At seventy-seven it is time to be in earnest. Samuel Johnson
Ihave sometimes puzzled over that sentence—so portentously pronounced by perhaps the most earnest Englishman I can think of—and have asked myself why anyone would advise another to wait so long before becoming earnest. Shouldn’t we always be in earnest? Also, isn’t it a bit odd that if Dr. Johnson had taken his own advice, he’d never have lived long enough to observe it? He pegged out, as they say, at age 75, missing the mark by two years.
As for myself, I won’t be 77 for at least another year. Does that mean I am free to remain unserious until then? If so, I shall be in very good company, not a few bishops under seventy-seven having already cornered that particular market for some time now. Bishop Georg Bätzing, for instance, current Chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, is only sixty-one, and what a strikingly unserious specimen he seems to be. Indeed, judging from remarks he recently made while in Rome with sixty or so fellow prelates for a chat with the pope, one might almost think the poor fellow had no faith at all.
“It hits me personally very hard,” he admitted the other day, surveying the growing exodus among Catholics in Germany, “that so many people are leaving the Church. In doing so,” he continues, “they are casting a vote and showing me that they no longer agree with the way the Church presents herself. The reasons are certainly varied and, for the most part, justified (italics added). Nevertheless,” he concludes, “there are reasons to stay.”
Really? Why should anyone stay having just been assured by Bishop Bätzing of all the reasons for leaving? And, come to think of it, how exactly should the Church present herself if, by her failing thus far to do so, one is entirely justified in leaving her? Obliged to do so, in fact, if Bishop Bätzing is to be believed. People have no alternative but to leave, he is saying, given her continued recalcitrance on so many fronts. His Excellency has certainly not been at all shy in telling us this.
On all the hot button issues, from sex outside marriage, to the ordination of women, to blessing same-sex marriages, to extending Eucharistic privileges to non-Catholic Christians, he is square in the camp of the dissenters. On the matter of women priests especially, he has been most vociferous in his criticism of Rome’s continuing refusal to ordain them: “Popes have tried to say the question of women priests is closed, but the fact is that the question exists. Many young women say, ‘a church that refuses all of this cannot be my church in the long run.’” And, putting himself into this little drama, he would himself leave the Church if he “got the impression that nothing would ever change.”
What’s keeping him, I wonder? Because the Church, which he and his allies are so eager to change, is simply not going to change. She will never change. And where does one get the idea of “my church,” as if one somehow owned the institution of which one had agreed to become a member? One would think even German bishops would know that it is not my Church, or their Church, but Christ’s Church. And have they already forgotten that the last time changes of the sort welcomed by people of their persuasion took place, it was called Lutheranism? Is that what they want? Then maybe they should just say so and get on with it.
I am reminded of a telling comment once made by Karl Rahner about his erstwhile colleague and friend Hans Küng, whose flirtations with heterodoxy pretty much left him bereft in the end. Fr. Rahner stated that he could so much more easily read and understand Küng as a Protestant. It was only when he sought to present himself as a Catholic, you see, that his writings became unintelligible. Could it be that the Bätzing crowd are only coherent to the extent you view them as non-Catholics—straightforward secularists, in fact—effectively disconnected from the Church whose teachings they no longer share?
Why won’t someone tell them this? Like the pope, for example. It’s his job, after all, to tell us all about the Church, beginning with, one would think, the truth that Jesus Himself fashioned her to be the extension of Himself and His work in the world. And that whoever hears her, hears Him, and the one who sent Him. Why is that so complicated? Philip, one of His followers, certainly didn’t think so when, putting the question to Jesus about when they might all see the Father, Jesus in effect tells him, “Look, Philip, old boy, the Father and I are one. When you see Me, you see Him.” In other words, if Christ instituted the Church to prolong His saving presence in the world, does it not follow that in seeing and hearing her, one necessarily sees and hears Christ?