The Little Flock

Jesus went searching for the sheep that was lost. We all have a place in the big tent of Catholicism. A tiny perfectly orthodox society we are not. Catholics struggling to be Christian need room to talk to each other, argue with each other and most importantly to engage the world with each other. In the end we will need John XXlll's "medicine of mercy" more than brother Ratzinger's constant hectoring.

Now that Pope Benedict has left Australia it might be helpful to briefly tease out his oft-quoted ruminations of the "Church of the little flock."

In interviews which go back decades Pope Benedict reiterates that the future of the Church will be smaller, maybe "a mustard seed where it will exist in small seemingly insignificant groups". These groups, of course, will be utterly loyal to anything which comes out of Rome. A necessary culling will be the order of the day, say like the 300,000 Catholics driven out by the archbishop of Cologne, Joachim Meissner. "Chaff and wheat must be separated," the then Cardinal Ratzinger said to journalist Peter Seewald in 1985. While few expect Benedict XVI to mount a massive proscription of dissident' Catholics, the probability is that the docile bishops promoted in the past 25 years will, by their increasingly irrelevant navel gazings and authoritarian centralization, drive progressives out.

The "little flock" concept seems a polar opposite to James Joyce's definition of Catholicism as"Here comes everybody" and Jesus' very own injunction to ignore the 99 and go seeking the lost one.

In a brilliant small book written after Vatican II, The Shape of the Church to Come, Herder,1971, Karl Rahner had this to say about "the little flock":

"When we speak of ourselves today as the beginning of a little flock', we first remove a misunderstanding. 'Little flock' does not mean a ghetto or a sect, since these are defined by a mentality: a mentality which the church can afford in the future even less than today. A sectarian or ghetto mentality is propagated among us -- not under this label, but under the pretext that we are becoming Christ's little flock which has to profess the folly of faith and of the cross. Any deviation must be fought with the utmost severity in the name of true faith and authentic Christianity."

"If we talk of the 'little flock' in order to defend our cosy traditionalism and stale pseudo-orthodoxy, in fear of the mentality of modern society; if we tacitly consent to the departure of restless, questioning people from the church so that we can return to our repose and orderly life, and everything becomes as it was before, we are propagating, not the attitude proper to Christ's little flock, but a petty sectarian mentality. This is dangerous because it shows up, not under its true name but in an appeal to orthodoxy, church-loyalty and strict, Rome-dictated morality."

It seems to me that the great Rahner was prescient in his analysis of the reactionary fear which was beginning to set in after the revolutionary Council.

Jesus was in a big tent

The "cosy traditionalism and stale orthodoxy" which are in vogue today are thin gruel for a pilgrim Church marching through history. This narrow view of the Church is alienating too many of the Catholic faithful who long for something like John XXIII's magnanimous and invitational "medicine of mercy". We need a pope, not of the little flock but the big tent. Benedict, "ganz schwarz", as he was dubbed in his native Germany ("way too dark"), with his abstract, ethereal theology hardly ever filtered through life, has simply shown up at the wrong time.

There are other popes Benedict might emulate at this time. In 1964 Pope Paul Vl wrote a brilliant encyclical on dialogue. His main points are still worth taking very seriously:

The dialogue of salvation did not physically force anyone to accept it; it was a tremendous appeal of love which, although placing a vast responsibility on those toward whom it was directed, nevertheless left them free to respond to it or to reject it.

But it seems to us that the relationship of the Church to the world, without precluding other legitimate forms of expression, can be represented better in a dialogue,

79. This type of relationship indicates a proposal of courteous esteem, of understanding and of goodness on the part of the one who inaugurates the dialogue; it excludes the a priori condemnation, the offensive and time-worn polemic and emptiness of useless conversation. If this approach does not aim at effecting the immediate conversion of the interlocutor, inasmuch as it respects both his dignity and his freedom, nevertheless it does aim at helping him, and tries to dispose him for a fuller sharing of sentiments and convictions.

85. And before speaking, it is necessary to listen, not only to a man's voice, but to his heart. A man must first be understood; and, where he merits it, agreed with. In the very act of trying to make ourselves pastors, fathers and teachers of men, we must make ourselves their brothers. The spirit of dialogue is friendship and, even more, is service. All this we must remember and strive to put into practice according to the example and commandment that Christ left to Us.

It is difficult to see much of this dialogue in Joseph Ratzinger.

Leo XIII (1878-1903) could be a second teacher to the present pope. He acknowledged that his pontificate was successful because: "I was never afraid to appoint as bishop somebody who disagreed with me."

There was something extremely disquieting about Cardinal Ratzinger's clinical evisceration of so many creative theologians who disagreed with him. Do we really think these men do not love the Church as he does? Does not the fact that so many had their reputations trashed, their health endangered bother this Mozart-loving enforcer? Do we really believe that the God of Mystery can be so limited to the univocal voice of brother Ratzinger? Many of us share the respected theologian from Chicago, Fr David Tracy's view that "Cardinal Ratzinger seems to be conducting a campaign to impose a particular theology upon the universal Church and upon all theologians. It won't work."

No it won't work, because in the words of another great churchman of years ago, J.B. Phillips, "Your God is too small." The God of Life, the God of History and that God's Holy Spirit who "blows where it wills" (John 3:8) is no captive of the Catholic Church. That Spirit is working through universal justice movements and the humanization of the world. These are the "signs of the times" which the Church needs to attend to, one less Catholic and more catholic, another pilgrim for justice and agent for God's reign.

We do not need a little flock "purified of anthropological, sociological or horizontal accents" but a Church like its Jewish founder, who emptied himself for God and God's project. This is the only Church which makes any sense and one Joseph Ratzinger believed in when he said in 1962: "The meaning of prophecy is the protest against the self-righteousness of the institutions. God throughout history has not been on the side of the institutions but on that of the suffering and the persecuted."

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