Pondering the "Smaller but Purer" Vision of the Church

In the early days of his Pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI was quoted to say that he envisioned the immediate future of the Church to be a smaller but more pure Church. In the video below he reiterates something very similar:

In my view, a Church which seeks above all to be attractive, is already on the wrong path, because the Church does not work for herself, she does not work to increase her numbers and power. She works for Another. She serves not herself, not to become strong. She serves to make the announcement of Jesus Christ more accessible….. (On the Papal Plane headed to the U.K.).

I was talking with a friend recently who is troubled by such notions and stated that many declining Protestant denominations have said something similar. He further said that their experience is that denominations that claim the mantle of being “smaller but purer,” end up being  just smaller.

Of course I would counter that many of the approaches that have shrunk the main-line Protestant denominations were far from pure. In fact many of the older Protestant denominations abandoned biblical principles and  forged a strange alliance with the  “new morality” of an increasingly corrupt world. Evangelical Protestantism has risen in defiance of that trend. But I digress.

I will admit that the Pope’s remarks  may cause us to wonder, and some even to worry. I want to defend the Pope’s remarks but perhaps we can begin by articulating some concerns that such remarks might cause:

  1. As a Church with a mandate to evangelize the whole world, it seems natural that we would want to talk about growing as a general norm.
  2. If we are shrinking  in parts of the world it may be that we are being purer in a world gone mad. But it may also be due to the fact that we are arcane in how we communicate. Perhaps we have not adapted to the newer forms of media. Perhaps we have not considered articulating our views in the vocabulary of the average modern person. Perhaps we are simply ineffective communicators. Perhaps, due to scandal etc., we no longer seem credible to the world. Our doctrine must be pure but our delivery of the message may need legitimate adjustments. Simply pointing to the likelihood that we are going to be smaller and accepting this may not help us to look at and change what ought to be changed.
  3.  Accepting “small” as a norm does not encourage an urgency to evangelize.

So here are some concerns that weigh against the Pope’s remarks and vision of a smaller and more pure Church.

But we also ought to examine the value of such a vision. Here are some:

  1. Popularity too often comes in this world at the cost of compromise. Jesus said, Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers treated the false prophets in just this way (Lk 6:26). Hence our first concern should not be numbers, but fidelity to the whole counsel of Christ.
  2. The Lord promised us the world’s hatred (Jn 15:19) and this does not suggest that our numbers would routinely include vast majorities. That is ,  if we are proclaiming the unabridged, unvarnished truth announced by Jesus Christ and, thus, experiencing the hatred he promised.
  3. Jesus indicated that while many are called, few are chosen (Matt 22:14). Hence we should evangelize all,  but accept that many, perhaps even most, will reject the invitation to the Kingdom of God or be found unworthy of it.
  4. The Gospel is to be preached in season and out of season. This more than suggests there would be fallow periods in the expected harvest and that numbers are not the main priority, faithfulness is.
  5. Jesus did not seem to trust larger crowds and would often thin the ranks with a “hard saying” when he noticed gathering crowds. More on this concept here: Thinning the Ranks
  6. Other denominations that have tried to accommodate to modern demands by abandoning gospel purity have been the most devastated in terms of dropping numbers.
  7. Hence the denomination that seeks to be big by being less insistent on purity ends up being neither big nor pure. In other words it ends up being nothing.
  8. Thus, it is purity that matters most and the numbers must be left to God.

In the end the “smaller but more pure” vision is a “dangerous doctrine” for it can lead to a kind of quietism. Only if we humbly leave the question of numbers to God, and continue to evangelize in the most effective and persistent manner we know, can we maintain the proper balance. Jesus said Go (unto all the nations) and so we go. He did not say count all your converts or boast of your numbers. He did not say be popular, or the most numerous. He did say be faithful and teach all he had commanded us.

I am interested in your thoughts on the “dangerous doctrine” of the smaller and more pure Church. Perhaps it is well to conclude with the words of St. Paul who counsels Timothy and all of us:

Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry (2 Tim 3:2-5)

59 Replies to “Pondering the "Smaller but Purer" Vision of the Church”

  1. I always though that the Pope was taking into account that in the US and in Europe, many people were “born into” the Church and “raised Catholic” in the sense that they were baptized, went to Catholic School, had first communion, had a religious grandmother, etc. Often these people will insist they are Catholics, but they have no intention of living the way that that requires, or that those “old men in Rome” don’t get to determine what it “means” to be Catholic. I think we will see this type of person slough off, as it’s unlikely they will pass on any substantial faith to their children. I also think we’ll see priests and Bishops become more orthodox, and when that happens, people leave. Basically, we’ll be left with the people who are Catholic because they choose to be, which may not be as may as the 1 billion+ number suggests.

    At the same time, I get sick of hearing from some people who seem to think this is a good thing. This is the “good riddance” crowd. I don’t like that because I think Christ would want us purer and BIGGER. I think He’d rather see all those 1 billion+ be saved, but sadly many will not respond to the salvation extended to them. So I think we should WANT to see a bigger church, but not at the expense of orthodoxy.

    The people who see this shrinking as a good thing are usually those who insist that the “very fewness of the saved” is nigh on dogma, the ones who are always warning everyone else in what constant danger of Hell they are. These are usually people on the fringes of the Church, or even those who claim the Church after John XXIII is apostate (I read one the other day that called the Council of TRENT heretical!). Of course, they see their “fringeness” as evidence of their numbering among the elect. I know all too well that there may be more lost than saved, but that is up to God. I know He WANTS us all to be saved. But some people imagine a God who’s stingy on grace and who is just itching to cast us all into Hell, a God who cannot wait to punish us. Usually people like this are paranoid, prone to conspiracy theories, and to extremely rigoristic ideas of morality.

    Anyway, we might end up being smaller and purer, but that’s part of God’s plan to make His Church bigger, I think. Maybe then we’ll get our stuff together and become aggressive evangelizers.

    1. It just never seems to come off very well, does it, when we blur or even disregard entirely, a distinction between history and salvation history.

    2. Attending church doesn’t make a person a Christian anymore than standing in a garage makes a person a car. Unfortunately, over the course of history, devastating events and tough times send more people to church than people being discipled. In our society, modern day disciples sell others on attending church because it makes them feel good, or the music is uplifting, or the pastor has an encouraging message, but the truth is, we need to hear “THE” message, not “A” message, and I think deep down, we know this to be the case. But what good does it do to pray when it rains if you don’t also pray when the sun shines? The message needs to be complete, pure, and I would venture to say, relevant to the times in which we are living.

  2. The Lord has always worked through the “faithful remnant” (cf. Isaiah 11, Is 24, etc.), and the early Church shows how a few souls, working in the power of God’s Spirit, can shake the world.

    Modernist Catholicism, by its nature, will drift off into disinterested self-satisfaction. Feel-good liturgies have no staying-power, as our young people are now demonstrating to us. It looks like we’re going to have a smaller Church whether we like it or not. But those who are left will be those to whom the Church actually means something – something worth giving their lives for.

    Perhaps our big-ness has led to complacency… “There are 999,999,999 other people to do the Evangelisation – why should I bother?”.

    If smallness will bring us unity, and unity will bring us a stronger voice, and a stronger voice will be more persuasive to lost souls, then let us accept this coming martyrdom with sure purpose.

    We need to put our message out there as bluntly and in-your-face as our enemy has done to such powerful effect on our young people.

    The Pope is saying that our primary concern should not be numbers, but on how to best serve Christ. Let us not worry about how big the Church is, but focus on our personal “yes” to God every day, so that we would be available to HIM, wherever HE wants us, in HIS (not our) master plan for the Church & the world.

    Amen? 🙂

  3. Once upon a time a man, a young university student, departed from the big city and went to try to live a more pure life. He lost touch with all his friends, and when he had shrugged off the desire to sell effectively his notion of Christianity to his friends and colleagues, when he had devoted himself to increasing his humility and his purity, finally the Devil himself, exasperated at this young man’s audacity in shrugging off the popular culture of his time and place on account of its depravity, sent a vision of a beautiful woman to tempt him, when he was all alone one night.

    This young man did something radical in the face of that temptation.

    When he could resist her no longer, he stripped off his clothes…and threw himself on a thornbush. That cured him!

    The young man’s name was Benedict, just like you-know-who, whom Bishop Conley of Denver in a recent article noted was coming to be known as “God’s German Shepherd”.

    A similar story about this man, when he was much older, tells of how one of his brothers was possessed. This man smacked his brother on the backside, and the demon was exorcized. My wife and I use this technique on our son today–we call it a good ol’ Benedictine exorcism! 🙂

  4. “The number of the saved is as few as the number of grapes left after the pickers have passed.” Cure of Ars

    “The greater part of mankind will be lost forever. ” Bishop John Neumann

    1. That’s well and good, but these words should not be something we should accept. I mean, sadly, this may very well end up being the case, but accepting this as a premise makes a lot of people lazy and happy to sit around and do nothing to pray for and evangelize those they assume to be lost anyway.

      We need to be praying for ALL those people around us, even the ones we may think are certainly lost. The Curé of Ars may have made that depressing statement, but I’ve also read somewhere that if we had had just 3 saints like Jean Vianney, the whole world would be saved.

      My point is that it makes no sense to be satisfied with statements like that. Even worse, we don’t want to satisfy ourselves by saying “look at those poor damned souls! I’m better than them.” I doubt you have that attitude, but you don’t need to look too far to find it online.

      I really think some people WANT to see few souls saved, and WANT to believe it. It may be sadly true, but it is manifestly NOT what God wants. He desires that all men be saved, though relatively few may take up his offer.

  5. This comment will draw it’s detractors which is fine because it is a free country.

    Where does all this “smaller and purer” talk come from? What is the basis? The fact is the Church is smaller than it was 50 years ago. It’s shrinking coincided by a general cultural revolution and a shedding of the so called “arcane” ways by the Church itself. What is interesting is generally speaking if you go to places where the older form of the Mass is offered or at least the New Mass is offered with continuity with the previous form the congregations cling to orthodoxy with zeal and many times they may be smaller groups, although not always. Please note when I speak of places where the older form is offered I mean groups in communion with the Holy See, the so called “fringe” groups are outside the visible unity of the Church.

    So in these times it may be necessary to become smaller and get back to the time tested formulas in order to re-build what has been lost in the last half of the 20th century and in the process increasing the numbers as time passes by. To illustrate my point I’ll offer the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, a group of priests that offer the older form of the Mass. They were formed in 1988 by JPII and a small group of priests less then ten I think from a so called fringe group. Some rough statistics from their webpage http://www.fssp.org/en/chiffres.htm – In just twenty years they have grown to 359 members serving 4 continents; 16 countries; 109 dioceses. This is just one example and there are other such groups, it is hard to document the influence of their apostolic work and the effect it is having on other clerics and laypersons in “increasing the numbers”.

  6. As Catholics, we have an obligation to attempt to evangelise to those who are leaving the Church. These people share a common culture with us and a common language, two of the most difficult barriers to overcome when dealing with protestant (heretic) conversation. We should be more vigilant in our explanation and justification of doctrine.

  7. It is all about saving souls. Evangelization is not about filling pews or increasing collection baskets from saving souls.
    How many Catholics come to Mass each week only to go home and use birth control, view pornography, cheat their employer or the IRS, neglect the aged or poor, support abortion, get a divorce, or ignore God and worship money, and then return to Mass the next week and take communion unworthily? (1 Cor 11:27). How many of those do not even realize the danger of what they are doing?
    If our Church preaches the hard truth to 10 of these Catholics, and eight of them leave the Church, but 2 repent, then our Church has grown smaller but has saved 2 more souls. Better to lose 8 than lose 10.
    If we do not preach that hard truth, God will hold us responsible for their souls.
    We must be ready to accept rejection from some as the price of truth.
    A smaller Church may mean persecution and misunderstanding from the world, but a smaller more pure church means more saved souls. A larger Church may mean that we are just compromising our own salvation.

    1. Certainly preaching the truth, preaching more difficult sermons on uncomfortable topics, MUST be done. Rarely have I heard a sermon or homily given where the priest challenges people on concrete moral issues like you mentioned. And the fact is, in the past, most Catholics have always been working people who didn’t read papal documents and catechetical material, but prayed their devotions and lived their lives as they were taught from the pulpit and by the clergy.

      Where is that today? Most people will not read the Fathers, Doctors, Popes, and Saints of the Church. But then again, they never have. They counted on the clergy.

      1. I sympathize with our priests on this. Thirty minutes or less a week is not remotely enough time to explain the readings, relate them to modern life, provide even the basics of Catholic teachings, provide moral guidance and so on. When the bulk of the audience doesn’t think twice about missing Mass and sees the confessional at best once per year, and thinks that the nativity store is more mythology than historical fact, how do you ever get to the more complex moral and theological teachings?
        Pray for our priests!

      2. So many thoughtful responses. Gary nailed it: “How many of those do not even realize the danger of what they are doing?” Our people need to be evangelized and catechized. It does not happen in a 14-minute homily reflecting on the three Sunday scriptures and how they translate to our daily lives. Yes, it is true, as Chase said, “they [have] counted on the clergy” to transmit the faith; and, sadly, despite the call to all Catholics to know our faith, we still count on the clergy to pass on the truths. A large part of the new evangelization will have to commence in the pulpits, which still have weight.

        We desperately need a modern, well-formed, North American plan of catechesis – and we need to use the marvelous effective tools at hand to reach our people. I envision a three-year plan carefully built and woven together by the most thoughtful and inspirational Catholic leaders in North America. Then select a half dozen of the most effective Catholic preachers to preach these carefully developed truths of our Catholic faith, creating a series of 78 DVD’s to be distributed to every parish in North America. Every second week, for three years, these sequential DVD’s will be shown as the 20-30 minute homily at every Sunday Mass in each parish. In the intervening weeks, the parish priests can pick up on the theme of the week before and review it. Included also would be workbooks and handouts.

        I realize there will be those who would be upset by the intrusion of modern technology into the sanctuary, but souls are at stake here. Not only will the Sunday congregation be cathechized, they will be evangelized by stellar preachers. A Sunday homily DVD cathechetical preaching program is enculturation for North American in the 21st century.

        Radical? Yes. But Jesus Christ was radical. And we are called by Him to be radical. We need to be urgent about transmitting the Gospel and the Truths of our Catholic Church.

      3. Well, in the past, people COULD trust the clergy, they were taught to. No one was telling lay people to go out and read Aquinas, to go out and read all the encyclicals. That’s just how things were done. Unfortunately, when the seminaries started inflicting dissenting priests on them, they did the same, and look where we are.

        Donna Ruth, look at this: http://hancaquam.blogspot.com/2008/02/fr-philip-neris-three-year-plan-for_29.html
        Fr. Philip Neri Powell is an American Dominican. He’s in Rome now, but his blog is really good. His plan may be for the more intellectually capable, but the subject matter is organized well and could be a good guide for something like what you are talking about. I really like how he says we have to untrain the habit to focus on how we “feel” about the passage, etc.

      4. Thanks for the link, Chase. The proposed program there is a lofty goal, perhaps the subject of the second three-year program. The first would tend to be more pablum-atic, designed to reach the ears of the average pewdweller: solid content and medicine with that necessary spoonful of sugar. Holding a three-year parish catechetical formation in the parish hall, as the good priest suggested, is a good start, but we all know who will come out: all the usual suspects, possibly 50-100 people, many of whom already have a bit of formation.

        My three-year plan necessarily must come from the pulpit, because this is where many (most?) Catholics get any formation. Yes, it it would be a screen beside the ambo every second week, but it is only three years (and, in the process, perhaps Fr. Dohisownthing will be catechized and evangelized at the same time). The concern might be offered that some parishes might not be able to afford a DVD player and at least a 40″ screen – but would this not be an excellent fundraiser for local chapters of the Knights of Columbus or CWL?

  8. I understand the Pope’s calling for a smaller, purer church as meaning a furtive, well-grounded foundation of lay people on which to grow. The problem is that “cradle Catholics” tend to believe without ever having questioned their beliefs in search of intelligents answers in support of their faith. And if they have, they quietly reprimand themselves for their “heresy” long ago.

    Jesus taught his fulfillment of the Law using logic and knowledge. He did not play on emotions and admonished those who did. Why else did the Pharisees and Saducees fear him? He clearly answered their trick questions using reason set forth long ago. And he used parables to explain the Great Commandment & the Golden Rule in many different ways–the Mustard Seed, the Fig Tree, the Good Samaritan, & the Prodigal Son. A Catholic who can logically explain the major tenets of our faith with ease will return “lost sheep” and attract new converts.

    As a converted Catholic, I came to the church through faithful means supported by intellectual thought. I had long believed the Christian ideals, but I researched the Bible only to discover I was Catholic before ever setting foot in an RCIA class. Today, I’m raising two children in the Catholic faith; and my fear is that they won’t get the intellectual half of what we believe from the Church. It will be my primary responsibility to explain the reasons behind our faith at a time in their lives when parents are shunned (teenage years).

    Today our teenagers have a penchant to stray after Confirmation because they’ve secretly questioned their faith without an adult Catholic mentor to give them the intellectual answers they’re seeking. They are not getting logical and faithful instruction from parents, school teachers, religious educators, and others. Dare I say, our teenagers are straying because they are smarter than us. A person will not remain with a community if they are not intellectually-reconciled with their peers. Our teenagers have their reason…we don’t share our reason with them. But we may not see them with reason.

    Faith without reason is cultist. Reason without faith is denial. But faith supported by reason is “a tough nut for the Devil to crack.” Until local parishes can rectify their ability to logically and reasonably teach our faith, they will never be able to support Pope Benedict XVI’s vision of a smaller, purer church on which to grow.

  9. I think the only “vision” implied by this is the priority of purity in the Church — even at the expense of size (e.g., as in those who walked away from Our Lord due to “hard” sayings, etc.). I don’t think we need read anything more into it.

  10. It is sad but it is sad that anyone’s pride would put themselves above God. It is what has to be. I’m all for B16 doing this.

  11. I think having a smaller Church is inevitable, if the Church lives up to what it is called to do: transmit the Apostolic Faith in its entirety. Sure, we can increase our numbers by appealing to the lowest common denominator, taking soft action on the rampant heresy, schism, and apostasy in our ranks, and dilute the teaching of the Gospel; but then we begin to become more of a “World’s Church,” instead of Christ’s Church.

    As it has been said before, replacing the wishy-washy Bishops with those of more Orthodox leanings will offend a number of people, and they will invariably leave; but so what? They have already left in spirit, many of whom are actually excommunicated latae sententiae for their heresy. It would be better for the Bishops to take a stand and openly declare those living in obstinate heresy to be excommunicated, than to let their views go unchallenged as though they were perfectly acceptable and Catholic.

    The Gospels make clear that Christ never viewed the majority of those who followed him to be disciples. Narrow is the way, which few will find; and many are called, but few are chosen.

    1. Thomas,
      You assume a great amount of authority to declare some bishops to be heretics in need of removal. If they are indeed obviously heretics and are tolerated by the Pope and other bishops, does that not make all of the hierarchical magisterium complicit in heresy, and therefore not worthy of our respect either? If they have not seen fit to declare the heresy, by what authority do you? “Smaller but purer” is indeed a dangerous doctrine if it leads us to think that we are the only legitimate authority. That kind of certainty might wind up eliminating any need for faith.

      1. Daniel,

        Some current and retired bishops are “on the record” as holding heretical views and support programs and policies that are in direct contradiction to Church teaching. As a member of the faithful, Thomas relies on the legitimate authority of the Magisterium and Catholic understanding of scripture to make an observation and urge that the sinner be reproved. Surely you can’t object to this–don’t you want to safeguard your own rights as you so often call into question Church teaching and ecclesiology? Next, if you read Church history you will notice that the Church has always been beset by heresy, and it does not follow that the Church is then never worthy of our respect. Instead we respect, marvel at, and love those saints and laboring souls who have been salt and light despite the world, the flesh and the devil. Next, it is not up to Thomas to “thin” the Church, nor does he have the power to do so–though we could lose a few people if he is truly overbearing… Lastly, I am happy that you have seized upon the concept of authority. Now, by what authority do you reject Church teaching (as you often do in blog commentary)?

      2. Scott,
        I don’t reject dogma–I’m not sure what you are referring to when you claim this–(and I’m a bit taken aback at your insistence that I am somehow an opponent), but I am compelled by my God-given reason and my desire to internalize my Faith in God (Who hears and sees into the secret place) to ask open-ended questions. Truth has nothing to fear from questions. Obedience is not fully obedient if it is blind or closed-minded. To understand, and then to love what is true is the ultimate basis for true obedience. The beauty of the Catholic Tradition throughout history is that has rejected mere fundamentalism or dogmatism and promoted thought and creative expression towards an ever deeper understanding and experience of Faith. Pax.

  12. The thing is are we not all God’s children? So doesn’t he want us all to be with him? So, one by one, sooner or later we must turn towards him. Some never do … and that is their hell. And so, is it not our duty to help others turn towards Him, one lost soul at a time?

    There is a hymn: We are the Church, the Body of Christ … so given that … and that we must bring all souls to Christ, the church must be grow bigger. Why can’t it grow bigger and purer? Why must it be smaller and purer? I am truly puzzled.

  13. Pope Benedict XVI has not called for a smaller Church, though I’ve seen that claim made by two very different groups: Catholics who, from all appearances, dearly *hope* that the number of the saved is as few as the number of grapes left after the pickers have passed, and who want as little to do as possible with those who aren’t saved; and Catholics who want the Pope to be the big meanie of their fantasies, so that they may be confirmed in their righteousness in judging the Church.

    1. Yeah, that’s the distinction, isn’t it. He’s not *calling for* a smaller church. He certainly wants a purer Church (certainly also what Christ wants), and if the expense of that is that people will leave, then so be it. But no one WANTS a smaller Church, and those who do are sick.

      God help us from ever becoming a clique of the (self-)righteous with no room for sinners.

      I read one guy commenting on a blog one time who said how he was “forced” to go to a “Novus Ordo parish” and that he was so appalled by the lack of reverence he perceived during the Eucharistic prayer that he wished he had had a Sten submachine gun so he could stand in the back of the church and mow them all down. That sort of attitude says it all.

  14. I have no idea how Hans Küng and Charles Curran have no been excommunicated and the faithful warned against them. And there are some of those on the “right” who routinely denounce and calumniate the last few popes. All of these people are presenting their private opinions as consonant with Catholic Tradition, and it’s not.

  15. There is nothing to add–everyone beat me to it. All I can see is that we need to pray, pray
    and pray some more for our own families salvation and all who seek. It is especially difficult in these
    pagan times with the multi distractions to draw us away.

  16. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, now Blessed, said in a film by Anne Petrie that she was not looking for great numbers of sisters in her order, but rather dedicated ones. She said that they should have a zeal to help the poor, the naked and the leper. She said that if they didn’t have this zeal, that they should pack up and go home. A missionary of Charity was to be a conduit of God’s love and should cleave to Christ as the major focus of her status, not just be another worker. And so I agree with the pope. Enormous crowds of lukewarm people do nothing for the Church or for God. We should focus on making ourselves pleasing to God rather than enlist people who really do not believe in or love God. It is unfortunate there are so many mediocre Catholics; for not to be on fire for Jesus may make for no trip to Heaven.

    1. Blessed Mother Teresa has some wisdom to offer here. She did not go around explicitly trying to convert people. Rather, her position was that conversion was a personal matter between the person and God.

      What she understood her “job” to be was, instead, to see the face of Jesus in others, and to let them see the face of Jesus in her and her sisters who served them. That is, she brought Jesus to them and let them experience His love.

  17. I will not second Guess the Holy Father on the size of the Church.

    The media isn’t as important as the message (but please keep the Holy Father away from Twitter!).

    I wish the church would get put aside flowery language for a moment and speak directly to the people in language they can understand, look them (me) in the eye and say, “Artificial means of contraception is sinful, and here is why…” and then explain the biblical, moral and theological basis for the churche’s teaching on this doctrine in simple language. Do this without fear, over and over, for every doctrine and dogma, clearly explaining each time how, as Children of God and members of the Catholic faith, God gives us the strength to actually be holy.

    I’ll bet many Catholics will leave. And I’ll be many Evangelicals will say, “It was never expained to me like that!” and will join. I’ll bet God will take care of membership.


  18. My husband and I used to listen to and discuss the interviews with B16, then Card. Ratzinger. We thought that he was referring to Jesus’s question: When I return will there be any faith on earth. It seemed to us that the Church was diluting the teaching of Christ eg. my brother-in-law converted to the Church but was never told that the Eucharist was the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ Risen from the dead. The Church’s teachings on abortion and contraception that go back to Her very roots are under constant attack and are not widely held by every practicing catholic. Also, how much do we trust–St. Faustina was not given all her teachings for nothing–we tend to trust in God’s Providence rather than our own abilities. Most people tend to work without ceasing and omit to add the prayer dimension first. The true, trusting believers are few and far between if you look at the billions who have been called.

    I do not think that B16 was belittling the Church’s efforts, nor do I think he was telling the Church to hold back. He was merely looking at biblical prophecy and at the way Christendom has crumbled and at the rest of the world which is sparsely populated by Christians. Those Churches that are flourishing in Africa and India etc.. are still a drop in the bucket in comparison with the numbers of non-believers in those places.

  19. The point is not “ooh, we should draw back”. It’s that the Church shouldn’t try only to be attractive; it should always be trying to attract people to Christ (like Mary, always pointing to Christ). It’s not that we should try for a smaller church, but that we should continue to do what Jesus says (ie, preach the Gospel to all nations) without looking solely at numbers for evidence of our obedience. “I’m afraid that we might temporarily lose a few people by telling the truth, but we’ll deal with that” is different from “Out, all you lukewarm scumsuckers!”

  20. Look at major social trends – they are toward individualization and concepts of human rights that are out of step with Church teaching. Let’s not kid ourselves that, in the short- to medium-term, that the Church will significantly slow down, let alone reverse, those trends. In this hostile environment, many Catholics have been and will be lost to the faith.

    The Church has two options. Dilute God’s teaching, adapt it to trends, make it trendy again. Perhaps the Church would grow again. Yet who wants a diluted Catholic Church? If I wanted a trend-driven, cool, hip church I’d attend a Protestant church.

    Second option – remain true to core beliefs, animate core believers, evangelize from a position of assuredness. The numbers will be fewer, but will see us through the storm.

    Pope Benedict XVI’s analysis and approach seem right to me.

  21. When Jesus gave the Bread of Life discourse, a lot of people left Him. They could not or would not accept what He was saying to them. And Jesus let them go. Indeed, He even asked the Apostles if they too wanted to leave.

    Jesus was not concerned with numbers or the size of his following. But that does not mean that He did not and does not want everyone to follow. Most important though was speaking Truth. The Light of truth was and is the most loving thing to do, even if some will turn away from the Light.

    That some might avoid the Light is a part of free will. So, it should not bother us that such will happen. If we turn down the light, or put a basket over the light, it might be less harsh to their eyes, but they are then condemned to live in darkness or, at most, twilight.

    However, if we remain confident in being a light to the world, even knowing that some might draw away, some of those that do intially draw away will become accustomed to the light and the Church will grow.

    1. “However, if we remain confident in being a light to the world, even knowing that some might draw away, some of those that do intially draw away will become accustomed to the light and the Church will grow.”

      Yes, this.

  22. Sadly this reminds me of an experience I had one time…upon joining a new parish I decided to become involved
    with the Women’s Bible Study group. At my first venture there I was surprised to see less than 1/2 dozen
    women…maybe 5 at the time even though the group had been meeting for over 10 years! When I expressed
    my amazement at how small the group was ( I had joined not only hoping to learn more about the Bible but
    also to meet new friends) a member said to me “WE like it that way! ” As off-putting as the remark seemed at
    the time I hung in there and we now have doubled the membership in afew short years…but the “attitude”
    still is there… When suggesting we might actively try to recruit new members there is resistance…subtle but there. are many who like to keep things just as they are and not change ( a normal human response to change) and complain that if we were to increase our numbers we would no longer be able to fit comfortably around our
    accustomed oval table to the excuse perhaps not everyone would get a chance to speak and contribute ideas..and other equally un-Christian
    r esponses. I know this is a really infinitessimal comparison to the Pope’s comments …and I don’t thiink he
    is meaning to insulate the Church from new members…but there is an attitude prevalent among Catholics
    to isolate truth…as though protecting it . I think the Church Jesus had in mind to bring about the
    salvation of humankind should not have boundaries…but should be open to all who would believe…and in
    that sense be a lot more welcoming than it is in most instances. I know from our bible studies “the remnant”
    that is referred to implies few will remain, in the end, faithful to the gospel message. In that case we had
    all better be prepared to throw outselves on the Infinite Mercy of God! But maybe the remnant comes about
    not thru the lack of faith but dwindling population due to artificial birth control, abortion on demand, euthanasia
    and all the evils responsible for today’s zero population growth we are witnessing in some countries. The Pope
    just came back from a trip to the British Isles where he reached out with great love and compassion to our
    separated brethren…and he, like Teresa of Calcutta, believes strongly in the evangelical effect of Christian love as expressed in the works of mercy.

  23. I don’t see the “smaller but purer” belief in the Pope’s words on the plane. However, I do see one problem with the belief: Judas was among the Twelve.

  24. Smaller and purer are mutually exclusive terms for a Church that claims catholicity as a credal hallmark. This is indeed a dangerous meme for Catholics, unless we are prepared to excise the last two verses from Matthew’s gospel.

    The “size” of the Church, perhaps like the “exact hour,” is not a matter for human determination, but God’s.

    1. Todd,

      The Church has been at its best when it is under persecution; at those times it is small and pure. So the terms aren’t “mutually exclusive”. In the first century, the Church was still catholic (meaning whole and universal) even though it was very small and very pure. I think you misunderstand the pope; he’s not playing a “game” where he purposefully sets out to make the Church smaller. In fact, he’s been trying to do the opposite by trying to bring back in the SSPX, Anglicans, and the Orthodox. So he’s not trying to “determine” the size of the Church (as you put it)–except by expanding it! He just knows, and is warning the faithful, that the Church must return to preaching the whole Gospel and without compromise, and doing so will result in “worldly” Catholics exercising their free will by jumping ship. The pope is trying to do precisely what you and Jesus want him to do (as the Gospel of Matthew directs): preach the Gospel to all nations. The Gospel is radical, unblinking, and challenging, and people have fled from it from the beginning. Peace.

  25. I sat in the pews of an overflowing church for years. I watched each Sunday as the young girls and young mothers paraded in with their short skirts and cleavage showing. I listened Sunday after Sunday as we “Sang a New Church” into being with guitars and tamborines. I attempted to pray all the while listening to the conversations of the people behind me about what they were doing after Mass, who was going on vacation, and where to go for lunch. I continued to count the lay people that were “participating” in the liturgy as the Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist became Ordinary Ministers of the Eucharist. I watched the children after Mass running through the church to get up to the altar to ring the bells. Of the times I managed to make it to confession in the middle of a Saturday afternoon before the 15 minutes of allotted time was up, I sat alone or with 1 or 2 people. I can’t tell you how many husbands and wives I’ve seen divorce and remarry with both families still sitting in Church together. I know PERSONALLY how many communicants take birth control pills or are sterilized and gawk as we arrived with our 6 children. All the while, the only sermon I ever heard was the importance of being inclusive and loving, stories about movies from the 1980s, and why we should consider adopting a “snowflake” baby. After much prayer and suffering, we then decided to attend an SSPX chapel near our home. It is a decision we are at peace with. The Church is quite on Sunday, except for the choir singing Marian or Latin hymns. Our children are soothed by the sounds rather than “moved” to dance and tap their feet. I’ve learned more about the lives of the Saints that I ever could imagine. I’ve not heard one single sermon where the priest has inserted his “personal” experiences or love of ice-cream. Confession has run over just a bit on a few occasions and Mass has been 10 minutes late–with no complaints. The chapel is never full. Many people stop by for awhile, and after a few months, leave. It’s hard. If the modern Catholic church had the guts to do any of this, the Churches would empty out in less than three months.

    1. OutofTowner,
      When (not if) the pope offers a personal ordinariate to fully regularize the SSPX, I hope the SSPX clergy and all of their flock accept. I hope you do your part to keep the members together and offer a welcome response to the pope’s offer.
      I’m not sure I completely agree with your analysis as to why people leave the SSPX after a few months. When all the news broke a while back concerning the SSPX, I attended a chapel twice as a sign of my welcome and solidarity, as well as from academic curiosity. While I heard the best homily I’ve ever heard (a reminder that the lay faithful are also called to poverty, chastity and obedience–though according to their vocation/state in life), the members were also chilly and cliquish (maybe they thought I was there from “academic curiosity”–lol!), and I felt uneasy upon receiving the Eucharist. Other people I have met have had a similar experience. If the SSPX is regularized, I believe the sources of my reservations will be resolved, and over time the chapels should actually grow despite their demanding preaching and norms (though I will stay in my current parish). My prayers.

  26. If you continue a little bit further along in his response to the interviewer’s question on the flight from Rome to Edinburgh, Pope Benedict said: “…to the extent that she (the Church) is not out for for herself as a strong and powerful body in the world, that wants power, but is simply the voice of another, she becomes truly transparent for the great figure of Christ…”


    Because the Chuch has often been perceived as being a large, self-serving, worldy institution, I believe our holy father is making the point that he wants to see a Church which, while still having large numbers, is not “strong and powerful” (in worldly terms) but rather “small and pure” (as in the early Church) and thereby able to reflect the Spirit our gentle master Jesus Christ.

  27. The more that bishops and priests speak in accordance with the teachings of the Church, there will be more “Catholics” who will tune out. Many are those who may come from Catholic families and enjoy a Catholic identity, but who do not agree with what the Church teaches.

    Some will continue to participate in the Church – yet will keep trying to get the Church to to see the “error of their ways” in terms of women priests, birth control, abortion, etc. Others may opt out, coming to church only at times such as weddings and funerals (and maybe Christmas and Easter) — OR, in the event of tragedy in their lives.

    As our society deepens its secularistic and atheistic direction, I think fewer “cradle Catholics” who have never mined the depths of their faith, will really want to maintain their identity as Catholics. Their faith may be perceived as a liability in their social environment. And, like the seeds that fell on ground that was not conducive to growth, any remaining seeds of their faith may wither and die – but may somehow, sometime be born again?

    However, as Msgr. Pope indicates, maybe there are some more effective ways of getting the Church’s message across. How many women, for example, have appreciated the beauty of Mulieris Dignitatum – when I first read the Pope’s words, I saw myself and my faith in an entirely new light. How many have been exposed to the Theology of the Body? Our faith offers so very much that is beautiful beyond words – but so much of the richness has never been communicated in ways that touch the heart and soul as it was meant to do.

    Somehow we have to recognize the various “niche markets” that require different kinds of communication – from young to old – within and outside the church – and target the message to the different audiences in creative and loving ways.

    Parishes could have libraries of various communications vehicles – novels (like Michael O’Brien’s for example), Lighthouse Catholic media kiosks – with the best Catholic speakers on so many diverse subjects, orthodox Catholic website lists, films and videos etc. There could be billboards, commercials (like the great Catholics Come Home), Fr. Barron’s new show on TV, etc. People need to be aware of all the resources available.

    There should be a call for the various Catholic young people who have gone into the communications field to come forward with their best ideas. So many people have never really had their faith explained to them – so many see it as a faith of “don’ts” as opposed to the magnificant tapestry that it is.

    Sorry I’ve gone on so long – but I am so happy Msgr. Pope brought up this topic. And, I think that the Church may appear to get smaller in the immediate future – however, the seeds being sown will result in more and better fruit than ever.

  28. I find the Pope’s phrase hopeful and encouraging…which is exactly his point in proclaiming these words at this particular time in Church History…..so that the “numbers game” of the media and the shouts of the dissenters not
    take away the spirit and hope of the faithful…The Pope is close to the Lord of Truth and is not stating a preference here for a small and isolated church…good heavens, he just came back from a grueling trip abroad proclaiming the truth of the one, holy and apostolic church to our separated brethren in hopes they will come home. He has
    made numerous gestures to all who seek the truth to join and become one with us. Hardly the actions of someone who is looking to insulate and isolate. He is giving encouragement to those who are holding fast in these tumultous times…and not to lose hope. …though we may be small in numbers now if we remain true to
    Christ we can do great things! Do no dispair!

  29. The first time I heard the “dangerous doctrine” was in about 1990 when Bishop Wright (L.A. diocese?) gave a short interview for U.S. News and World Report regarding the future of the Church.

    Thank you, Msgr. Pope, for bringing up this very important point. “If we are shrinking…” is also, I believe, at the core of the problem: We are, or the theologians are, not communicating the faith in a way that is understandable to the modern person.

    The starting point is always the Holy Eucharist, not us. Many in the pews come faithfully but have little understanding of what they are doing there. The pastor’s overestimate the level of faith knowledge of their parishioners. They don’t want to “talk down” to the laity which, of course, is true. But there is a way to explicate the faith that is not demeaning and yet is very revealing.

    Is the teaching Mass allowed anymore? I went to one after college many years ago and found it very helpful to my understanding of the liturgy of the Holy Eucharist. If we start with that, if we explain what the Holy Eucharist is about and how that liturgy is the source and summit of our worship and how nothing supersedes it, at least God cannot say we did not try. It’s not so much the bottom line that counts but whether we made an enthusiastic effort – or not. After that, we have to “let go and let God”, as they say.

  30. OUT OF TOWNER: Am so happy to hear you have found the perfect Church ( SSPX) even though it must be so boring for you sitting there with all “the saints” and “super-perfect Christians”….What a burden and distraction
    it must have been for you in your former parish where you counted sinners all around you…and having to “count”
    all those people you KNEW were on the pill or sterilized going up toreceive the Body and Blood of our Saviour….
    especially difficult when what you really wanted to do was put your head down and praise and thank the Lord
    you had just received and not be bothered by all the “sin” around you. I am so glad to hear you no longer have
    to do that in your “new” Catholic Church. I wish I could follow you there but I must confess I am a sinner too, like those qwful people you use to hang out with in your old Church…because I am one of them I quess I am forever
    destined to remain where my Lord and Savior lives….But not a worry for you….you don’t need Him! I quess the
    peace and quiet…and the music and great homilies are an acceptable trade-off despite no Real Presence.
    You are right….my Church is FILLED with sinners…all needing the Great Physician….whose mercy we all
    depend upon….even the self-rightous…even perhaps MOSTLY the self-rightous! I wish you the best in your
    new church …but if you should ever decide to come back you will be most welcome! But you will have to admit
    your are one of us! Not just in the sacrament of Confession…but in the reality of the world around you.

    1. Some good points, Shamrock, especially about the lack of the Real Presence at SSPX liturgies. However, the pastor at Out of Towner’s former parish should have set a standard of respectful quiet during worship. The liturgy should inspire joy and awe in the assembly, not raucousness. (It is not a part-ay.)

      While we don’t want to go the way of the old Donatist church, they did have some good points we might learn from. Yes, we are Church of sinners BUT! we are called to accommodate our lives to the law, and not to accommodate the law to our lives. I don’t learn that much from sinners except the occasional negative lesson on how to not live. Every sinner should hook up with a saint in their parish (you know who they are).

      I spotted the two women in my parish who were not making baskets for the parish fundraiser (who told me that my four-month pregnancy was too late to do anything about) but were setting up the Bible study, going on retreats, having discussions on Church teaching, etc. They were dynamic, orthodox, and relevant, and became indispensable to my life. They taught me to Pray, Preach, and Practice.

      1. While I am by no means an SSPX fan, the DO have the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Their priests, though illicitly ordained and operating outside any normal canonical or ecclesiastic boundaries, do validly consecrate the Eucharist. The same goes for Orthodox churches as well.

        A Catholic is allowed to attend an SSPX chapel if not other option exists. The problem is that for most of these people, they DO have other options. And now that the Holy Father has released Summorum Pontificorum and the Tridentine Mass is becoming more widespread, the excuses are becoming fewer.

      2. Rosemary, what do you mean your four-month pregnancy was too late to “do anything about?”

  31. I think the pope knows that Catholicism will be going underground in Europe and the West as it struggles and fails against the onslaught of militant secularism. In thirty years, this country’s vision of freedom of religion will have relegated it to the private sphere completely. Knowing this, the Holy Father believes smaller but purer is the “yeast” from which it can once again grow when the smoke clears and conditions become favorable.

  32. Rosemary…and how do you judge the saints from the sinners in your parish? By the number of committees
    they serve on? By the number of times you see them in line at Confession? I still maintain we are all sinners
    and there are no known saints this side of Heaven for sure. Of course by admitting I am a sinner I am admitting all kinds of things such as the need not to judge so as not to be judged! As for the “bedlam” at mass from the little ones …let us consider where we are when we are at mass…WE ARE AT THE FOOT OF THE CROSS! If that isn’t enough to keep you focused while the two month old is wailng behind you consider the fact that at the Cross
    life is/was at its worst..and its best. Certainly chaos was the order of the day…but the women who remained faithful did not allow themselves to be distracted even though .there may even have been afew babies crying in the background. I am not suggesting we eliminate the decorum that is due out of respect for where we are and
    what we are engaged in doing. However to criticize parents and their “unruly” children because they have disturbed
    you…when that happens perhaps we should just praise God we have young families in our midst. The Episcopalin
    Church down the street from us is in danger of closing because there are no young families to support their future church. Yes, it would be considerate for a parent to remove a noisy child to the Crying Room if possible
    but there may be good reasons why at the time they cannot ( for example too crowded My point to
    OutofTowner was that if we cannot tolerate those around us at Mass or find ourselves constantly criticizing those
    who are in the communion line inwardly …especially just after receiving communion ourselves…then we need to
    see about the “plank in our own eye”…and just why we are at Mass in the first place…especially if we are using the
    precious time we have to be with the Lord taking down all those around us. …and perhaps meditate upon the
    gospel story of the Pharisee and the Publican. I am happy to hear some women in your parish were so kind
    and helpful to you in your spiritual life. Would that would be the experience of all. Not sure just what you were
    getting at when you mentioned they told you that your 4 month pregnancy was too late to do anything about?
    Not sure that is the kind of advice Catholic women should be giving to anyone!

    1. Shamrock please calm down. As was pointed out the SSPX does have the Real Presence (as do the Orthodox). Since the Vatican has stated they are not in schism then you and I should be content to accept the Church’s declaration upon that matter. Yes their status is irregular. There is a concern whether the absolutions and marriages are valid. That is since (plainly put) they do not have jurisdiction. However, I see no reason if the local ordinary (usually the bishop) decided they could not be given jurisdiction. However, I believe that even if there are bishops that may consider it they are waiting for Rome’s discussion with the SSPX to come to a conclusion. Yes their ordinations are illicit but still valid- there is a big difference. Despite your contempt for them there is a reason they are growing. It usually is because people are looking for something the local parish is not offering- a traditional Catholic spirituality. This definitely does not trump licit sacraments, etc but sadly they are not always offered at all local parishes and or at reasonable times (confession primarly in mind here). Obviously neither are you familar with the contempt and ridicule many traditional minded Catholics (not just SSPX) have been forced to under the past few decades

      As suggested I reflected upon the parable of the pharisee and the publican this came to mind:

      And the pharisee lifted up his eyes to God and said … Thank you God that I am not like those who get upset by crying babies (though crying babies were not mentioned as a distraction) during Mass or those are scandalized to see those practicing birth control receiving Holy Communion in disregard of the fact that they are in a state of mortal sin and are about to commit another. For this I thank you Lord. Also God I thank you that I am content to receive homilies that are all about tolerating other people’s sin- unlike that filthy and unclean publican over there. Unlike him God I am happy to silently observe extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion above necessary numbers and often in direct disobedience (well usually upon someone’s part in the diocese) to the Church’s authority parade in formation down the aisle. Though the Church discourages it God I find it particulary meritorious that I never make an objection and ridicule and verbally scath all that do. Above all God I thank you that unlike the filthy and ignorant and sanctimonious, etc, etc publican over there I can keep my soul focused upon you at the FOOT OF THE CROSS despite the fact that the Children are playing tag in the sanctuary the rock band is playing the Beatles yellow submarine song (albeit with different lyrics of course) everyone is talking about something what they had to eat yesterday or about their niece Susy Q losing a tooth and the pastor is showing off by doing verbal cartwheels down the aisle. I thank you Lord that I do not find these things objectionable but am fortified by the Sacrament I receive at every Mass so I possess the strength and indignation whip and crucify all those who do. Amen

      Tolerating the sinner and the sin are not the same thing. To expect a person to be comfortable and approve such an environment is silly and contravenes all the counsels of the saints and even to disregard Lot’s example. Yes the Church is a refuge for sinners but not for sinning. I think you miss the point on that. Since primarily parents (not the priest) are responsible to God for teaching their children the love of God it is their responsibility to raise them in the most conducive environment for that. As such that is what Outoftowner has done. I disagree with it due to the irregular status and probable issues of validity of marriage, confession, etc but I can definitely understand it.

      Perhaps Shamrock we may both agree on one thing that both of us are sinners and perhaps should be more careful about applying the parable of the Pharisee to others- it was primarily meant to be applied to ourselves first and possibly then to others. Now that both of us have got that out of our system lets return to the topic.

      As a convert I was first turned away from the Church by the poor example of so many during and after Mass. You see disrespectful behavior says I really don’t care and or believe. It wasn’t till years later that I was able to learn what the Church truly taught. I think that is what is also keeping many away. To many in the Evangelical Protestant community the Catholic Church seems very lax on moral issues and are scandalized by the actions (well lets be blunt and say sins) of many Catholics. those creating such scandal are incredibly uncharitable as well as those who permit it or tolerate it. It is also contrary to our Lord’s command to go and sin no more.

      I am very thankful that the Holy Father knows these things very well. To be honest no offense but I think the people who view the Pope’s statement as dangerous grossly misunderstand him. There has long been a tendency (well at least since the 70s) to please everyone and not call a spade a spade. Pope Benedict is determined to change that and if that means people who disagree with the Church leave then so be it. For the Church to be faithful to Her mission She must follow our Lord. If that means She doesn’t please everyone then so be it. Of all the things people accuse Christ of they have never accused Him of trying to please everyone to the neglect of God and hopefully no one will be able to say it of us.

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