The Many and the Few

A newly translated lecture by Joseph Ratzinger from 1958 has been published at Homiletic and Pastoral Review, dealing with the pastoral problems of running a church where the majority of members are not in fact believers, or who have only a tenuous faith. It is surprisingly timely.

Despite the charge often leveled against Ratzinger that he started off as a good liberal and ended up as an evil conservative, his thought is quite consistent over the years; the lecture from 1958 may as well have been a lecture from 2008. It is more accurate to say that the cool kids Kung and Rahner lurched leftward while he stayed more or less the same.

In the course of the lecture he brings up two themes, first the church must lose its social position as the default option if it is to be authentically the church:

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… 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}

I am inclined to agree, but is there really no benefit for the bulk of humanity in a majority church, or in the case of Europe, established churches? Society will have its public cult and its gods, and you will be expected to either bow before them or live on the margins. Isn’t Christ, even a distorted Christ, a better public god than money, pleasure or self? And isn’t a big church with obvious elements of hypocrisy and racketeering better than a pure but tiny mutual admiration society? Or will the distorted Christ inevitably be put at the service of society’s real divinities?

I don’t know; each scenario carries its spiritual dangers.

Second, he talks about the tension between the fact that the true disciples of Jesus will always be few, but the world, the great mass of humanity, is saved because of them.

If men and women, indeed the greater number of persons are saved, without belonging in the full sense to the community of the faithful, so then it takes place only because the Church herself exists as the dynamic and missionary reality, because those who have been called to belong to the Church are performing their duty as the few. That means that there is the seriousness of true responsibility, and the danger of real rejection, of really being lost. Although we know that individual persons, and indeed many, are saved outwardly without the Church, still we also know that the salvation of all always depends on the continuation of the opposition between the few and the many; that there is a vocation of man, concerning which he can become guilty, and that this is a guilt because of which he can be lost.

“Salvation” is not a club membership but a calling. It is not a matter of “going to heaven when you die” but a response to God’s initiative.

 

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