In anticipation of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Obergefell v. Hodges, and reflecting on what that decision might hold for the future of the Church in America, I thought about reading Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience or a monograph on the persecutions of Catholics during the French Revolution. But instead, I picked up Faith and the Future, a thin volume containing five addresses given in 1969-1970 by a priest and professor named Joseph Ratzinger.
Those familiar with a better-known title published fifteen years later, The Ratzinger Report, can appreciate how well the man who would become Pope Benedict XVI has been able throughout his life to read the signs of the times and anticipate cultural and ecclesiastical shifts and trends that have since become clear for the rest of us. So I closely read and re-read the final pages of Faith and the Future, appreciating that our country was likely about to take another definitive step in the direction he foresaw Western society moving close to a half-century ago. When in 1970 Fr. Ratzinger considered the Church’s future, he envisioned that “terrific upheavals” in the secular world would result in a socially marginalized Church—a Church made small, but in her smallness, made stronger:
From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges…. But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world.
I was bolstered by these words when I checked the news on the morning of Friday, June 26. Already the proponents celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision were heralding the final paragraph of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion. As I read that paragraph, there was one line in particular that gave me goosebumps (though not for the reason those praising it were getting them). Speaking about those with same-sex attraction, Justice Kennedy wrote,
Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions.
To live in loneliness. Loneliness certainly catalyzes our search for companionship. We were made to find happiness in another. Justice Kennedy recognizes this. The people he is writing in support of recognize this. But loneliness—especially fear of loneliness—can also cause us to compromise and confuse our true home with a false refuge. We coax ourselves into believing a certain desire or person will make us happy, when by happiness all we really mean is distraction from our deeper, existential loneliness—an interior emptiness that’s frightening to confront.
Kennedy perceives the malady at work, but misidentifies the cure. I got goosebumps because Fr. Ratzinger identifies precisely the same affliction and even frames his discussion in the same terms: loneliness, hope, and finding a home (Kennedy speaks of homemaking earlier in his opinion). Yet Fr. Ratzinger also understands how the Church alone can—and will—offer the true remedy for empty hearts. In his closing paragraphs he explains that
when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret…. [The Church] will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.
Loneliness serves a different function in Fr. Ratzinger’s final analysis. It has the potential to awaken in man his need not for another but for Another. The “totally planned world” is one in which individuals construct the edifice of their lives according to their own, subjective blueprints. The Master Craftsman goes unconsulted. The “horror of their poverty” is the existential angst described above, which refuses to be smothered or numbed by fleeting pleasures and arrangements made with false gods. Such pursuits may offer temporary housing, but they are not homes. As St. Thomas observes,
Homes are not beautiful if they are empty. Things are beautiful by the presence of God.
The men and women Justice Kennedy writes in support of have always been searching—and will continue to search—for a transcendent foundation and grounding for life. For a true home. This court decision may seem to alleviate their burden, and the deep fear we all share of being alone. But no human institution, no human relationship, can, in and of itself, offer a true, lasting antidote to loneliness. It takes a divine relationship to do that. And because it is a divinely inspired and sustained institution, the Church will endure all opposition—including the assaults of those who may someday benefit from the refuge only she can offer them.
All men hope to not be condemned to live in loneliness. That is why God sent His only Son; that is why Christ founded the Church.
Image: Odilon Redon, Melancholy