In surprising ways, Christianity continues as a ghostly presence even in secular environments. Some intriguing signs also suggest how churches might have learned to accommodate themselves to the world of post-Christendom, with its very different social and moral assumptions. They are coming to appreciate the positive virtues of minority status.
The idea of a state church has always contained within itself a fundamental contradiction. Notionally, such a church tries to serve the needs of everyone within a community, and in practice the church has to accommodate political realities: at its worst, the situation forces churches to offer a faith that appeals to the lowest common denominator. At the same time though, Christianity preaches demanding calls for spirituality and personal morality, and the gospels teach counsels of perfection that seem directed to a rigorous minority.
Throughout European history, state churches have produced dissidents who try to stress the stricter Christian ideals, either by imagining a revolution within the state mechanism, or else by defecting to a new autonomous structure. Either way, it was essential to challenge the link with a stultifying secular authority. The English church of the seventeenth century produced its separatist Puritans and the German Lutherans spawned the Pietist movement. Under Pietist influence, the British Methodist movement created a cell-structure of more committed believers within the established church, groups that met to share and reinforce each other's faith, and ultimately, this alternative movement evolved to become a fully fledged independent church on a global scale. And though he did not create a separate church, the theological insights of Soren Kierkegaard grew from his profound critique of the entrenched hierarchy of the Danish Folkekirke. In different forms, similar conflicts also occurred within the Catholic churches that officially claimed the loyalties of everyone within particular nations.
In modern times, the rapid decline in church attendance has helped resolve the dilemma of trying to operate a comprehensive church framework. If in fact a church stands no realistic chance of incorporating all members of a society, then it can become a smaller and more focused body, more rigorously committed to personal holiness and transformation. Pruning can promote growth, and the sharper the pruning, the stronger the growth.
Perhaps surprisingly, it is within Europe's Roman Catholic churches that such a reorientation has been most intensely discussed. These churches, after all, have for centuries maintained very close alliances with states, and they acted as if all baptized members of a community were sons and daughters of one church, which in practice meant virtually all members of society. Yet however powerful the idealistic vision of an all-embracing Catholic society, some influential thinkers have recognized that it no longer bears much resemblance to political reality. Coming from a Polish background, Pope John Paul II was exasperated by the signs of weakness he saw in the Catholicism of western Europe, which often seemed to be abandoning the faith. This vision was pursued to its logical conclusion by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would of course succeed him as Pope Benedict XVI.
Under John Paul, then Cardinal Ratzinger frankly asserted that the Christian role in a future Europe would be radically different from earlier times. How, he asked, could one speak of a Christian society if "in a city like Magdeburg, Christians are only eight percent of the total population, including all Christian denominations. Statistical data shows irrefutable tendencies. . . . there is a reduction in the possibility of identification between people and Church." Christians needed to accommodate themselves to the idea of minority status, a staggering idea from the viewpoint of nineteenth- or twentieth-century Catholicism: "The Church of the first three centuries was small, without being, by this fact, a sectarian community. On the contrary, it was not closed in on itself, but felt a great responsibility in regard to the poor, the sick—in regard to all."29
At times, Ratzinger seemed to suggest a two-tier approach to church membership, consciously admitting the tenuous ties of many Europeans to Christian belief. He drew a distinction between the core of believers and those who "never enter a church during the year, go to Christmas midnight Mass, or go on the occasion of some other celebration." Yet even these weaker forms of religious expression could constitute "a way of coming close to the light. Therefore, there must be different forms of involvement and participation. . . . The process of numerical reduction, which we are experiencing today, will also have to be addressed precisely by exploring new ways of openness to the outside, of new ways of participation by those who are outside the community of believers." In his view, the future church would be smaller and strong. It "will be reduced in its dimensions, it will be necessary to start again. However, from this test a Church would emerge that will have been strengthened by the process of simplification it experienced, by its renewed capacity to look within itself." Borrowing a phrase from historian Arnold Toynbee, Ratzinger has spoken of the potential of a "creative minority."
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