An Out-of-Touch Pope?

Disappointment has been a common reaction from “progressive” sources inside and outside Germany in response to Pope Benedict’s September visit to his homeland. These disappointed progressives say they hoped Benedict would speak a good word for changes that they want in the Church, and he didn’t. Here, then, was an opportunity lost.

“A number of commentators and Catholics who followed the visit to Germany suggested that Benedict’s three decades in an office in Rome had put him further out of touch with the Church in their country,” writes Robert Mickens in The Tablet. Poor Benedict — if only he’d stayed in touch.

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What sort of changes do these people want? I am reminded of a friend’s lapidary observation that the progressives’ long-range goal is “Archbishop Patricia of Chicago attending a pro-choice rally with her partner Susan.” Be that as it may, the short-range list is familiar: married priests, the ordination of women, communion for the divorced and remarried, intercommunion with Protestants, approval of homosexual unions, a general loosening-up on sex, democratization of governance in the Church, and quite a bit else.

Alas, instead of opening the doors to any or all of these things, our out-of-touch pope insisted in Germany that the change that really counts is the one that begins in conversion of heart and flowers in the renewal of Christian living. That, to say the least, wasn’t what the disappointed progressives had been hoping to hear.

As one reflects on all this, several things come to mind.

One is that it’s a relevant question who is really out of touch, Benedict or those elements of the Church in Germany (and elsewhere) reflected in Mickens’ remark.

Consider that German Catholicism is very rich — wealthy, that is — largely because of the “church tax” obligingly collected for religious bodies by the German government. Here, of course, is a clear case of a potentially corrupting church-state entanglement that ecclesiastical leadership nonetheless complacently embraces and defends.

As a result of its wealth, the institutional church presents the alarming picture of an overgrown bureaucracy. “The Church in Germany is superbly organized,” Benedict said pointedly September 24 to the Central Committee for German Catholics, an umbrella group for lay organizations. “But behind the structures, is there also a corresponding spiritual strength, the strength of faith in the living God? We must honestly admit that we have more than enough by way of structure but not enough by way of Spirit.” But bear in mind that Benedict is out of touch.

Germany itself is among the most secularized countries in the Western world, and the state of religion there reflects that. Certainly there are many good German believers, and lots of them turned out enthusiastically for the pope’s visit and welcomed what he had to say. But there are others who, some time ago, took their stand on the fringes of German Christianity, and clearly their views were disproportionately reflected in the expressions of disappointment that the media were so pleased to report when the visit ended.

As for the changes championed by the progressives, without going their pros and cons yet again, it can be said that Benedict has considered them and concluded that accepting them would be a betrayal of the truth. Strange to say, the advocates of change take an old-fashioned, legalistic view of Catholic teaching and practice. From that perspective, change is always possible because teaching and practice express nothing more than time-conditioned human formulations and rules. That we may be touching on fundamental principles rooted in revelation itself seems not to occur to them. But many faithful Catholics understand that and were anything but disappointed by the words of the pope.


Finally, it’s important to point out that the disappointed critics missed the radical character of much that Benedict had to say. In this regard, I found genuinely remarkable his September 25 remarks in the Freiburg concert hall to an audience of committed Catholics, in which he pointed to the service that even secularization renders to the Church. Benedict said in part:

Secularizing trends — whether by expropriation of Church goods or elimination of privileges or the like — have always meant a profound liberation of the Church from forms of worldliness, for in the process she as it were sets aside her worldly wealth and once again completely embraces her worldly poverty…. Once liberated from material and political burdens and privileges, the Church can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world…live more freely her vocation to the ministry of divine worship and service of neighbor.

Pope Benedict was at pains to make it clear that “it is not a question here of finding a new strategy to relaunch the Church.”

Rather, it is a question of setting aside mere strategy and seeking total transparency, not bracketing or ignoring anything from the truth of our present situation, but living the faith fully here and now in the utterly sober light of day, appropriating it completely, and stripping away from it anything that only seems to belong to faith, but in truth is mere convention or habit.

I don’t hear many disappointed progressive Catholics, whether in Germany or the United States, addressing ideas like those. What I do hear is interminable chatter about their own privileges and rights. Is it possible they are a little out of touch?


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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