From the crisis of today the 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 it will lose many of her social privileges (…) And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals”
— Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI)
“A smaller Church”; Faith and Future
The above quote is an all-time favorite of a certain catastrophist mindset at the root of much of the current dissent against Pope Francis. People who criticize our pontiff often share memes with this prophecy from then Joseph Ratzinger, predicting the collapse of the Church (at least in the West) under the weight of an increasingly materialistic and relativistic society. They interpret the dwindling numbers of practicing Catholics as a confirmation of this ratzingerian forecast.
However, there is more to this than merely acknowledging the accuracy of Ratzinger’s prophecy. The quote is usually disseminated without any context whatsoever, besides the interpretation given by the person itself doing the quoting. And this interpretation usually has an ulterior motive: to advance a narrative.
According to this narrative, the “small Church” prophecy refers to the current crisis. As a ratzingerian myself, I agree with this. So far, so good. The problem is that these people view themselves as part of the reduced Church. There is no doubt in their minds that they are this smaller Church. It is incumbent upon them, therefore, to preserve the traditions and doctrines of the Church intact until the ecclesiastical renaissance comes again. They are… the remnant (a name they are very fond of, for various reasons.)
Enter Pope Francis, who in their minds has sacrificed the purity of unadulterated doctrine and tradition in order to appease modern-day sensitivities and become more inclusive to sinners. Since they dogmatically view themselves as part of the small Church, if Francis goes against their opinions, it must mean that Francis himself is outside of this small Church.
I can understand the idea of having a smaller Church, but I can’t grasp the concept of a Church so small that it doesn’t include the Pope. So, taking for granted Benedict’s prediction, one must wonder: if there is indeed a remnant, how can we identify who belongs to that remnant? And how should the remnant act?
The idea of a “remnant” in the midst of a perverse generation is so “traditional” that it is older than the papacy itself. It goes way back, right into Old Testament times. Before becoming a papal critic, notable conservative apologist Taylor Marshall published an excellent book about the Jewish roots of Catholicism, named “The Crucified Rabbi.” In it, he wrote:
“According to an ancient Jewish tradition, the universe is sustained by the presence of at least thirty-six tzadikim, or “righteous ones”, in every generation. However, no one knows the identity of those tzadikim. They are humble souls who quietly pray and perform good deeds for the benefit of the world. It is believed that God does not judge the world on account of these saintly souls.”
As Taylor Marshall himself notes, this notion is rooted in Scripture. When Abraham, the father of our faith, found out that God was planning to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he tried to plead clemency for these cities by asking if God would destroy them if fifty righteous people lived there. Since God answered him that He would spare the cities on account of fifty righteous, Abraham progressively lowers the number, until we find out that God would spare those heavily populated metropolises if as little as ten righteous lived there (Gen 18:16-33).
In his book “Salvation is from the Jews“, Roy Schoeman, another conservative author, cites other examples in Scripture of biblical characters acting on a tzadik-like fashion. In Ex 32:7-14, God says that He will destroy the Israelites for having succumbed to the idolatry of the golden calf, and will rebuild a great nation solely out of Moses’ offspring. But Moses rejects this offer, and instead intercedes for the rest of Israel, who is thus saved from God’s wrath. Later on, in 1 Kings 18:41-45, God saves Israel from a drought for the sake of Prophet Elijah.
But let us not think that this tradition was broken once the Old Testament was finished. Roy Schoeman goes on to enumerate some examples from private revelations where the same logic seems to apply. At Fatima, the three little shepherds are asked to pray and offer sacrifices for the sinners of the world, so as to draw peace upon Portugal during World War One. And Jesus would’ve promised Saint Faustina too, that on account of her, He would bless her entire home country of Poland.
In fact, we need not go to private revelations to prove the compatibility of this idea with our religion. Christianity itself is rooted on the idea of vicarious atonement. Jesus Christ, all holy and without any trace of sin, died for the salvation of sinners. While hanging on the cross, He said of those who were torturing Him: “God, forgive them, they know not what they’re doing.“
A pattern seems to emerge here, and it’s as traditional as we can get. A 4,000 year-old tradition. The remnant does not delight in God’s wrath. Quite the contrary: the remnant exists to appease it. They never take advantage of their status as righteous ones in the eyes of the Lord to call fire and brimstone to rain on the sinners’ heads, but they pity the sinners and sacrifice themselves for them, even the unrepentant ones. They are not harbingers of God’s justice, rather they are the emissaries of His mercy. Through them, God’s mercy becomes manifest to all humankind.
It is, therefore, extremely ironic that those who so often misappropriate the title of “the remnant,” would decry Pope Francis on account of his emphasis on mercy. It seems like they didn’t understand what being a remnant actually entails. They entertain the exclusivity of the remnant, but not the essence of the remnant. In a most non-traditional way, they view themselves as the remnant all the while eschewing mercy, or imposing conditions on God’s mercy that the Vicar of Christ himself does not impose. Was there ever a remnant so disgusted with mercy? I don’t think so.
However, if we take Ratzinger’s prophecy seriously (as I do) that the Church will get smaller, then isn’t it fitting that the Holy Spirit would send a Vicar of Christ that would guide the Church when that happens? In other words, if the Church is going to shrink (at least in the West) so much that only a remnant will remain, shouldn’t there be a Pope emphasizing mercy to those who remain loyal? So that the remnant may be able to fulfill its age-old function?
If we define the size of the Church — as papal critics often do — on the basis of those who are fully orthodox (something I am not in agreement with), then it is true that the Church has taken a huge down-sizing. In the West, only a residual percentage of Catholics adhere to all of the Church’s Social and Sexual Doctrines. Dissent from Humanae Vitae is so widespread that many Catholics have turned assent to this encyclical into a litmus test for “true Catholicity.”
However, since there are so few who remain faithful to sexual doctrine, isn’t it only logical that something like Amoris Laetitia would come along, so that those who remain faithful would be able to understand the best way to deal with the multitudes who have deviated from Catholic teaching on sexuality? Isn’t it necessary that the remnant must remain faithful while showing mercy to the masses who have turned away from God?
Unfortunately, many of those who have remained faithful to the teaching of Humanae Vitae dissent from the teachings of Amoris Laetitia. These new dissenters don’t understand that (based on their definition of Catholicism as including only those who adhere to the fullness of doctrine) they are now in fact fulfilling Ratzinger’s prophecy. They are making the Church smaller by putting themselves outside the boundaries of the Church as they define it. For they have become dissenters, and dissenters (in their book) are outside the Church! But they don’t have enough discernment to understand that. Instead, they just wrestle authority away from the Vicar of Christ, while claiming that they themselves are the remnant. This is so tragic that it can only be described as a diabolical trap.
In the meantime, those who have remained loyal to the fullness of doctrine have become rarer and rarer. It is very difficult to find someone who has a positive idea of both Humanae Vitae and Amoris Laetitia in the current landscape. Someone who finds Catholic Social Doctrine and Catholic Sexual Doctrine equally convincing, without any caveats. Someone who respects and follows every pope, from Francis to Benedict XVI, to St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II.
Those few who do have found themselves, suddenly, in isolation. After the promulgation of Amoris Laetitia, they watched helplessly as a great number of their friends, family members, and public figures they once admired descended into the spiral of dissent and anti-papal hatred. Blog sites and news media they once trusted suddenly became vessels of anti-papal propaganda as bad as any secular outlet. People who they viewed as profoundly Catholic simply fell away, showing the fragility of their apparently vigorous faith.
These isolated few have watched this unfurl before their very eyes with a sense of confusion, sadness, loneliness, and bewilderment in their hearts. We read about it everyday in our comboxes, when new readers discover our blog in the midst of so much anti-papal criticism in the once Catholic social media. Theirs is not a triumphalistic attitude, a sense of belonging to an elite, or an identitarian defensiveness. Theirs is a sense of smallness, weakness and powerlessness, the kind of attitude that lets God act, because they let themselves be guided instead of thinking they have everything figured out.
We need more people who are faithful to both Humanae Vitae and to Amoris Laetitia. As St. John Chrysostom urges, we need people who are strict with themselves and lenient with others, as a true remnant should be. Not the other way around, as the false remnant purports to be. Only then may the lapsed ones feel not judged and, shedding their natural distrust against established religion, start opening up their hearts to the life testimony given by faithful Catholics. Only then will our religion expand; not by proselytism, but by attraction, as both Francis and Benedict have told us.
What is the purpose of the remnant? It is not to retreat to a hermetic fortress where Catholicism may be sealed away in a kind of sanctum, protected from the corruption outside, inaccessible to the mere mortal, guarded by austere and pure sentinels. Christ did not die for us so that these Good News should be the property of a selected few. No. He wants those selected few to go out of the house where they locked themselves up out of fear and, full of the Holy Spirit, start preaching at the top of their lungs to all nations of the earth. It was in Pentecost that the Church was born; only in Pentecost can the Church be reborn.
And this brings us back to Joseph Ratzinger. If we want to understand the scope of his prophecy, we must read it through the lens of his entire corpus of thought. Elsewhere I have quoted a speech where he addresses catechists thus:
“Yet another temptation lies hidden beneath this—the temptation of impatience, the temptation of immediately finding the great success, in finding large numbers. But this is not God’s way. For the Kingdom of God as well as for evangelization, the instrument and vehicle of the Kingdom of God, the parable of the grain of mustard seed is always valid.
An old proverb says: “Success is not one of the names of God.” New evangelization must surrender to the mystery of the grain of mustard seed and not be so pretentious as to believe to immediately produce a large tree. We either live too much in the security of the already existing large tree or in the impatience of having a greater, more vital tree—instead we must accept the mystery that the Church is at the same time a large tree and a very small grain. In the history of salvation it is always Good Friday and Easter Sunday at the same time”
His prophecy about the smallness of the future Church should be read with this is mind. This smallness is inherently evangelizing. Why, then, is it strange that someone like Pope Francis would come along, a pontiff with such a missionary charisma, a pope with an evangelizer zeal, urging us to reach out to those in the peripheries (both physical and spiritual)? God is shaping the remnant into doing His bidding, He is giving the remnant detailed instructions. Much of the remnant is refusing to receive its mission, however, because that means leaving ideological and religious comfort zones.
And this brings us full circle to the prophecy itself. In the beginning of this article, I said that many who quote Ratzinger’s prophecy disseminate this quote without any context whatsoever. Well, here we find the full quote.
In it we see Ratzinger describing the smaller Church of the future. By reading the whole text, we can see what the remnant will look like… and what it will not look like. Here is an example of what the remnant will not be (emphasis from now on is always mine):
“The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. It will not issue from those who accommodate themselves merely to the passing moment or from those who merely criticize others and assume that they themselves are infallible measuring rods (…) The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed.“
On the contrary, here is what this remnant will actually look like:
“The future of the Church, once again as always, will be reshaped by saints, by men, that is, whose minds probe deeper than the slogans of the day, who see more than others see, because their lives embrace a wider reality. Unselfishness, which makes men free, is attained only through the patience of small daily acts of self-denial (…) In faith and prayer she[the Church] will again recognize the sacraments as the worship of God and not as a subject for liturgical scholarship. 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.”
If we take Ratzinger’s prescience in predicting a smaller Church, we should accept all of his prophecy. Not take it in piecemeal fashion, picking from it only the parts that interest us and bolster our narrative, and leaving aside that which does not interest us. The prophecy, if accepted as true, is not a menu in a Cafeteria. It must be taken in its fullness or not taken at all.
More importantly, the prophecy is not meant to exacerbate an apocalyptic mindset, in which faithful Catholics wallow in self-pity for the catastrophes they are forced to experience. Yes, it’s a sober and stern warning of future realities, so that we should be prepared for the challenges lying ahead. However, in no way is it meant to take the joy and lightness away from us. It is not a curse, it’s a blessing. The prophecy is interspersed with hope, encouragement and calls for a happy holiness:
“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.
And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already, but the Church of faith. It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death“
“The gates of Hell shall not prevail” — so says Scripture. This means that the Church is indestructible, so what do we fear? But most importantly, it doesn’t mean that Hell is at our gates, so that we should close them. Quite the opposite. It means that we are at the gates of Hell, trying to bring them down. The Church is not on the defensive, but on the offensive.
Nevertheless, the offensive against the powers of Hell lurking in the heart of each man is too great for mere mortals to undertake. We are pots of clay, wrestling against thrones and principalities. No, this endeavor can only be successful with the help of God Himself.
In Judges 7:1-7, Gideon severely downsizes his army, so as to show that the power against the Enemy comes not from numbers, but from God. In fact, this reduced army would not have to fight at all, for the power of the Lord would scatter their adversaries in confusion. So let us not perceive the Church’s smallness with fear, but with faith. Salvation will come not from kings or presidents, from theologians or pundits, or from statistics or multitudes, but from Jesus Christ alone Who has promised never to abandon His Church. Let us not yearn for a return to the supposed glories of an imagined past, but be joyful and content, for it is only when we’re weak that we’re strong (2 Cor 12:9-10). It is only by being the grain of mustard that we, as a Church, will be able to grow into the greatest tree in the field, where the birds from heaven will be able to roost, rest and sing (Mk 4:30-32).
[Image: “Mercy, St. Bartholomew’s Day“, depicting a nun asking a Catholic noble not to go slaughter the Protestants during St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, while a friar instigates him; Sir John Everett Millais; 1886]
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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.