Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Sasse on the Future of Catholicism in 1967

I have posted this on What Sasse Said as part of a contining series of extracts from Hermann Sasse's 1967 Lecture to the Inter-Varsity Fellowship in Queensland, titled Holy Church or Holy Writ, The Meaning of the Sola Scriptura of the Reformation and thought it germane to the most recent posts here:

"The accession of John XXIII marks the turning point. The Roman Church as we knew it, the Church of the Syllabus, of the First Vatican Council, the Church which was always at loggerheads with the modern world, has come to an end. A new era began of which no-one can know where it will end. The exciting debates, the passionate controversies, the obvious breakdown of a centuries old discipline within Roman catholicism, the revolutionary excesses in the Catholic Churches in America and the Netherlands, are indicative of a deep spiritual crisis within the largest church in Christendom which may well end in the breakdown of its organisation, in the disintegration of the vast body of the Roman future centuires the Pope, the Patriarch of the West, may share the destiny of the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, or Constantinople, without, of course, ceasing to be for the faithful remnant of the Roman Church the successor of Peter and the Vicar of Christ with all the prerogatives of primacy."

An extract from Holy Church of Holy Writ?
The 1967 Inter-Varsity Fellowship Annual Lecture in Queensland

Forty-two years later, there is little to indicate that Sasse's prediction is off-track; his view co-incides with Ratzinger's view of the "smaller, purer church".


L P said...

He was a prophet or a propehtic man, Sasse,I mean.


Mark Henderson said...

Yes, his knowledge of church and world history enabled him to think events through to their conclusions.

Frank said...

Excellent quote.

Mark Henderson said...

Yes, Sasse is very quotable.

Good to hear from you again, Frank!

Schütz said...

I very much like Sasse. I learnt to value the real presence from his "This is my body" and the historical traditions of the liturgy from "Was Heisst Lutherisch?". I read this essay many years ago, and have a copy around the house somewhere still. It was one that I didn't want to part with.

That being said, it is very essential to note the dates of any prognostications or declarations regarding the Catholic Church published in or around the 1960's and to read them in context. For instance, Pelikan's "Riddle of Roman Catholicism" came out just before the Council. It is still a good book, but it is clear that the situation has changed dramatically. I am reading Hans Urs von Balthasar's "Karl Barth" at the moment - same thing applies. Then you have Ratzinger's "Introduction to Christianity" which came out in 1968. Really, the two poles that one has to watch for are 1965 (or 64) and 1968. In that three year period, the whole world changed for Western Catholicism, and anything written in the three years in the middle were written before it became clear which way things were going.

Sasse's 1967 essay fits into that camp. It was clear that there were big changes, but no one knew how fa those changes could or would go - or not go. Many people had "fears" and/or "hopes" that were realised. In many other cases they were not.

In this case, I think that Sasse actually got it wrong. Anyone viewing the Catholic Church in 1968 would have had good reason to fear that the Church was heading toward destroying itself. I picked up a Nov 1968 Time Magazine a few years back with a long article on the changes in the Church, and it was astonishing to see how much had happened in those three short years. (cf.

But having said all that, John Paul II's pontificate (starting in 1978 - ten years later) was as completely unexpected as John XXIII's Council. From about the mid-1980's (ie. about 20 years after the Council), a counter-reaction started to set in, which is now proceeding at quite a pace under Benedict XVI.

Despite even Papa Benny's own predictions as Cardinal in 1995, the Church has not declined numerically. We are challenged with shortages of clergy in many areas, but there is a modest turn around here too. It is true that doctrinal orthodoxy continues to be a problem, especially in the Western countries of Europe and US (and Oz), but this is, I think, a different matter. In fact, arguably today the Roman Pope (who has also rejected the title "Patriarch of the West" - Sasse would have been surprised by that, I think) and the Church he leads has a position of greater influence in global politics than at any previous time in history - including the height of the Middle Ages (where the pope's influence was felt only in Europe). Certainly his influence is greater than it was before the Second Vatican Council. Quite ironic, really, given the lack of enthusiasm for the papacy among western Catholics!