Ratzinger’s Mustard Seed?

In a comment towards the end of the string on my previous post Catholic means “Here comes Everybody!”, I quoted Pope Benedict as saying in August 2008:

When I was younger I was rather severe. I said: the sacraments are sacraments of faith, and where faith does not exist, where the practice of faith does not exist, the Sacrament cannot be conferred either. And then I always used to talk to my parish priests when I was Archbishop of Munich: here too there were two factions, one severe and one broad-minded. Then I too, with time, came to realize that we must follow, rather, the example of the Lord, who was very open even with people on the margins of Israel of that time. He was a Lord of mercy, too open – according to many official authorities – with sinners, welcoming them or letting them invite him to their dinners, drawing them to him in his communion.

Christine replied:

David, and yet, may I gently point out, this pope is now speaking of a “smaller” church, a faithful remnant, if you will. Even John Paul II lamented that there are still so many unevangelized Catholics. Catholicism is much like Judaism. Even when the faith is no longer there some hang on for cultural reasons. That happens less to Protestants, who generally leave the church when they lose their faith.

Yes, the Lord was most merciful with all He encountered, He never refused the sinner who came to Him. But He never left them in the same state, either.

The letters to the churches in the Revelation are addressed not to the “world” but to the baptized, those who are admitted to the Holy Supper, and they are quite solemn in addressing those who had lost their “first love” and compromised sound apostolic teaching.

There has been an interesting development in rhetoric of the so-called Ratzingerian “mustard seed”. The original statement comes from page 16 of Peter Seewald’s interview-book with Cardinal Ratzinger in 1996 (published in English as “Salt of the Earth” in 1997) where he said:

Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures. Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intense struggle against evil and bring good into the world – that let God in.

At the time of the Holy Father’s election (in fact, even before it in this remarkable reading of the cards by Spengler) many speculated that this would become a key theme of his pontificate. In fact, this has not been so. Perhaps, as with so many other of Cardinal Ratzinger’s well known ideas, the idea has become transmuted with his changing role in the Church, for since his election, Pope Benedict has not returned to this theme – at least not in exactly this same guise. He has mentioned the “mustard seed” parable a couple of times
(eg. here, here, here, here, here, here and here) but not with quite the same application. Except for the last example above (which is addressed to the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and is in reference to the dwindling size of the Christian population in the Holy Land), since his election as Supreme Pontiff he seems to use the image more as an encouragement for Christian witness and evangelisation – with the implication that the little things we do will bear great fruit.

So despite Spengler’s great rhetoric on the subject (“I have a mustard seed and I’m not afraid to use it”), it seems that Pope Benedict has not followed Cardinal Ratzinger’s 1996 “smaller and leaner” application of the parable. Rather he has followed the evangelistic application of the parable, more in line with the way he spoke of it in 2001 at a conference on the new evangelisation:

The Kingdom of God always starts anew under this sign. New evangelization cannot mean: immediately attracting the large masses that have distanced themselves from the Church by using new and more refined methods. No — this is not what new evangelization promises.

New evangelization means: never being satisfied with the fact that from the grain of mustard seed, the great tree of the Universal Church grew; never thinking that the fact that different birds may find place among its branches can suffice — rather, it means to dare, once again and with the humility of the small grain, to leave up to God the when and how it will grow (Mark 4:26-29).

He also significantly modified the 1996 image with this statement which he made to the clergy of Aosta soon after his election in July 2005:

I am thinking of the Lord’s Parable of the Mustard Seed which was so small and then became a tree so great that the birds of the sky build their nests in it. And I should say that these birds could be the people who are not yet converted but who at least perch on the tree of the Church.

So, all that being said, what are we to say of the fact that, as Christine put it so well, many of the 1 billion Catholics living on earth today appear to be “practically unevangelized pagans”?

1. The Catholic Church does not have the luxury of demanding of all its adherents an advanced level of catechisation. This is often because the labourers are few in comparison to the harvest. It is also because we do not have anywhere else to send them. As the universal Catholic Church, we have responsibility to evangelise everybody (think about that for a bit!). We can’t say “Someone else will look after you if we don’t.”

2. So we can understand a tendency to accept a “lowest common denominator” arising from a desire to give “perching space” to as many people as possible on the tree that grows from the mustard seed. This is not necessarily bad – in fact it can be seen as a “good thing” if it is the beginning of evangelisation

3. Evangelisation and conversion can begin and proceed in at least two major ways with a whole range of possibilities in between. It can begin with the hearing of the gospel, with catechisation, and be followed with the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist). Or it can begin with the Sacraments of Initiation, and be accompanied by catechisation. We are very familiar with the last methodology – both Catholics and Protestants have been following this method for centuries. The real methodology usually is somewhere in between – the process of evangelisation and conversion are accompanied by sacramental initiation and catechisation as an ongoing and parallel process..

4. I think we can agree on this, that evangelisation and conversion must not be separated from sacramental initiation and catechisation. But then we come up against the reality of the world: sacramental initiation is the easy bit, whereas catechisation relies on two things: the input of the catechist and the receptivity of the catechumen. The first is a labour intensive role, even though it may be deployed among both clergy and laity alike (and chiefly is the role of the family). The second is a difficulty on two grounds: not all are minds are as teachable as others, and not all hearts are as open to conversion as others. This is where pastoral skill and sensitivity comes in.

5. So we work with responsibilities and limitations on both fronts. The Church (both clergy and lay) is duty bound to provide as much catechisation as it possibly can (with as much quality as it can) to all whom it initiates into the Church and who belong to the Church. On the other hand, we need to make pastoral allowances for the limitations of those we seek to catechise. By setting “the bar” to high in this latter regard, we may be excluding the “little ones” to whom Jesus said the Kingdom belongs. Of course, it may also mean that some “tares” come in among the “wheat”. But we trust that Our Lord will take responsibility for that. In the mean time, we follow his other parable, the parable of the sower, and continue to scatter the seed far and wide, even if the bulk of it does fall on “barely catechised pagans”.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Ratzinger’s Mustard Seed?

  1. I helps me, at least, to consider all the lapsed/lukewarm Catholics I know to be only one good confession away from full communion with the Church.

    And what will prompt them to do such a thing? The action of the Holy Spirit. Has He not done the same for most of us?

  2. KMC

    Hypocrisy by leaders drives away more followers than ambiguous understandings…

    I don’t have to know the moter vehicle statutes letter perfect before going out on the roads. I just had to pass the driver’s exams with a satisfactory score. Experience and observation of other drivers has bettered my performance over the years…

  3. David and all who read this blog,

    You might be interested in the discussion this string has helped provoke over on Catholica. See http://www.catholica.com.au/forum/index.php?id=39076 and in particular http://www.catholica.com.au/forum/index.php?id=39128 where I query if Benedict’s ‘mustard seed’ is going to act as some kind of ‘leaven’ in society. I think people delude themselves if they believe this remnant Benedict and friends seem so encouraging of is going to act as some kind of societal ‘leaven’ in the future following the pattern of how Christianity has been a societal leaven in the past. They will be a true ‘remnant’ without influence noisily proclaiming that they are the only ones who know the mind of God but basically irrelevant to society at large. Society at large seems to be increasingly ignoring their bleating.

    • You might be interested in the discussion this string has helped provoke over on Catholica.

      I should think not.

      They will be a true ‘remnant’ without influence noisily proclaiming that they are the only ones who know the mind of God but basically irrelevant to society at large. Society at large seems to be increasingly ignoring their bleating.

      Kumbaya Catholics are of no “relevance” either, if it comes to that. I wonder what your point is? If you say, “we agree with society about contraception, divorce and abortion, etc” why should they care? It makes no difference – you are only agreeing with them. That’s hardly any reason they should care about your religion and your God, which they still continue to despise.

  4. Peregrinus

    I always felt, to be honest, that some commentators were misunderstanding Ratzinger and his original “mustard seed” comments. There’s an attitude which now and then rears its head in internecine Catholic disputes and which is manifested in comments along the lines of “if he thinks that/believes that/wants that why doesn’t he go and found his own church/go and join the Anglicans/the Uniting Church/the Lefebvrists” – the recommended course of action depending, of course, on the particular point which is the subject of the dispute.

    While it can be an understandable expression of exasperation, I’ve always considered this attitude profoundly un-Catholic, and I’d be very surprised if Josef Ratzinger endorsed it. But I think some who do hold this attitude were too ready to understand the “mustard seed” comment as endorsing and expressing it – they looked forward, and they thought that Cardinal Ratzinger looked forward, to a church “purified” of dissent and of dissenters.

    As you point out, nothing that Ratzinger has said or done as pope suggests that he favours this view, and your own post offers cogent reasons why he wouldn’t.

    The question remains, though; what [i]did[/i] he mean by his original comment? I’m inclined to read it as a comment not about that church, but about western society in general; society will be (culturally) dechristianised and, while this isn’t something he embraces or welcomes or wishes to accelerate, it’s something he thinks the church will survive. And I think his later words and actions are consistent with that reading.

  5. Timely post. Thanks for the useful thoughts. One of the things that has always appealed to me about the Catholic church is that there is room under the umbrella for a broad range of views, often vigorously expressed. :)

  6. Christine

    The Catholic Church does not have the luxury of demanding of all its adherents an advanced level of catechisation.

    Advanced level, David? From what I encountered as a Catholic, it seems since VII many don’t even have the basics! How about starting there?

    • Yes, but what is required is a new way of doing catechesis. We have relied in the past rather heavily upon schools to do this, but that has been too little too short. Lutherans have a strong tradition of parish bible studies, led by the pastor. It will mean that priests must regain an understanding of their responsibility as “teacher” in the parish and find creative ways of doing this.

  7. Christine

    The schools? Oh, I don’t know, David. My husband went through the Catholic parochial system from kindergarten through high school. Didn’t do a whole lot for his formation. There’s a lot of former Catholics who had the same education.

    So many of the priests since Vatican II have imbibed the social justice paradigm that the salvation of souls doesn’t loom very high on their list of priorities. If the Catholic hierarchy can turn that around, perhaps. But with the looming clergy shortage in the RC “lay ecclesial ministers” and “parish associates” who are often quite liberal in their views seem to do a lot of the formation. That is the problem, not the wheat and tares.

    • Re the Schools: Whether they did it well or not isn’t the point. That is where it was expected to take place.

      I don’t think that most priests’ time is taken up with “social justice”. A lot of time being a “sacramental machine” and a lot more “running the parish”. A bit less of the latter (which lay people can do) might allow them time to be a “word and sacrament” machine instead!

      As for lay formators, nothing wrong with that either, as long as they themselves are well formed. Otherwise it is the blind leading the blind! Some are liberal. Some are ignorant. Some are faithful. Some are well educated. I reckon it really is a “wheat and tares” issue, since it is impossible to generalise. (Which, of course, just goes to show that a lot of commentary on this blog achieves the impossible!)

  8. Christine

    I don’t think that most priests’ time is taken up with “social justice”. Well, hop on over to my side of the woods, David. There’s a reason that the USCCB is called “the Democratic Party at Prayer.”

    What I meant was the ideology, not the practice. For example, a coworker of mine who was also a convert to the RC was dismayed that at a Christmas Eve mass the young parish associate focused his homily on how “depressed” he was that there was still so much poverty and social injustice in the world and that we need to do more. Wow. How about a few ruminations on the wonder of God becoming incarnate, the Word Made Flesh and how that has forever changed the world.

    Pastoral associates, especially like the one that was my RCIA sponsor can have a tremendous influence on a parish and how it sees itself, especially when they are promoting agendas contrary to official church teaching. The number of parishes in the U.S. that no longer have a resident priest continues to increase. It will be interesting to see how the Catholic church evolves here as more and more lay administrators take over.