More thoughts on Benedict XVI’s 6000K word essay on The Present Crisis

I wrote a rapid reaction to Benedict XVI’s piece HERE.

Here are some fuller, additional thoughts.

Ratzinger/Benedict writes from a unique perspective of age and the experience of key positions in the Church from post-WWII directly through to the present.  Hence, his retrospective on what happened in the Church after and partly because of Vatican II is valuable.   Also, consider his direct and his remote audience.  Since this was destined for the German Klerusblatt it is without question a deserved scolding of the German Church.  However, he knew that it would make instant world headlines, so his audience is also everyone, everywhere.

Benedict opined in the past about the decline of the social influence and of the Church in the world and the resulting potential of an influential creative minority.  He thinks that this time has arrived.   Remember that he is a scholar.  When he writes, he provides a status quaestionis.  His digression on Job is surely about the state of the Church.  For Benedict, Job is Christ foreshadowed.   Foreshadowing is realized in Christ, but it must, therefore, also be realized in the Church before the Second Coming.   It seems that Benedict thinks that the Church is in her Job phase, being challenged in her externals and in her identity.  Has Benedict has an experience akin to that of Leo XIII hearing God and Devil dicker over a century of trials for the Church?   We, as a Church shall prevail, but only if we are true to God.  We are not being true to God if we try to recreate the Church in human terms.  We must be faithful to the Church as God designed.

As a good student of Augustine, who labored through the Donatist crisis, Benedict underscores that the Church is corpus permixtum malis et bonis.   The Church has highly visible weeds in her fields and deeply evil fish in her nets intermingled with the good.   The times and challenges we face today reveal the reality of this mix and, in fact, the rapidly accelerating sorting of the two.  The Church’s accelerating polarization is a sign of this.  One could aptly interject into Benedict’s tripartite essay, motus in finem velocior!

The MSM will latch onto the essay’s title and be titillated by his comments on the 1960’s, aka oh so golden halcyon days for most liberals and progressivists.  Benedict doesn’t offer specifics about solutions to the problem of, say, abusive clerics.  His is a more integral view.   He emphatically rejects any call to remake the Church in human terms to address our problems.  How many times have we heard that the Church, to address “Burning Problem X”, must change and conform to the world!  We need lay control of newly designed structures which, we are assured, are inspired by the “spirit”.  We need married priests and women deacons!  Away with patriarchy and distinctions and outdated theologies based on so-called natural law. We determine what’s natural now.  We need change!  While Benedict endorses a refining of the Church’s laws, he strongly warns in his latest offering against abandoning a natural law approach in our moral theology and discussions, or an overturning of constitutive elements of the Church.  He gives us an autopsy of the post-Conciliar DOA attempt in Germany to split moral theology from natural law.

Benedict says, in effect, even as we are being tried like Job, stripped of everything as Our Lord was before the Cross, that reinventing the Church in human terms won’t solve anything.  “[A] self-made Church cannot constitute hope.”  And again, with surprising bluntness, “What must be done? Perhaps we should create another Church for things to work out? Well, that experiment has already been undertaken and has already failed.”

What Benedict surely means is that conforming the Church to the world, and sticking to the failed path we are on, will hand the Devil a victory.  His approach is, and allow me to quote the spiritual, “Gimme that ol’ time religion”.  In the wake of the terrible scandals which deluged Ireland, Benedict urged in a letter to the Irish people that they return to traditional faith and faith practices.  He is doing the same here.  Trying to reinvent the Church through changes in structures or the introduction of innovations that result in the jettisoning of the useful gains of our forebears will play into the Devil’s hands.   However, if his words to Ireland were urgent, they are, today, imperative.  And Benedict doesn’t want just a return to the practices or formulae of the past.  His is a deeper call.
Benedict calls in his piece for a radical rediscovery and recognition of the love of God, both His love for us and ours for Him.  He stressed that the content of our Faith is Love Incarnate.  This is what is personalized in the Catholic Faith, and without which the Church’s structures and teachings are soulless.  But with God’s love, they are alive and life giving.  I am reminded of question I heard Ratzinger answer after a conference.  He was asked about Karl Rahner’s notions about God as an Existenz-Modus.  After delving briefly into what Rahner meant, Ratzinger concluded, “What Fr. Rahner forgets is that you cannot pray to an Existenz-Modus!”

Benedict today is calling for the formation of “faith habitats”, places where the Faith and love of God can “dwell” and be recognized.   Though we are being emptied and becoming smaller as a Church – through the auto-enervation of the weeds – we can still be a creative minority, giving witness to the Truth to whatever end we are called to bear.

Something that critics and defenders of Francis are sure to notice, is Benedict’s reference to the Veritatis splendor and the context of its genesis. Pace today’s prominent papalotrous antinomian and theological vandals, Benedict defends Veritatis splendor, so undermined during this pontificate, as a guidepost.  Veritatis splendor was, as Benedict explains, John Paul’s necessary response to a challenge from Germany that would have had disastrous results.   Yes, the former Pope affirms, just as Pope’s of yore have always been willing to affirm, there are some things that are intrinsically evil.  We jettison that truth at our existential peril, as a society and as a Church.  But, nolens volens, that’s what’s happening.  How must we respond?

In effect, Benedict’s unspoken line is the integral interconnection of Cult, Code and Creed.  I think he would agree that his underlying foundation is the intimate and simultaneously operative ecclesial dynamic force inhering in lex orandilex credendi – lex vivendi.

For example, Benedict calls for a recapturing of Mystery in our liturgical worship when he speaks to how so many today receive Holy Communion thoughtlessly.  “Our handling of the Eucharist”, he wrote, is a “central issue”.  We must embrace the whole of the Church’s teaching on Faith and morals: the Church’s teachings and her laws are inextricably interwoven. “It is very important to oppose the lies and half-truths of the devil with the whole truth”.

Oh, yes. He calls – albeit implicitly – for new criteria for the appointment of bishops.  That was fun.  And, more seriously, we must be willing to die, to be martyrs.  That was sobering.

What captured my attention in a more focused way, as I read through the often familiar themes, his Ratzingeriana as it were, was what must surely be a longing for us “to establish habitats of Faith and, above all, to find and recognize them”.  What do I mean?

Benedict ranges around a bit as he puts down various markers, some familiar tropes, but there is a cri de coeur moment when he reveals his pain, how heartsick he is at what is going on today.

Apart from all the business about pedophilia and crises, etc., Benedict gets down to it, I think, when writes of the loss of Mystery, the Mystery in liturgical worship and the Mystery of the Church.   For Ratzinger, and he even from the years I had the privilege to speak often with him, and for me, everything comes from and flows back to our sacred liturgical worship, which must bring us into transforming contact with Mystery, much as Moses left the tent of meeting shining so brightly his face could not be looked at.  If we recognize the connect of Cult, Code and Creed, then even reflection on law reveals the Mystery of God, as does more obviously doctrine.  Encountered rightly, they transform.  However, after lamenting a loss of Mystery, Benedict poignantly turns inside out a phrase of his perennial spiritual guide, Romano Guardini, a phrase which in his earlier writings Ratzinger called a “standard quotation in German Catholicism”.  Mind you, just as Christ’s quotes of the prophets were instantly recognized by 1st century Jews, the German clergy, Benedict’s immediate audience will get this.  Guardini, writing between the wars and during the rise of the Liturgical Movement wrote positively, “An event of incalculable importance has begun; the Church is awakening in [people’ s] souls.”  On the contrary, Benedict herein mourns that a negative event of incalculable importance has begun, namely, “The Church is dying in [people’s] souls.”

The last 50 years have borne that out and, in fact, the necrotic effects are accelerating, which makes them daily more obvious.

What could be the take away from this somewhat rambling collection of observations and Ratzingerian tropes? This may be Benedict’s prophetic call to those who are listening.  We are seeing the Church experience a Job-like testing.  If Christ endured a Passion, the Church must endure a Passion as well.  The Passion reveals the radical, unfathomable depths of God’s love.  We must learn to recognize this love, and manifest it.  We are going to experience painful but purifying down-sizing.  We must creatively form places where the Faith and love can “dwell”, habitats of Faith.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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This entry was posted in Benedict XVI, Clerical Sexual Abuse, Sin That Cries To Heaven, The Coming Storm, The future and our choices and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Benedict Joseph says:

    My initial response to Pope Benedict’s essay was disappointment. After reading a number of critiques of it from a range of perspectives, including this fine one offered here, all acknowledging its positive contribution, I say I remain unmoved. While heartened to read that Benedict recognizes the roots of moral corruption in the Church in the theological corruption which not only sprang from “the” council but which generated it in the first place it is insufficient. Grossly disappointed to glance at the gratuitous salutation offered the current occupant of the Chair of Saint Peter. It undermines Benedict personally and brings into question his entire perspective.
    In any event historical analysis of the roots of the problem are at this point simply inadequate. A bold unambiguous clarion call for the restoration of authentic Roman Catholic theological perspective across the board is urgently required and that is what almost everyone is afraid to put forth. We made a tragically wrong turn in the conciliar period and the true depth of the disaster has not been acknowledged because we are institutionally afraid to acknowledge we were mistaken. Benedict’s voice would shake the world were he to speak fearlessly and without deference to conventions and persons. Etiquette be damned. Souls are being lost and Christian civilization is being flushed down the loo. This esteemed elder has within his power to shake us back into reality, but when not mute, he only acts timidly. When his voice is lost so will be the opportunity for a correction within our life time. Act with audacity. Band-Aids are only an exercise in pastoral malpractice.

  2. arga says:

    Ratzinger at heart has always been a professor, with an urge to teach and analyze in academic, and ultimately conventional pedagogical, ways. He is not the fearless shepherd, like Cardinal Sarah. So Ratzinger’s latest missive simply confirms the point: he academizes a problem that calls instead for bold preaching. Enough with intellectualism. That can be a weakness in a crisis situation such as this one. Cardinal Sarah, we hear you!

  3. P. N says:

    “And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not in loftiness of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of Christ. For I judged not myself to know anything among you, but Jesus Christ, and him crucified. ” (1Cor 2:1-2)

    This is precisely what Pope Benedict does here: he points out with brilliant clarity the central truths of our faith and the only solution to the problems of the Church and the Church crisis: “A paramount task, which must result from the moral upheavals of our time, is that we ourselves once again begin to live by God and unto Him.”

    To everyone who wants “something more” I would answer: there is nothing more. There can’t be anything more. There is just “Deus meus et omnia”.

    Thank you, Pope Benedict!

  4. Traductora says:

    Thank you for an excellent analysis. I have been really shocked in reading comments on various “conservative” or “traditionalist” blogs by the abuse and insults hurled at BXVI for writing this. They’re almost as bad as the enraged ravings on the liberal sites, which reminded me once again of the fact that BXVI never pleased any faction entirely – a good thing, in my opinion.

    But this time the conservatives or traditionalists seem to be enraged because he didn’t come out and call for the immediate overturning of VII and the flogging and expulsion of Bergoglio. For Pete’s sake, that wasn’t his purpose, and he couldn’t do it anyway…and how did they think Francis was going to allow him to publish it unless BXVI said polite things about him? And at that it was only published in a Bavarian diocesan bulletin for clergy.

    But it’s really a stunning piece, and actually everything he says in it specifically opposes the theological, disciplinary and even liturgical currents that VII didn’t create out of whole cloth, but consolidated, empowered and officially enshrined in the Church. And as for Francis, the same goes for him. Benedict specifically, without naming him, rejects his culmination-of-VII theories and practices in just about every aspect.

    But most of all, it is the best summary I have seen of “what happened,” and in order to understand how to get out of our predicament, we have to understand how, after 2000 years, we got here and got here so fast. It’s not a set of facile answers or handy suggestions for the future, but really calls us back to the basics, which we have to rediscover in order to have any idea of what to “do.”

    He’s absolutely right about the effect of the 60s, about the replacement of objective morality by a sort of psychological relativism which puts everything in terms of the individual’s unfettered right to have his peculiarities become standards of behavior, and about the out of control sexual insanity (heavily fueled, I think, by the Freudianism that had become simply part and parcel of people’s idea of what “modern man” was all about). The Church simply gave in and accepted all of this and even violently erased all the signs of transcendence and non-physical reality represented in the liturgy.

    I also felt that he was greatly grieved and feels responsible, feels that he tried but perhaps not hard enough or not in time, and is making one last effort. It was, to me, a very tragic and profound document – and I have no idea why so many people I might have thought favorable to it are enraged by it.

  5. FrankWalshingham says:

    Interesting that Pope Benedict referred the corruption that has gone on in the Archdiocese of Detroit seminaries, with his reference to the faculty (Ken Untener) showing pornography to the seminarians as part of their course work.

    [That wasn’t the only seminary. I know.

  6. Spinmamma says:

    I am not erudite enough to offer any meaningful criticism of our beloved Benedict’s letter. All I know is that to me it is a mighty breath of wisdom and love. The fact that he has spoken so plainly in support of Holy Mother Church, as she has been known, and the Deposit of Faith has given me great comfort and hope in these bleak times. Job, indeed.

  7. P. N says:

    Cardinal Sarah: “Nous devons remercier le Pape émérite Benoît XVI d’avoir eu le grand courage de prendre la parole. Sa dernière analyse de la crise de l’Église me semble d’une importance capitale. L’effacement de Dieu en Occident est terrible. La force du mal nait du refus de l’amour de Dieu.”

  8. Benedict Joseph says:

    As has been noted elsewhere, Pope Benedict has deposited an explosive of ambiguity in this essay. Note well: “In moral theology, however, another question had meanwhile become pressing: The hypothesis that the Magisterium of the Church should have final competence (“infallibility”) only in matters concerning the faith itself gained widespread acceptance; (in this view) questions concerning morality should not fall within the scope of infallible decisions of the Magisterium of the Church. There is probably something right about this hypothesis that warrants further discussion. But there is a minimum set of morals which is indissolubly linked to the foundational principle of faith and which must be defended if faith is not to be reduced to a theory but rather to be recognized in its claim to concrete life.”
    Can one not see Kasper, Marx and company not licking their chops on this piece of theorizing? The bottom line is that this is merely more fuel for the fire. Another exposition of theology being an occupation of the seat of the pants. It has become a stage, and enterprise. It is almost as if the best can’t help but falling into the trap. It has given the long leash to a pack of wolves. For all his genius, academic and ecclesial acumen, Benedict remains to some degree a part of the theological problem. When and by whom will the theological academy be called to order under obedience to Jesus Christ? Academic freedom I find neither in the Decalogue or the Gospel. I do find innumerable allusions to responsibility.

  9. adriennep says:

    Traductora said it all for me. Let Benedict be Benedict. This is the theologian whose tender words, brilliantly stated, at the funeral of John Paul II raised me up into the Church. That he chose to say anything from his current place of exile is moment enough. It is enough, until one day we meet again at Our Father’s House.

  10. Semper Gumby says:

    Traductora: Good point. Benedict XVI wasn’t perfect, but some of those commenters could take it down a notch.

    “habitats of Faith.” Yes, while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls of quietism, theocracy, and monarchy.

  11. anna 6 says:

    AdrienneP, that homily for JP2 was a very important moment for me as well, even as a cradle Catholic.
    This ancient man of the Church was compelled to speak, presumably because he felt the core of his message needed to be heard and wasn’t being expressed elsewhere. I am immensely grateful for it.

    Those who hoped he would have criticized his successor are unrealistic. One of B16’s great gifts was his ability to communicate lofty ideas while also being pragmatic.

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