In an earlier post I discussed the so-called “Benedict option”–the strategy advocated by some Catholics that the Church withdraw from politics and the culture wars and try to establish enclaves of holiness. This option is sometimes connected to Pope Benedict’s musings that the Church might have to grow smaller in the future.
My musings on these matters prompted one commenter to observe that it would be a mistake, and inconsistent with the gospels, for the Church to downsize. That is an interesting observation, and I would like to follow it up by clarifying.
I don’t think the advocates of the “Benedict option” intend to advocate any deliberate downsizing of the Church. I really doubt that Pope Benedict had any such thing in mind, and I know that is not what I would like to see. It would be strange indeed for any Catholic to want to see other Catholics driven out of the Church.
On the other hand, it may turn out to be the case that fidelity to the Church’s teaching will end up driving some people out. And if that happens, the Church should accept it as the cost of living out its mission. The Church should not seek to drive people out. But neither should it change its teaching in order to keep people in. There are at least two reasons for this.
In the first place, the Catholic Church is the guardian of a revealed religion. It claims to speak with authority given from God. It is utterly absurd for such an institution to tailor its teaching to the moral fashions of the present age. It is absurd in both the loose sense and the strict sense. In the loose, popular sense, the word absurd is often used to mean “ridiculous.” But it is ridiculous for a Church claiming to be the guardian of a teaching given by God Himself to worry itself about whether its teaching is liked by the powers that be in a given generation. In the strict sense absurd means “self-contradictory.” I would say it is also absurd in this sense for the Church to modify its teaching in order to remain popular. It is absurd because the Church is predicated on the belief that it holds a divine teaching, and that God is the source of all truth. If it were to change its teaching for the sake of popularity, it would be acting as if it really believed that mankind (or rather, the present generation of men) is a source of truth equal to God.
In the second place, fidelity to the teaching, without regard to who likes it or not, seems to be the example that Jesus set and that he instructed his followers to observe. Recently, on the feast of the Ascension, the gospel reading reported that Jesus instructed his apostles to proclaim the gospel, and that those who accepted it would be saved, while those who rejected it would be condemned. Similarly, when Jesus taught that his followers were to eat his body and drink his blood, it quickly became evident that this teaching alienated not a few of them, who walked off. He did not modify the teaching in order to lure them back. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus even counseled the people present not to throw pearls before swine or give what is holy to dogs. This does not mean that we should call those who reject Catholicism swine or dogs. It does seem to mean, however, that Jesus anticipated that some people were just not going to listen, and that his followers should not get too worked up over that. Pray for them and move on.
In sum, Jesus himself seems to have presented his teaching in a rather take it or leave it fashion.