The helicopter that carried Pope Benedict XVI into retirement left behind a Catholicism in crisis. So say his critics, his admirers and everyone in between.
The church needs “shock therapy” from its next pontiff, writes one observer. Catholicism faces its worst crisis “since the French Revolution,” argues another. “Not since the Reformation,” writes a third, “has the Church been so shaken to its core.”
Up to a point, the language of crisis is justified. To the trends weakening institutional faiths across the Western world – the rise of spiritual individualism, the influence of the so-called new atheism, the gap between traditional Christian sexual ethics and present-day realities – the Roman Catholic Church has added scandals, sclerosis and a communications strategy apparently designed to win the news cycles of 1848. In both Europe and America, Catholicism’s public reputation has worsened since Benedict assumed the papacy, and his nearly unprecedented abdication is a sign that the pope emeritus knows it.
But in assessing Benedict’s legacy, it’s worth looking back on the situation in the church in the late 1970s, when the man who was then Joseph Ratzinger left his academic career to become first an archbishop, then a cardinal and eventually the pope.
In America, the ’70s were defined by not just a weakening in the institutional life of the church but a wholesale collapse. Thousands of priests and nuns left their holy orders each year. Mass attendance had fallen by a third in a generation. The church faced a rebellion from Latin Mass traditionalists. Along with institutional instability there was moral laxity, and worse: revelations of sex abuse and cover-up were years away, but the rate of abuse was at its peak.
Beneath these trends was a pervasive sense that Catholic identity was entirely up for grabs – that having dispensed with Latin Mass and meatless Fridays, the church might be poised for further revolutions, a major schism, or both.
It was the work of Ratzinger, first as John Paul II’s doctrinal policeman and then as his successor, to re-establish where Catholicism actually stood. This was mostly a project of reassertion: Yes, the church still believes in the Resurrection, the Trinity and the Virgin birth. Yes, the church still opposes abortion, divorce, sex outside of marriage. Yes, the church still considers itself the one true faith. And yes – this above all, for a man whose chief gifts were intellectual – the church believes that its doctrines are compatible with reason, scholarship and science.
It was understandable that this project made Ratzinger many enemies. It turned him into a traitor to his class, since it involved disciplining theologians who had been colleagues, peers and rivals. It disappointed or wounded the many Catholics who couldn’t reconcile the church’s teachings with their post-sexual-revolution lives.
But it did stabilize Catholicism, especially in America, to an extent that was far from inevitable 40 years ago. The church’s civil wars continued, but without producing major schisms. Mass attendance stopped its plunge and gradually leveled off, holding up even during some of the worst sex abuse revelations. Vocations likewise stabilized, and both ordinations and interest in religious life have actually risen modestly over the last decade. Today’s American Catholics, while deeply divided, are more favorably disposed to both the pope emeritus and the current direction of the church than press coverage sometimes suggests.
This stabilization was not the kind of sweeping revival that some conservative Catholics claimed to see happening, and it did nothing to prevent the church’s reputation from suffering, deservedly, once the abuse epidemic came to light.
But the Christian denominations that did not have a Ratzinger – those churches that persisted in the spirit of the 1970s and didn’t reassert a doctrinal core – have generally fared worse. The church still has a higher retention rate by far than most mainline Protestant denominations. Indeed, it is difficult to pick out a major religious body where the progressive course urged by so many of Ratzinger’s critics has increased vitality and growth.
This doesn’t mean there isn’t some further version of reform, some unexpected synthesis of tradition and innovation, that would serve Catholicism well. And if such a path exists, Benedict was probably not the leader to find it.
But he helped ensure that something recognizable as Catholic Christianity would survive into the third millennium. For one man, one lifetime, that was enough.
Douthat writes for The New York Times.
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