she is: the community of the faithful.  Actually, her missionary power can only increase through such external losses. Only when she ceases to be a cheap, foregone conclusion, only when she begins again to show herself as she really is, will she be able to reach the ear of the new pagans with her good news, since until now they have been subject to the illusion that they were not real pagans. Certainly such a withdrawal of external positions will involve a loss of valuable advantages, which doubtless exist because of the contemporary entanglement of the Church with civil society. This has to do with a process which is going to take place either with, or without, the approval of the Church, and concerning which she must take a stand (the attempt to preserve the Middle Ages is foolish and would be not only tactically, but also factually, wrong).

By “attempt to preserve the Middle Ages,” I take him to mean the attempt to preserve the Church’s position at the center of society, with all its attendant privileges.

The future pope said the “de-secularization” of the Church would require taking the Sacraments a lot more seriously:

It must be freed from a certain simple confusion with the world, which gives either the impression of something magical, or reduces the sacraments to the level of being mere ceremonies (Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, Matrimony, Burial). It must, once again, become clear that Sacraments without faith are meaningless, and the Church here will have to abandon gradually and with great care, a type of activity, which ultimately includes a form of self-deception, and deception of others. [Emphasis mine — RD] In this matter, the more the Church brings about a self-limitation, the distinction of what is really Christian and, if necessary, becomes a small flock, to this extent will she be able, in a realistic way, to reach the second level, that is, to see clearly that her duty is the proclamation of the Gospel.

Last week, a senior Vatican cardinal held a press conference to herald the publication of his new book on Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s recent apostolic exhortation. Here’s what Cardinal Coccopalmerio writes:

The divorced and remarried, de facto couples, those cohabiting, are certainly not models of unions in sync with Catholic Doctrine, but the Church cannot look the other way. Therefore, the sacraments of Reconciliation and of Communion must be given even to those so-called wounded families and to however many who, despite living in situations not in line with traditional matrimonial canons, express the sincere desire to approach the sacraments after an appropriate period of discernment . . . Yes, therefore, to admission to the sacraments for those who, despite living in irregular situations, sincerely ask for admission into the fullness of ecclesial life, it is a gesture of openness and profound mercy on the part of Mother Church, who does not leave behind any of her children, aware that absolute perfection is a precious gift, but one which cannot be reached by everyone.

The conservative/traditional party in the Amoris Laetitia dispute within the Roman Catholic Church says, among other things, that Pope Francis’s encyclical embraces the emptying out of the meaning of the Eucharist, and is therefore a form of deception, and self-deception.

Anyway, there is this passage, which is also the message of The Benedict Option:

On the level of personal relations, finally, it would be very wrong, out of the self-limitation of the Church, which is required for her sacramental activity, to want to derive a sequestering of the faithful Christian over against his unbelieving fellow men. Naturally, among the faithful gradually something like the brotherhood of communicants should once again be established who, because of their common participation in the Lord’s Table in their private life, feel and know that they are bound together. This is so that in times of need, they can count on each other, and they know they really are a family community. This family community, which the Protestants have, and which attracts many people to them, can and should be sought, more and more, among the true receivers of the Sacraments. This should have no sectarian seclusion as its result, but the Catholic should be able to be a happy man among men—a fellow man where he cannot be a fellow Christian. And I mean that in his relations with his unbelieving neighbors, he must, above all, be a human being; therefore, he should not irritate them with constant preaching and attempts to convert them. In a friendly way, he will be offering him a missionary service by giving him a religious article, when he is sick to suggest the possibility of calling a priest, or even to bring a priest to see him. He should not be just a preacher, but also in a friendly and simple way, a fellow human being who cares for others.

This is exactly right, from my point of view. The task before us is not to run into the mountains and build a compound — despite what know-nothing Ben Op critics keep saying — but rather to strengthen our grounding in Scripture, Church teaching (depending, of course, on which communion you belong to), and traditional Christian practices, while simultaneously strengthening our bonds to each other. Only by doing that first can we be a distinctly Christian “happy man among men,” which we also must be. 

But, to the extent that being “a happy man among men” leads us to be secularized — that is, to abandon what makes us distinctly Christian, to be assimilated into the world — then we must limit ourselves. We must limit ourselves not only for our own sake, but for the sake of the world, which must not be deceived about what the Gospel is and why it needs it.

Read the whole thing.  I tell people that the second “Benedict” of The Benedict Option is Joseph Ratzinger. This kind of thing is why.

(Readers, I am traveling today to Canton, Ohio — deep David J. White territory — to give two lectures this week at Malone University. The events are free and open to the public, so I hope to see some area readers of this blog there. Comment approval will be spotty until I get there. Thanks for your patience.)



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