The Constantinian Heathenism of the Church: Joseph Ratzinger and the Crisis of our Time

February 3, 2021
Crisis in the Church
“The appearance of the church in the modern era shows that in a completely new way it has become a church of heathens, and increasingly so: no longer, as it once was, a Church made up of heathens who have become Christians, but a Church of heathens, who will call themselves Christians, but have really become heathens. Heathenism is entrenched today in the church itself. That is the mark of the Church of our time and also of the new heathenism. This heathenism is actually in the church and a church in whose heart heathenism lives”
(Joseph Ratzinger, Hochland, October 1958)

With these incendiary words in an article shocking for its candor during a time when such things were just not said, a young Joseph Ratzinger burst onto the theological scene in Germany.  All was not well with the Church, despite outward appearances, and Ratzinger was convinced that the Church was in a deep crisis of faith requiring an equally deep theological response.  What is instructive in the quote isn’t just the blunt claim that the Church had been infected by “heathenism,” but also that these words were written in 1958 which gives the lie to the currently popular view among some conservatives that the reforms of Vatican II are responsible for the malaise in the Church.  All Vatican II did was to lift the lid off of the ecclesiastical libido and to thereby allow for the first time a full public expression of the unbelief, brewing for centuries, of the laity and the clerics alike.  Only this can explain why the putative “Catholic” culture of the pre conciliar Church collapsed almost overnight.  The vapid lunacy of the post conciliar Church was the product of the hollow and merely forensic “faith” of the pre conciliar Church.  There is only one Church and these shallow distinctions between the pre and post conciliar Church – – distinctions designed in order to assign blame based on your favored ecclesiastical ideology – – are useless as valid diagnostic tools.

Ratzinger was not alone in ringing the alarm, as many fellow ressourcement theologians, philosophers, Dorothy Day, and Catholic literary figures in the period between 1920-1960 were making similar claims. The signs of rot were there if you only had the eyes to see it. These prophets were largely ignored by Church leaders and were viewed with deep suspicion as crypto-modernists – – the charge of “modernism” being the new twentieth century version of “she’s a witch!” as it was indiscriminately deployed against both real modernists as well as the nouvelle theologie.   Church leaders were mainly focused on maintaining the façade/illusion of “fortress Catholicism” viewed as a rock-solid bulwark of unchanging “orthodoxy” standing firm against the evils of the modern world.  Ratzinger, and like-minded thinkers, knew that the “fortress” was in fact a house of cards as later events would confirm.

One of the thinkers who also raised the alarm was the French novelist George Bernanos.   I am currently reading a new reprint of an old book by Bernanos called “The Great Cemeteries Under The Moon.” The book is an account of what Bernanos witnessed in the Spanish civil war while living in Majorca.  First published in 1938 it is a scathing indictment of the Church’s alliance with the Franco regime and its turning a blind-eye to the State sponsored terrorism that Franco used in order to stay in power.  And pertinent to Ratzinger’s claim about the new heathenism in the Church, the main alarm Bernanos is raising is the same as in all of his novels. Namely, that the worldly, practical atheism of the Church was causing a numbing-down of her spiritual senses through a process of accommodation to the existential exhaustion of bourgeois European culture.

I mention the text by Bernanos in particular because it brings out the main point I want to make in this post.  Namely, that the “heathenism” that Ratzinger saw in the Church was of a far deeper kind, and involves a far deeper apostasy, than the heathenism of a moral and religious relativism that Ratzinger was concerned with at that time.  These are real concerns, and I too share them, but they are largely the bourgeois concerns of the leisured academic class (a class of which I am a member).  In other words, Ratzinger was correct, but insufficiently so (as he himself came to see), since the heathenism that Bernanos is pointing out is not just of the kind denounced in the usual jeremiads about the “corrupt worldliness of the Church” but rather an indictment of the Church’s blessing and embracing of worldly “power” as such that amounts to an endorsement, among many other things, of State sponsored murder.  Indeed, the Church has not only quite often blessed modern, worldly power but also, as Bernanos notes, it has sought to import its methods and to imitate them.  The Church has, of course, murdered people herself in the name of “orthodoxy” not so long ago, so her baptism of the bastards should not shock us, despite the happy-face ecclesiastical emoji that her leaders like to project as they use the fig leaf of “development of doctrine” as an excuse to overlook past sins:  “yeah, yeah, we used to do bad stuff, but we don’t now. Our bad. Now, onto our reform of curial dicasteries.”

Therefore, one can hardly be blamed for understanding the relativism that so concerned Ratzinger as merely a symptom of a much deeper rot. Because nobody is ever really a relativist.  Ever.  Relativism therefore is always a subspecies of some kind of a deeper rejection directed at the existing moral and spiritual ordo of a specific culture.  And the rot of that culture, the Church’s culture included, with its hypocrisies, corruptions, inconsistencies, and manifest injustices, shares deeply in the blame for the emergent “relativism” of those who reject the entire, tired monument of mendacity.  There are of course theoretical, philosophical relativists, but they do not seem to understand that if their thesis is “true” then they should stop writing and retire to the faculty lounge for a spirited discussion of linguistic theory while drinking high-end bourbon out of a crystal glass made in a sweat shop, while sitting on furniture made in a sweat shop, and wearing tweed suits made in a sweat shop.  Nobody takes such idiots seriously.  But what we often call, too superficially, “relativism” in the broader culture is in reality nothing more than the cri de couer of exhausted souls, living in an exhausted culture, and in search of alternative answers.

The deeper problem, brought out clearly by Bernanos, is the Church’s 1700 year commitment to various iterations of the Constantinian arrangement. I know this is a cliché these days, but even cliches can be true and this one is.  I hasten to add now all of the usual caveats concerning the broad social implications of the Gospel and of the necessity of the Church to be a participant in the full life of a culture, its political culture included. Nevertheless, the Church is never stronger in the political/public sphere than when it is least implicated in the apparatus of the State.  As soon as it becomes an apparatchik for the reigning political powers its ability to preach a Christ who was unjustly murdered by the Roman Imperium is blunted. The Roman State is often treated as a vestige of a “long ago” regime that was apparently a one-off example of the misuse of State power, rather than being held up, as it should be, as a paradigm for just about every “sovereign State” that has come after.  That certainly seems to be one of the main points of the book of Revelation with its “whore of Babylon” sitting astride the nations. However, Christ’s State execution is often glossed over and soteriologized into a purely “spiritual” act seen as having little to do with our efforts throughout history to curry favor with State power.  The Gospel has social implications? You are damn right it does, and first among them is the recognition that Pilate’s question “what is truth?” displays the convenient relativism of “power” employed by all hegemonic States. Therefore, the Church’s proper stance toward all such forms of political power should not be collusion, but distance.  For it is only in distance from such power that the Church is most free even if, and perhaps most especially, that freedom is that of the martyr.  And that is the only “integralism” that matters. The integralism of the cross and its paradoxical victory over the powers of this world.

The list of authoritarian States the Church has colluded with over the centuries is so long it would take pages upon pages to enumerate.  But far worse than this collusion wherein the Church tacitly baptizes worldly power for the sake of proximate and expedient goals, is the fact that the Church herself has imported patterns of worldly power into her own governing structure.  After Constantine the Church began a centuries long expansion of power that saw the rise of an inflated “papalism” equipped with all of the apparatus of a political power and eventually adorned in princely, if not kingly, renaissance garb.  Bishops began living in palaces and behaving like the landed aristocracy (and many still do), all of which, in practical terms, was an open repudiation of Christ’s warning that you cannot serve both God and mammon.  The political, as opposed to the cultural, concept of “Christendom” was predicated on the notion that the Church had to wield worldly power in order to be free from other worldly powers.  The papacy even developed its own prisons, standing army, and executioners.  And this is to say nothing of the rampant corruptions and debauchery that infected the Church as a result of this mimesis of Caesar’s power.

Would the great schism between East and West have happened without this political corruption of the Church?  Would the Reformation?  Tetzel may have lit the match, but the kindling was all around, doused with accelerants, and just waiting to explode into an inferno.  And even though these are all events in our distant past, the fact remains that the Church, well into modern times, clung to its Constantinian power, its worldly perks, its secretive, curial intrigue in the tradition of corrupt kingly courts, and its episcopal pleasure palaces, with ferocious tenacity, kicking against the goad as Christendom slowly died one body part at a time. And even as Christendom’s corpse began to give off a stench the Church tossed perfumed talc over the mess and published a syllabus of errors and demanded oaths against modernism.  Errors were indeed afoot, and modernism was real, but the point is that the old methods of coercive power were now as effective as putting a band aid on a melanoma.

On the theological side it was inevitable that this political corruption of the Church would also bleed into the concept of the Church as “teacher” and “the sole means of salvation.”  The proper uses of the magisterium devolved into a hyper magisterialism that turned the doctrine of apostolic succession into a weaponized ideology of control. Theological orthodoxy and holding to all the right doctrines became a central focus of the Church’s concept of salvation as such, elevating doctrines and creeds beyond their status as second and third level reflections on the sources of Revelation, and into the realm of Revelation as such.  Creeds, as C.S. Lewis notes, are like road maps.  Useful indeed, but they are not a substitute for the reality they depict.  Creeds are necessary.  But the living Christ is a person, and not a creed. Thus did correct adherence to doctrine come to be wedded with coercive power as the Church justified murdering unrepentant heretics on the grounds that it was for their own good since their salvation depended on getting the doctrines correct.  Church sponsored inquisitions have been greatly exaggerated, as many modern historians are now uncovering, but their existence nevertheless cannot be denied, and they did indeed put people to death.  And the fact that the magisterium of the Church did not condemn the very concept of an inquisition is a sure indicator that the doctrines of the Church had been turned into an ideological superstructure for the maintenance of political Christendom.

Salvation is a gift from God, in the ordo of grace, and not a parlor game for the intellectually gifted.  And well into the modern period this politicized and distorted magisterialism created an ethos of inquisitorial coercion that did nothing to stem the tide of modernism since its chief means of operation was coercive power and not argument, the imitation of Christ, and the exercise of legitimate authority.  As for modernism and the supposed “fortress” of magisterial efforts to combat it Ratzinger writes:


“Modernism never really came to a head, but was interrupted by the measure taken by Pius X … The crisis of the present is but the long deferred resumption of what began in those days.”
(“Faith and the Future” Franciscan Herald Press; 1971, p. 92)

I am obviously not arguing against the theological necessity of a magisterium, apostolic succession, the papacy, and the witness of the Church in the public square.  I hold to all of those truths.  However, I am arguing against the peculiar political form that these structures have taken on.  The Italian philosopher Augosto del Noce in an important essay reprinted in the Summer, 2015 edition of the journal Communio makes an important distinction between “power” and “authority.” True authority is rooted in a moral and spiritual sphere and exercises its responsibilities to the truth utilizing tools from that same moral and spiritual domain.  As such, it is the exact opposite of the coercive modus operandi of political “power.” Political power must be coercive since it has no attractiveness in and of itself, and even when it appeals to the enlightened self-interest of its citizens does so from purely utilitarian calculations.  As such, it has very little power to “persuade” and quite often must resort to the stick of force when the carrot of self-interest fails.  Furthermore, when political power does manage to “persuade” it is often through populist demagoguery, or war mongering, or flat-out lies. How much more imperative then is it for the authority of the Church, which is after all a theological reality, and moral and spiritual in its very essence, to eschew “power” and to persuade rather than to coerce.  And the only power of persuasion it has is the towering figure of Christ, who coerced no one but drew the world to himself even as he was “lifted up.” The Church therefore will have no authority whatsoever unless it pursues the path of its Lord and imitates His pattern of kenotic “glory.”

My claim therefore is that the crisis in the Church today  – – a crisis of faithlessness and de facto atheism – – has been caused by a Church that has had, historically, a lot of “power” and, therefore, now has very little “authority”. And what good, after all, is a magisterium in a Church that has no real spiritual authority even as she continues to function in a purely forensic manner? The “infallibility” of the Church may still be technically intact, but the authority behind it is not.  I wonder, for example, if the American bishops understand that they have zero credibility to teach anything? Decades of colluding with the local civil authorities to cover up child rape for the purpose of preserving that outward façade of a “holy” Church may have preserved their “power” for a time, but at the expense of their authority.  And their response to the crisis, which arose only after their lies were exposed, was to tinker with the bureaucratic apparatus of the Church, her “mechanisms,” all the while exempting themselves from their own protocols for “others” thus insuring a degree of immunity for their ongoing “power.”  All they did was double-down on “process” in order to save the appearances.  In short, it was a cynical and mendacious betrayal of the faithful in order to save their own skins showing once again that the only thing that matters to them is the power that comes with respectability.  We have replaced the old political integralism with an integralism of insurance companies and lawyers, an integralism of bourgeois comfort, in order to preserve the current status of the Church as a suburban strip-mall of ersatz spiritualities.

Hans Urs von Balthasar notes that there are two basic principles that structure the Church.  The Petrine principle forms the institutional, skeletal element without which the Church would just be a formless blob of disconnected tissues lacking a proper foundation. The Marian principle, which is superior to the Petrine, constitutes the Church’s internal holiness, her “guts” if you will.  And Balthasar emphasizes that without this Marian dimension of holiness the Church is just a dead pile of bones.  The Dominical warning about “whited sepulchers” comes to mind and is exactly what Balthasar is alluding to here.  For too long our hyper magisterialism, born out of an idolatrous ecclesial ideology that makes the Church an end onto itself rather than a mere medium to Christ, has fostered an eclipse of that Marian element in the Church, no matter how many apocalyptic visions of Mary are currently popular.  I have no doubt that Mary has appeared, but her message of prayer, penance, and holiness is ignored in favor of the “secrets” and predictions of doom.  In other words, we are awash in “correct doctrines” and superficial pieties that tickle the ears, but where is the true Marian holiness??

The pathology is, unfortunately, deep as can be seen in the quality of our current debates.  Is Pope Francis a heretic?  Should we take communion on the hand or on the tongue? Is the Novus Ordo a creation of Freemason conspirators? Should women lector at Mass? Is Vatican II a robber Council? Should Benedict still be wearing a white cassock? Latin or vernacular? Gothic or fiddleback? Should homosexuals be ministered to gently or should we smash them over the head with a catechism as we refuse to bake them cakes? Is Vigano a prophet or a clown? Should the Vatican bank be shut down? How should the curia be reformed? Should some women be made Cardinals? Deacons? Is Bishop Barron a dangerous modernist? Was von Balthasar a heretic? All of these debates signal a Church still locked in the heathenism of power insofar as they are all concerned with “winning” the debate for “their side” of disputes that are essentially concerned with the Petrine element of the Church at the expense of the Marian.  Where are the debates over asceticism, prayer, penance, vocational commitment, evangelization, and so on? Off the radar.  Nobody cares.  My good friend Fr. Michael Kerper calls this sort of thing “team theology.” And lost in the debates, as we take our side with our team members, is the “one thing necessary” (Luke 10:42). In short, we are a Church of Marthas.

My positive proposal is simple, yet difficult:  holiness.  The Church of concordats and position papers is dead.  “Infallibility” is a completely empty concept when it is rooted in power instead of authority.  And where there is no holiness, there is no authority.  I wouldn’t take a recipe for brownies from Stalin, no matter how perfect they look.  Personnel is policy and a hypertrophy of the Petrine element produces the wrong personnel.  Nor is this Donatism.  I am not questioning the validity of anyone’s office.  I am questioning the existential authenticity of the modern Church and its efficaciousness.

Joseph Ratzinger also understood that the Church of success, wealth, and power – – the Church of Constantine – – had run its course.  The future would belong, he wrote, to a “remnant” of believers, serious in their pursuit of holiness even as they reached out to their neighbors.  It will be a smaller, chastened Church, that will be cruciform and devoted to the “simple ones” so neglected by the world.  It will be a deeply spiritual Church, shorn of its political trappings and having almost no social standing.  And so I give him the last word even as I gave him the first:

“And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult… but the Church of faith.  It may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that it was until recently; but it will enjoy a fresh blossoming, and be seen as man’s home where he will find life and hope beyond death.”
(“Faith and the Future”, pp. 105-106)

Dorothy Day, pray for us.

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