Back to the future

06 December 2019

Edward Dowler considers the prophetic implications of a lecture given 50 years ago

dpa picture alliance archive/Alamy

Archive photo of Professor Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI

Archive photo of Professor Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI

THIS year marks the 50th anniversary of a radio broadcast by Professor Joseph Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI, about the Church of the future (the address can be found in Faith and the Future, Ignatius Press). Although his words are astonishingly prescient, Ratzinger makes no claim to be a soothsayer or futurologist. Rather, he claims that reflecting on history may give us our best hope of gaining a glimpse of the future.

The historical period that Ratzinger found particularly relevant to the turbulent late 1960s in which he was writing was that of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. He refers to the instructive example of the Archbishop of Paris Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Gobel (1727-94). Going along “with every step of progress in his own time”, Gobel first supported the idea of a constitutional national Church, and latterly abandoned his priesthood altogether to worship the goddess Reason in Notre-Dame Cathedral. It did not do him any good: when Robespierre embraced Deism, Gobel was led off as an atheist to the guillotine.

A contrast to the hapless Gobel was the Redemptorist priest — and former baker’s apprentice — St Clement Mary Hofbauer (1751-1820). At a time of bloodshed and turbulence both in Poland and Austria, Hofbauer conducted ceaseless missionary work and service of orphans, wounded soldiers, and others in desperate distress, so as to bring to birth a Church that was “reduced in size, diminished in social prestige, but . . . fruitful from a new interior power”. The fruit of this was an extraordinary blossoming of new lay movements and religious orders.

In line with this, the most obvious characteristic of the Church of the future which Ratzinger foresees is that it will be smaller, poorer, and much humbled: “From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge — a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents dim­in­ishes, so she will lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision.”


IT MAY come as a surprise to those who think of Benedict simply as a political and ecclesial arch-conservative that he predicts that the humbling of the Church will result in her again identifying with the most disadvantaged: “It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek.” Similarly, in a passage that, 50 years on, certainly reflects the reality of many Anglican Provinces, the ministry of the Church will look very different. The Church, he says, “will discover new forms of ministry and will ordain to the priesthood approved Christians who pursue some profession. In many smaller congregations or in self-contained social groups, pastoral care will normally be provided in this fashion.”

What will the faith of this Church look like? In words that strikingly anticipate the extreme polarisation of modern society, turbo-charged by social media, Ratzinger predicts that — “flirting as little with the Left as with the Right” — the Church of the future will have the theological and spiritual wisdom to avoid the false dichotomies that contemporary debates routinely serve up: “The future of the Church can and will issue from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith. It will not issue from those who accommodate themselves merely to the passing moment or from those who merely criticise others and assume that they themselves are infallible measuring rods.”

A truth that is “deeper than the slogans of the day” must be apprehended, he writes, with the heart as much as with the mind. The truth that we can see only with our heart is that which we gain by daily self-denial, which frees us from the demands of our ego; by resisting the many temptations “to flee from the depths of our being by means of the narcotic of some pleasure or other”.

In tandem with this necessary per­sonal and spiritual renewal, the Church that Ratzinger envisages will find its scriptures and doctrines not embarrassing historical encum­brances but sources of living and enlivening truth: “In all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her centre: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world.

“In faith and prayer she will again recognise her true centre and experi­ence the sacraments as the worship of God and not as a subject for lit­urgical scholarship.”

Note, here, that the sacraments will not be viewed as the slightly embarrassing remnants of “inherited church”, but as powerful channels of life-giving grace. We can expect that Christians of the future will have the same sense of the absolute reality of their benefits as people now expect from a visit to the doctor, or from taking exercise.


AS AN archdeacon committed to trying to foster the life of the Church of England as it is in its present reality, rather than its putative future, I find some aspects of Benedict’s predictions about the future deeply unsettling. Some of the develop­ments that he confidently pre­dicts sound ominously like those that I, myself, am currently trying to fend off.

Yet Benedict’s vision of the future Church is, in fact, far less disturbing than some of the other, all-too-possible future scenarios we may face. These include the total absorption of Christianity into contemporary Western culture, or its ruth­less suppression and persecution, as experienced by our brothers and sisters in many places around the world. Or conceivably — as in the case of poor Archbishop Gobel — both.

Since the Church is God’s, not ours, her future is in God’s hands as he currently does his work of sifting and pruning. Whatever it is that we are called to be doing — even if it is being an archdeacon — we can all become midwives to the Church that is yet to be born. And Benedict’s remarkably prescient and, indeed, prophetic words reassure us that, although the future may seem daunting, it sparkles with hope and promise. “In a totally planned world people will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching. . .

“[The Church] may well no longer be the dominant social power . . . but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming, and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”

The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is the Archdeacon of Hastings, in the diocese of Chichester.

Lift up your hearts download

Weekly spiritual sustenance from the Church Times. Download the free PDF to print at home:

No. 3 | 9 April 2020

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive


Thu 09 Apr @ 17:41
Meeting of Synod in July hangs in the balance

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)