Nearly 50 years ago in a broadcast on German radio, theology professor Fr. Joseph Ratzinger spoke in stark terms about the Catholic Church’s future. He suggested—prophetically, it turned out—that the church would shrink:
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. In contrast to an earlier age, it will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, it will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members.
He would return to this theme again and again down the years, before and after he became Pope Benedict XVI. The thrust of his thought is that the modern church is artificially large. The decline of the faithful over the past half-century has left behind a skeletal infrastructure without flesh and blood to animate it. Therefore, we should expect to see Catholic schools and parishes, even cathedrals and basilicas, close. We should expect fewer ordained priests and fewer parishioners.
This shrinking will be painful but also invigorating: those who remain in the church will be Christians who are fervently seeking the face of God, and from the ruins of what was an inflated church, a genuine faith will reassert itself and bring new life to a dying world.
In America, the number of Christians relative to the general population has been shrinking for many years, mirroring a much more advanced state of decline in Europe, where it’s fair to say that Christianity is not only waning but dying out. If Christianity’s cultural dominance is at an end, what are the faithful supposed to think about this epochal change? How are they supposed to respond? To borrow the title of Francis Schaeffer’s 1976 documentary about the decline of Western thought and culture, how should we then live?
Read the full article in the Claremont Review of Books.