Benedict’s Christianist Strategy


Philip Jenkins examines the causes of Pope Benedict’s failure to make significant progress toward his goal of re-evangelizing Europe. The most important reason why? Benedict’s strategy of retrenchment and relying on the most fanatical movements within the Church:

[T]rue reconversion, Ratzinger believed, could only be achieved by small, dedicated groups of highly active and committed believers, like the small, super-loyalist movements that emerged during the sixteenth century, chiefly in Spain and Italy. The Jesuits and Opus Dei are the best-known examples, but also influential were the Italian Focolare, the Sant’Egidio Community, and Communion and Liberation, Spain’s Neocatechumenate, and the Mexican-founded Legionaries of Christ. So were charismatic offshoots like Rinnovamento nello Spirito Santo (“Renewal in the Holy Spirit”) and the Emmanuel Community. Like the early Jesuits, such groups demanded extremely high levels of participation and activism, and some were accused of cult-like behavior. Focolare, for example, subjects members to ritualized public confessions and retreats that serve as a kind of total immersion in the group and its doctrines. Still, such movements spread widely, partly because they offered such a high role for lay activists, especially women.

Both Ratzinger and John Paul II saw these movements as the leaven, the yeast, that could energize and restore a Christian Europe that that could once again play its full part in the global Church. By the mid-1980s, John Paul was citing them as a beacon of hope, even the start of a modern-day Pentecost, and this wholehearted support continued when Benedict took office in 2005.

You see now why it was so convenient to overlook some of the abuses that some of these groups engaged in. They seemed to be the only new energy in the Western church. And you see now also a little of the desperation – as Wojtila and Ratzinger tried to rescue the Church from its death-spiral in Europe. Of course, tolerating the abuses of, say, Maciel, was, in the end, utterly self-defeating. You look desperate and you become complicit in rank evil.

This wasn’t a strategy of engagement with the modern world, with its great intellectual advances and deep moral problems; it’s a neurotic desire for purity. It aims at convincing no one. As Jenkins intimates, it replaces dialogue with cult-like obedience. Loyalty replaces love. It is the practical corollary to the lost promise of Joseph Ratzinger and did nothing in the end but speed the demise of an already dying Church.

It reminds me of how the GOP thought the Tea Party would save it. But nothing will save Catholicism but an openness to truth and a love of others. It’s there – throughout the real church, which exists everywhere the people of God come together. It just needs re-connecting with its institutional guardians.

(Photo: the Vatican struck by a lightning bolt the day Benedict announced his resignation. By Getty Images.)