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Will there be a Church in the U.S. in 2040?

“The real crisis has scarcely begun.” So was the forecast of Joseph Ratzinger in 1969. Recent projections by the Canadian Anglicans estimate that “there will be no members, attenders or givers in the Anglican Church of Canada by approximately 2040.” Is the Catholic Church in the United States heading in the same direction?

As public Masses open up again in the United States, many dioceses are barely able to fill the 25-percent or 30-percent capacity now allowable in parish churches. With the threat of coronavirus, national upheavals over racism, and Supreme Court decisions like Bostock vs. Clayton County, one wonders what the future will be like for our country and for the Church in our nation. What does the future hold? When will the crisis end? Is it still “scarcely begun”?

The temptation to “seize control of the future” is perennial. What continually captivates man’s attention, says Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), is “the hiddenness of the future that awaits him. Man wants to tear aside the curtain; he wants to know what is going to happen, so that he can avoid perdition and set out toward salvation” (1). This quotation from the beginning of his 2007 book, Jesus of Nazareth, is strikingly similar to the way Joseph Ratzinger begins a small chapter in his 1969 book, Faith and the Future (Ignatius Press, 2009). There, Ratzinger sets forth a glimpse of an answer to the question, “What Will the Church Look Like in 2000?”

History Figures on the Future

Ratzinger sees the “period in the past that bears the greatest resemblance to the present situation in the Church is, first, that of so-called Modernism about the turn of the century and, then, the end of the rococo period [early 18th century], which marked the decisive emergence of the modern period, with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution” (104). Ratzinger draws out the several figures who epitomize such times and sketches from them the possibilities of how our future might look.

For example, the dechristianization of France in the wake of the Revolution is shown in the “melancholy figure of Gobel (1727–1794), the archbishop of Paris, who bravely went along with every step of progress in his own time. First he supported the idea of a constitutional national Church; then, when this was no longer enough, he abandoned his priesthood, declaring that since the happy outcome of the Revolution, no national religion was needed other than that of liberty and equality. He took part in the worship of the Goddess Reason in Notre Dame; but in the end, progress ran on ahead even of him. Under Robespierre, atheism was once again accounted a crime, and so the one-time bishop was led as an atheist to the guillotine and executed” (108).

Another is the figure of Johann Michael Sailer, bishop of Regensburg, who Ratzinger describes as being “on the trail of a theology of the heart,” and was “able to give birth to something new…because he lived by what was enduring and because he placed himself, his whole life, at its disposal” (112). Sailer knew that “if he is to become fully aware of himself, he must open his eyes reverently to the whole riches of his history” (111). From this reflection, Ratzinger gleans the “real point” of Sailer’s example: only he who gives himself creates the future. The man who simply tries to instruct, who wants to change others, remains unfruitful” (112).

What came forth from “the ruins of the declining eighteenth century and was reborn as the future” was a “Church reduced in size, diminished in social prestige, but a Church that had become fruitful from a new interior power, which released new formative and social forces, manifested both in great lay movements and in the founding of numerous religious congregations, all of which are very much part and parcel of the Church’s most recent history” (113).

Is Smaller Beautiful?

What follows is an excerpt from Ratzinger’s 1969 book (translated into English in 2009), Faith and the Future (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009. 113–118). In this excerpt, Ratzinger offers a succinct summary of his historical investigation and future-looking extrapolation of the Church. Within this excerpt is found, too, his famous remarks about the smaller and more fervent Church of the future—sometimes contrasted with Pope St. John Paul II’s vision of the new springtime.

Anyone familiar with Ratzinger’s thought will recognize in this excerpt not only that we are not heading toward “a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy” at present (CCC 677), but also that if the Church is ever to be the tree in which all the birds of the air come to nest, it must be content to be the smallest of seeds that relies on God to give the growth (see Ratzinger, “Address to Catechists and Religion Teachers,” December 12, 2000).

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; nor will it issue from those who take the easier road, who sidestep the passion of faith, declaring false and obsolete, tyrannous and legalistic, all that makes demands upon men, that hurts them and compels them to sacrifice themselves.

“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. By this daily passion, which alone reveals to a man in how many ways he is enslaved by his own ego, by this daily passion and by it alone, a man’s eyes are slowly opened. He sees only to the extent that he has lived and suffered. If today we are scarcely able any longer to become aware of God, that is because we find it so easy to evade ourselves, to flee from the depths of our being by means of the narcotic of some pleasure or other. Thus our own interior depths remain closed to us. If it is true that a man can see only with his heart, then how blind we all are!

“We have no need of a Church that celebrates the cult of action in political prayers…. What will remain is the Church of Jesus Christ, the Church that believes in the God who has become man and promises us life beyond death. The kind of priest who is no more than a social worker can be replaced by the psychotherapist and other specialists; but the priest who is no specialist, who does not stand on the sidelines, watching the game, giving official advice, but in the name of God places himself at the disposal of men, who is beside them in their sorrows, in their joys, in their hope and in their fear, such a priest will certainly be needed in the future.

“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 will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.

“In all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world. In faith and prayer she will again recognize her true center and experience the sacraments again 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 crystalization 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 of 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.

“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 with Gobel, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death”

In both Jesus of Nazareth and Faith and the Future, what can be known by means of the soothsayer or fortune teller stands in stark contrast to what is revealed through God’s prophets. The “embryo of the future” that Ratzinger sketches in the 1969 piece is gained through an examination of the past in order to reflect “on the possibilities and tasks of the future” (103). Far from divination or even rationalist prognostications, Ratzinger’s words are an examination of “the personalities and the signs of the times” whereby, through “a fairly long stretch” of historical reflection, our “illusion of complete uniqueness” is set aside so as to see that, though “exactly the same did not happen before, something very similar did” (103). In this way, something of a typology of the past is opened up onto the future where “Real ‘reform’ is to strive to let what is ours disappear as much as possible so that what belongs to Christ may become more visible. It is a truth well known to the saints. Saints, in fact, reformed the Church in depth, not by working up plans for new structures, but by reforming themselves. What the Church needs in order to respond to the needs of man in every age is holiness, not management” (The Ratzinger Report. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985. 53).

Jeremy J. Priest

Jeremy J. Priest

Jeremy J. Priest is the Director of the Office of Worship for the Catholic Diocese of Lansing, MI, as well as Content Editor for Adoremus. He holds an STL from the Liturgical Institute of the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, IL. He and his wife Genevieve have two children and live in Grand Ledge, MI.