What Can Remnant Theology Teach Us about the Church Today?

In the first reading for Wednesday of the 25th week of the Year, Ezra laments the sins of the people that led to their exile in Babylon, but he is also grateful that God has now opened a door to return to the Promised Land and left “a remnant” of the people to rebuild. There is something for us to learn in the biblical theology of the remnant.

As a Catholic and a priest, I am stunned at the decline in Mass attendance that has occurred during my lifetime. When I was a young child, I remember jam-packed Masses: if you didn’t get there early, you’d have to stand. In those days (the 1960s) if you put up four walls, Catholics would fill them. There were long waiting lists for parochial schools. There were lots of religious sisters. There was not just one associate pastor or curate; there were two or three or even four.

Those days are largely gone. While there are still some large parishes in suburban areas, some of them even growing, the number of Catholics who attend Mass weekly has dropped from about 75 percent to under 25 percent since the 1950s. And although vocations are beginning to rebound, today’s situation is one of largely empty convents and rectories. A parochial vicar is unknown in many parishes, and in some parts of the country there isn’t even a resident pastor in each parish.

There is no way to describe this decline other than stunning. I can hear all the usual arguments about why swimming around in my brain: we abandoned tradition; no, we’re not progressive enough; there are too many rules; no, our problem is that we abandoned all the rules. Everyone has an explanation, and there is a lot of disagreement.

What might God be doing? What might He be allowing? I know that I’m skating on thin ice in attempting to consider this question, but please be assured that I am merely pondering it, not proposing a definitive answer. I have often asked the Lord, “What’s up with the Church? What has happened?” I don’t claim that I received a bolt from Heaven in answer, rather I came to the gradual conclusion that what we are experiencing is really nothing new. There is a biblical precedent that God has frequently seen fit to thin His ranks, to prune and purify His people. Theologians call this “remnant theology.”

Remnant theology is seen in both the Old and New Testaments. During critical periods, many (if not most) followers of God fell away such that only a remnant remained to begin again. Here are just a few of the many examples that can be found in Scripture:

      • The tribes of Judah and Levi – There were twelve tribes in Israel, but ten of them (the Ten Lost Tribes) were lost in the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 B.C. The prophets had warned the Northern Kingdom of its wickedness, but they refused to repent, and the foretold destruction came to pass. Those who did not die in the war were deported and assimilated into the peoples around them. Only a remnant, the tribes of Judah and Levi, survived in the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
      • A remnant of Judah – Judah also grew wicked and prophets warned of its destruction. The Babylonians then destroyed Judah, and Jerusalem with it, in 587 B.C. They deported the survivors to Babylon. Eighty years later, the Persians conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Jewish people to return to the Promised Land. Only a remnant went back, however; most chose to stay in the Diaspora, preferring Babylon to the land promised by God.
      • Gideon’s army – Gideon had an army of 30,000 and faced the Midianite army of 60,000, yet God told him that his army was too large, and he should send home any soldiers who were afraid. So, Gideon told the soldiers that if they didn’t think they were up for this battle they could leave; 20,000 left. With Gideon’s army down to only 10,000, God said to him that his army was still too big and that he should observe the men as they drank from a nearby stream. Three hundred of them lapped up the water with their tongues like dogs! God told Gideon let all the others go home. Gideon won that day with those 300 men whom the Lord had chosen. God thinned His ranks and chose only a remnant as His true soldiers (cf Judges 6 and 7).
      • Jesus and large crowds – Some of Jesus’ most difficult sayings came when there was a large crowd present: He taught against divorce (Matt 5 and 19, Mark 10); He declared that no one could be His disciple unless he renounced his possessions, took up his cross, and followed Him (e.g., Luke 14); He taught on the Eucharist, causing many to leave and no longer walk in His company (Jn 6).
      • The narrow road to salvation – Jesus lamented that the road to destruction is wide and many are on it, while the road to salvation is narrow and only a few find it (cf Mat 7:13-14). Yes, only a few, a remnant.

I would like to quote one last passage from Zechariah because it gets to the root of what God may be doing in our times, if my hunch is correct.

Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me!” declares the LORD Almighty. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn my hand against the little ones. In the whole land,” declares the LORD, “two-thirds will be struck down and perish; yet one-third will be left in it. This third I will bring into the fire; I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, ‘They are my people,’ and they will say, ‘The LORD is our God’ (Zechariah 13:7-9).

It is a shocking passage to be sure, but it shows God’s purpose in thinning His ranks. Although we are always free to stay or go, there is something very mysterious about why God allows so many to stray. There seem to be times during which God allows many to depart, even “causes” them to depart, as this passage describes. It is a hard mystery to stomach, but I understand one aspect of it when I consider my rose bushes.

In November it is pruning time here in the Northeast. My mighty rose bushes, some of them eight feet tall, will be pruned back to just one foot off the ground—and I do it on purpose! If my roses are to thrive next year, the pruning must be done. The roses do not understand what I do, but I know why I do it. Although it is painful, it is necessary. God, too, knows what He is doing and why. We cannot fathom it any more than my rose bushes can understand why I prune them. In the passage above, the one-third who remain must also be purified, refined as in fire. When it is done, they will be pure gold. Those who remain and who accept purification will call on God’s name. They will be a people, a Church, after His own heart.

To me it seems clear that the Lord is pruning His Church. He is preparing us for spring. We are in fact enduring a difficult winter, but we’re being purified, cleansed. These are tough days for the Church, but I can already see signs of a great spring ahead. There are many wonderful lay movements and growth areas in the Church. I am very impressed with the caliber of men entering the priesthood; they love the Lord and His Church and deeply desire to speak the truth in love. In my own convent, we have more than 25 young sisters of the Servants of the Lord, a wonderful relatively new missionary order. They, too, love the Lord and His Church and want to spread His Gospel.

Though the number of practicing Catholics has diminished, I see greater fervency in those who remain. In my parish there are many who are devoted to prayer, bible study, and praise of God. Eucharistic piety is stronger in the Church today through Eucharistic adoration and daily Mass. On the Internet there are many signs of excitement and zeal for the faith. Many wonderful blogs and websites are emerging to strengthen Catholics. EWTN is doing wonderful work and many Catholic radio stations have also begun.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. God has pruned us and is purifying us. I have no doubt that there are still some difficult winter days ahead before a full spring sets in, but God never fails. He is renewing His Church and preparing us for what lies ahead.

It is going to take a stronger and purer Church to endure the cultural tsunami that has been rolling in. The first waves hit in the late 1960s and successive ones look to be even more destructive. Western culture as we have known it is gradually being swept away. The Church will have to be strong and pure in order to endure the days ahead, to rescue those we can, and to help rebuild after the terrible waves have done their damage.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Can Remnant Theology Teach Us about the Church Today?

31 Replies to “What Can Remnant Theology Teach Us about the Church Today?”

  1. Hi Monsignor, I believe your post here speaks “volumes”. We can only surmise that those who live through this purification of the Church will like be those who seek to rebuild our society/culture – one that is built on Godly principles: a just society. However that may look, may “His Will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”.

  2. Robots work and don’t worship. With the advent of robotics replacing human labor, I feel there will be a demand to be filled for laborers for the harvest. If manufacturers have no use for the individual souls, the Church should plan well to meet the calling to offer a purpose and usefullness for the outcast. Look to the remnants of the Church’s past that made it the thriving refuge before modern industrialization and the computer age robbed civilization of it’s moral compass. These things were not evil of themselves but became the instruments of greed and power and can still be useful in God’s plan for the redemptive efforts of the Church’s next mission. Capitalism will have to be the incentive with social conservatism the moral compass founded on Catholic docterine, otherwise you will have neither.

  3. Dear Monsignor
    While it is true that the Church is diminishing in size- that those who remain are becoming a “remnant”, I am all too aware that far too many of those who remain are less than faithful to the magisterium. The Catholics I am referring to call themselves, “liberals or progressives” and their beliefs clash with the magisterium on issues such as birth control, gay marriage, a male only clergy, access to communion for the divorced, etc ,etc. Sadly, these heretics are not confined to the laity. We see far too many of them amongst the clergy, and yes, I must say it- even at the highest level of our church.
    We can cope with a smaller Church -a remnant as you say-but we need a purer Church, and a much purer, more faithful and more courageous clergy. I live in hope that positive change will occur soon. It is extremely depressing to observe the widening splits within the Church between the truly faithful and those who want to “modernize” it, make it more “relevant” and in the process, destroy it.

  4. Paradoxically, those who stay have a choice as do those who leave. God’s plan will be fulfilled, but we are still free to go. “To Whom…?” We are still free to accept or reject Him.

  5. God has to do things when His bishops and priests fail Him, refusing not to serve themselves instead of God. That’s what He does to save people by Himself. Hopefully, the real servants will remain and continue to serve, and the rebellious will be broken and find humility before God, turn and also serve. Then, the sheep will not be so frustrated and afraid, and they will come back in, seeing that so many wolves have left or have been chained down.

  6. Thank you for another reason to keep trying to maintain my Faith. Sometimes, after reading the daily news of the world, I grow weak and begin to revert to a feeling of hopelessness. Satan and me were good buddies for a long time, and he does not let go very easily. Reading your essays help me very much to shake stuff off and keep my eyes and mind on what is most important. God bless you and all you do.

    PS: I love roses, too. They are the Flower of Mary.

  7. Well, Msgr., what you’ve stated is far more likely an example of why people are leaving The Church rather than “remnant theology”. The reason people are leaving The Church couldn’t possibly be because it’s the main way that God can get you and the rest of the all-male RC clergy to realize that you’re all doing a lot of things wrong, from The Pope down, could it? Most of you are so narrow minded and so closed minded that you have to come up with stuff like what you wrote. And since The Church is supposedly the people, perhaps it’s time you listened to us for a change. //// I think there are only two choices: The RCC will change or it will die. One last thing: 650 years of The Inquisition, the silence of The Vatican during The Holocaust, and decades, if not centuries (probably centuries) of sexual child abuse — The RCC has lost its moral authority. The clergy is the only group that needs pruning and purifying. And I have great hopes for The RCC now and in the future.

    1. Frances,
      NCR mentality predates the NCR by roughly 2,000 years, predicting and hoping for Church’s demise. You & your confrère’s just sit around and wait for another 2,000 years for that narrow-minded, closed-minded male Cleric (called the “High Priest” in Scripture) Who founded His Church to be proven wrong, for it to “die” as you predict, to have the gates of hell prevail against it. Get back to me and let me know how that works for you.

    2. The progressive socialist movement is active in the affairs of the Church in the Amazon regions and has been for quite some time. Their arguments are not about meeting the needs of the people and preserving the sound doctrines of the Church but rather the identity politics of neutering natural order with the false pretense that domineering male gender is the cause of all the world’s problems. The progressive models have been a abject failure throughout history.

  8. I totally agree with your article, Msgr.!

    With that said, though, I sometimes see the “smaller but more faithful Church” argument used by higher ups and lay people as an excuse to just “let people go”, rather than fighting for every soul.

    I know of a 100+ attendee Youth Group that was completely disbanded by a pastor because he felt it was not catechetical enough. When confronted by parents, one of his reasons was that our Church was to become “smaller” but more “faithful”.

    Also, in reference to the many scandals in the Church these days, I sense that some of the higher ups are using this “smaller but more faithful” as a reason for “business as usual” and “nothing to see here” rather than address real problems.

  9. I don’t think it’s a good idea to focus too much on Remnant Theology because there are too many willing to take it upon themselves to do the pruning. When I look at how Satan is deceiving and devouring through the Matrix, it is as if everyone is ” trapped in holes, hidden away in prisons, taken as plunder..” (cf. Isaiah 42:22). Ideology has become idolatry across the spectrum. Be a Christian.
    “All who are called by my name, I created for my glory”(Is 43: 7)
    I say God is just shaking things up ‘so that what is unshaken may remain’ (cf. Hebrews 12:27)

  10. But don’t individuals matter? The rose bush’s lost limbs are just parts of the bush. Individuals leaving the church are each individually precious, made in God’s likeness. If they’re obliterated, they don’t benefit from the church as a whole at some later date getting stronger. If individuals matter at all, I don’t see how a remnant theory helps. God made millions upon millions, but only wants like 5% to make it? I just don’t understand it.

    1. Absolutely individuals matter! Especially in God’s eyes. But even He will not MAKE them faithful. Everyone must choose. Those individuals who choose to leave are making a mistake.

  11. (a small joke) . . WOW!! That’s one tall and tough “Rose Brush”
    that man has to climb and cut with a “CHAIN SAW”

    Thank You MSGR. Charles Pope for your words of widom, today.

  12. I must say, I am always shocked to see a priest that is unable to read the signs of the times as clearly laid out in the Scripture.

    Here’s a brief summary:

    1. God establishes a covenant (not a contract) with his people. Adam -> Noah -> Abraham -> Moses ->David->Jesus.
    2. He is the strong party, of the covenant and his people the weak party.
    3. If his people obey the terms of the covenant, God blesses them.
    4. If his people disobey the terms of the covenant God curses them.
    5. The initial curses are medicinal: they are an invitation for repentance
    6. The next wave of curses are a warning that his people are hardening their hearts.
    7. The third wave is punitive: the curses are applied to their fullest.

    Let’s look at our situation shall we:
    1. Catholics have, en masse, contracepted. As a consequence, there are most likely more sacrilegious communions than communions received in a state of grace. Note: Contraception is not the greatest of the sins, neither is abortion: Sacrilegious communion is the gravest sin we could commit!
    2. Any priest worth his salt should know that this constitutes a clear violation of the covenant.
    3. Do I have to detail the rest? God sent us curses in the form of economic and physical woes (natural phenomenon). We did not listen. He then sent us priests who could not lead us to the truth. We did not repent.
    4. We’re reaching the clean-up phase.
    If American Catholic took the time to study the history of Eastern Rite Catholics in the middle east who have been repeating this cycle for the past two thousand years, they would understand that (a) this is not the end of the world, and (b) unless we offer sacrifices, fasting and true worship to God, he will clean house. In the end, He always wins.

    In the meantime, we will continue to be served inane sermons about God’s love and mercy, while sin, judgment, hell, the covenant and the curses are wholly disregarded.

    The woes against Israel in the Gospel were pronounced against its priests.

    Nothing has changed since.

  13. As I have progress farther into middle age, I note with dismay how fat I have become. This does not, however, justify me in asking, “What is God doing?” It is not God who is making me fat; I am doing that to myself. It is my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault — though not my MOST most grievous fault, sadly.

    It’s the same with Mass attendance. Don’t blame God. He has given us free will. It’s much like the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, except He has told us which chalice holds the Blood of Christ, and we still have to choose — well or poorly.

  14. Dangerous us vs them theology. Post-exilic Israel, as noted, considered itself a remnant. That remnant fractured into Pharisees, Essenes, Sadducees and more — each with their own self-contained theology on “who was pure and holy” and “who was not” — who belonged and who didn’t. Then Jesus came along and smashed it — said God’s love was open to all — especially to those who needed Him the most. And said the frame of reference for whose in and whose out resides not with any human being nor any human organization — religious or not. But with God. In fact, the only people considered to be “on the outside” in the Gospels were those that were “on the inside.” The irony of God. Gotta love it.

    People are leaving the Catholic Church because they don’t experience God’s presence there. And because “the lure of wealth” and the “anxieties of life” have choked off the kindergarten faith most Catholics grow up with. We can blame the unbeliever for not believing or we can leave the 4 walls of our churches and fervently seek to reach them where they are, as they are and then let the LORD do the rest.

  15. Monsignor, thank you, as always. Yes, we need to ask “What does God want us to learn or do, based on the situation?” My understanding is of The Liturgy of The Hours is start our daily waking we “Lord, open my lips. And my mouth will proclaim your praise.” Priests say “yes” to God when they go to seminary. But they also say “yes” many times before and after that “Yes”. Like them, we all must repeatedly turn our hearts to God. Sometimes many times a day. Like Joshua, we need to say “as for me and my house we will choose the Lord.”

  16. Thanks. Before recent landscaping remodeling at my parish, I trimmed the roses. I would quote the 15th chapter of St. John’s Gospel ” I am the the vine and you are the branches and my father the gardener. He will prune you so you will bear fruit in grater abundance.”

  17. For the parents who have devoted their lives to bringing their children up in the Catholic Faith, remnant theology poses more questions than answers. It becomes heartbreakingly personal when our twenty and thirty year old adult children decide to walk a different path. The constant news of cardinals, bishops and priests being on trial for abuse, the bickering between conservative and liberal Catholics, and the attacks on Pope Francis questioning everything he says, have led to a feeling of instability spiritually. When they do attend Mass, sadly, the lack of reverence before the Real Presence, the congregation talking before and after, watered down homilies, are not compelling. The secular world wins so often. Is this God’s strategy for a purer church? If so, our children are the collateral damage.

  18. “And whosoever shall cause one of these little ones that believe on me to stumble, it were better for him if a great millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea.”

    Seemingly, a majority of today’s theologians and Church hierarchy see that as an empty threat.

  19. Look to the holy family who restored original grace. But first consider that when original grace had been lost to our first parents, and therefore to the world, God prepared the way for the holy family, through covenants with Noah, Abraham, and Moses, and promises to David, and sacred scripture through prophets. However, people left these covenants, and eventually, only the holy family remained, so that the Christ could open scriptures and fullfil covenants and promises. The holy virgin was then the mother of the Church, as virgin receptive to the holy tradition of Israel, and as mother of God, intecessor for all humankind. She was also assumed into eternal salvation. When the Christ had founded his holy Church on the cross, baptism for entrance into his mystical body, one in being with the Trinitarian God, became possible for every human being. Biblical prophecy speaks of both individual conversion, collective establisment of peace, and eternal salvation. Christendom is about personal friendship, social ethics, and Heaven. God works on his Church to work through her. With the new covenant, the world will change, because the covenants are already fullfilled in the Christ, in the holy family, and in the Church. The uncertainty of centuries is consequence of one giant leap for humankind that was Jesus

  20. I have a question in reference to the line above, “In my own convent, we have more than 25 young sisters of the Servants of the Lord, a wonderful relatively new missionary order.” Is there a monastery and convent? Does this order have priests, too? The “Servidoras” are beautiful sisters with wonderful mission. God bless them.

  21. Um…

    It’s easy to find a parking place at the parishes where your beloved ideals are spewed.

    Where the Church just does what the Church did, get there early or park down the street.

  22. 1) Preach against sin (especially contraception, homosexuality, modernism etc)
    2) Celebrate the Extraordinary Form of the Mass
    3) Have copious hours of confession and adoration

    Do these things then yo will need a larger building.

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