Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

An Ever-Reforming Society

by Pope Benedict XVI


This is the speech given by Cardinal Ratzinger at the Rimini Meeting for Friendship among Peoples on September 1, 1990. Its subject is the renewal of the Church, and its need to be rooted in Christ with a spirituality of wonder open to the action of God, rather than being rooted in human plans and strategies with a non-spirituality of human activism. This is one of a dozen texts included in Robert Cardinal Sarah's outstanding appreciation of Benedict XVI, published by Ignatius Press in 2023 and available for purchase through this link: He Gave Us So Much: A Tribute to Benedict XVI. Ignatius Press gave permission for the use of their translation here.

Larger Work

Robert Cardinal Sarah's book, He Gave Us So Much (Ignatius Press)



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, 2023

Dear friends! Thank you for your very warm welcome! You know the title of my lecture: “An Ever-Reforming Society”.

It doesn’t take much imagination to guess that the society of which I wish to speak is the Church. Perhaps the word Church is omitted in the title only because it would spontaneously provoke a defensive reaction in most people today. They think, “We have heard too much about the Church, and what we hear is not pleasant at all.” The word and the reality of the Church have fallen into discredit. And so, it is thought, even a permanent, continuous reform will not change anything. Or perhaps, the problem is that up till now, we have not found out what kind of reform could make the Church into a society that is truly worth living in. Let us ask above all: Why is the Church looked on with such disfavor by so many people, even among believers, even among those who, up till yesterday, one could consider some of the most faithful or who, despite suffering, still are faithful in some way today?

The reasons are very diverse, sometimes even contradictory, depending on the positions taken. Some suffer because the Church has adapted too much to the parameters of today’s world. Others are annoyed because they consider her still too alienated from the world. For the most part, the discontent with the Church starts with the fact that she seems to be an institution like so many others, and as such, she is seen as limiting one’s personal freedom. The thirst for freedom is the form that today expresses the desire for liberation, the perception of not being free, of being alienated. Invoking freedom expresses an aspiration to an existence that is not limited by what is given—which would hinder my full personal development by presenting me from the outside with the road that I should follow. But everywhere, one comes across barriers and roadblocks of this type that bring us to a halt and prevent us from going farther. Thus, any barriers that the Church raises are seen as doubly heavy, because they penetrate into our most personal and intimate sphere. But the norms of the Church are far more than traffic rules aimed at minimizing confrontations during human coexistence. These rules have to do with my interior course—they tell me how I should interpret and configure my freedom. These rules require that I make decisions, which cannot always be done without the pain of renouncing something. But do they not perhaps mean to deny us the best fruits in the garden? Is it not true that the constraints of so many commandments and prohibitions do bar the way to an open horizon? And does all this not hinder thought and will from greatness? Should not liberation consist in getting out from under such spiritual guidance? And is not the one true reform perhaps to reject all such rules? Well, then, what would remain of this “society”?

Bitterness against the Church also has a specific reason. In fact, in a world that is governed by hard discipline and inexorable constrictions, a silent hope continues to be directed at the Church: that she can represent a small island of a better life, a small oasis of freedom to which one may retreat from time to time. Anger against the Church or disappointment in her therefore has a specific character, because tacitly, more is expected of her than of worldly institutions—the silent hope that in the Church, the dream of a better life can be realized. Therefore, how much more one would wish to experience within her that taste of liberty, of being free, of leaving the cave, as Gregory the Great said, drawing from Plato.

Nonetheless, the moment that the Church, in her concrete aspect, becomes so far removed from such a dream, and takes on the flavor of a worldly institution and everything that is merely human, she becomes the target of particularly bitter anger. And this anger cannot be less, if only because those who had placed their hopes in her cannot extinguish their dream. Since the Church is not as she appears in their dreams, they seek desperately to make her over into what they want her to be: a place where one may express all freedoms, a space in which our limits can be surpassed, where one may experience that utopia that has to be somewhere. As in the field of political activity, they would wish finally to build a better world, or they think that there should finally be a better Church—or at least, the first step toward one: a Church that is fully human, full of fraternity, of generous creativity, a dwelling of reconciliation among all and for all.

But how should this come about? How can such a reform be carried out?

Well, we must begin somewhere, it is said—often with the ingenuous presumption of the enlightened, who are convinced that the generations up to now never really understood the problem, or that they were too fearful and unenlightened. Today, it is thought, we finally have both courage and intelligence, and for all the resistance that reactionaries and “fundamentalists” may oppose to this noble undertaking, it must be set into motion. That, at least, is the formula of the “enlightened” for the first step.

The Church is not a democracy. Since she first appeared, she has not integrated into her internal constitution that patrimony of rights and freedoms that the Enlightenment elaborated and that have since been recognized as the fundamental rules for sociopolitical formation. Thus it seems like the most normal thing in the world to recover once and for all whatever had been obscured or neglected in the past, and to start setting up this fundamental patrimony of structures of freedom. The path would lead, as they like to say, from a paternalistic Church that dispenses goods to a Church that is a community. They say that no one should be just a passive receiver of the good that makes one a Christian. Instead, everyone must become an active operator in Christian life, and the Church should never again be seen as coming down from on high. No! It is we who “make” the Church, and we shall see to it that she will always be new. That way, she will finally become “our” Church, and we shall be her active, responsible subjects. The passive aspect yields to the active. The Church will arise through discussions, agreements, and decisions. In the debate there emerges that which can be demanded still today, that which can still today be recognized by all as belonging to the faith, or as an orienting moral guideline. New, abbreviated “formulas of faith” will be coined. In Germany, at a fairly high level, it has been said that even the liturgy should no longer correspond to a prescribed rubric, but rather should just emerge on site, as needed—in a specific situation, and determined by the community for which it is being celebrated. And even that improvisation should have nothing previously constituted—it should be something entirely self-generated, as an expression of the moment. In this, the words of Scripture would be seen as something of a hindrance, even if they cannot be completely renounced. One could say one faces a great freedom of choice. But there are not many scriptural texts that can be adapted without “disturbing” that ideal of “self-realization” to which, it now seems, liturgy is destined.

But in this work of reform, during which finally, it is said, even in the Church “self-determination” or “self-management” will replace being guided by others, questions promptly arise. Who exactly is responsible for making decisions? And on what basis are these decisions made? In the political democracy, this question is answered by a system of representation: individuals choose a representative, who then makes the decisions for them. This responsibility is limited in time; it is circumscribed even by the party system, and encompasses only those fields of political action specifically assigned by the constitution. But even in this respect, questions remain: the minority must bow to the majority, even if this minority can be quite large. Besides, it is not guaranteed that the representative I have elected necessarily acts and speaks the way I wish. Thus, when we look at it more closely, even the victorious majority cannot in fact consider themselves entirely active subjects in political events. On the contrary, they must accept even “decisions made by others”, if only not to endanger the democratic system in its entirety.

But more important for us is a more general problem. Everything that men do can likewise be nullified by others. Everything that comes from human taste will not necessarily please everybody. Everything that a majority decides can later be abrogated by another majority. And so a Church that depends on the decisions of a majority becomes a Church that is purely human. She becomes reduced to something doable and plausible, to the fruits of her own actions, intuitions, and opinions. Opinion takes the place of faith. Indeed, in the coined “professions of faith” that I am familiar with, the meaning of the expression credo—”I believe”—does not go beyond “This is what we think.” The “self-made” Church is ultimately “just herself”, and others who are “just themselves” may never like this “just herself” Church, which soon reveals her own smallness. She would retreat to the field of the empirical and, in this way, cease to be even the ideal that was dreamed about.

The activist—who wants to do everything himself—is the opposite of the person who admires. The activist restricts the field of his own reason and thus loses sight of mystery. The more the Church extends the range of things that people decide for themselves and do for themselves, the narrower she becomes for all of us. The great and liberating dimension of the Church is not in what we ourselves do but in that which is given to all of us—that which does not come from our own will and invention, but from something that precedes us, something that comes to us from an unimaginable source, a source “greater than our heart”. Reformation, which is necessary in every age, does not consist in the fact that we can remodel “our Church” anew all the time as it would please us, or that we can invent her, but rather that we constantly clear away our own personal constructs, in favor of the most pure light that comes from above, which is also the irruption of pure freedom.

Let me explain what I mean with an image, which I take from Michelangelo, who for his part has taken it from ancient concepts of Christian mysticism and philosophy. With his artist’s vision, Michelangelo saw in the stone before him the image hidden beneath, waiting to be liberated and brought to light. The task of the artist, in his view, was simply to take away that which still covered that image. Michelangelo thought of authentic artistic activity as bringing something to light, releasing it, not “making” it.

The same idea applied to anthropology was already evident in Saint Bonaventure, who explained the journey through which man becomes authentically himself by using the image of the sculptor. The sculptor doesn’t “make” something, explained the great Franciscan theologian. Instead, his work is an ablatio—which consists of eliminating, of trimming away what is not authentic. Thus, through ablatio, the forma nobilis emerges, the precious figure. Thus it is for man: so that the image of God may shine in him, he must above all, and first of all, welcome that purification through which the sculptor, namely God, frees him from all the debris that obscures the authentic aspect of his being, that makes him appear as nothing more than a gross block of stone, when really the divine image dwells in him.

If we understand it correctly, we can also find in this image the model and guide for ecclesial reform. Of course, the Church will always need new human structures to support her, in order that she may speak and function in every historical epoch. Such ecclesial structures and institutions, with their juridical configurations, far from being something evil, are, on the contrary, simply necessary and indispensable. But institutions age, and they risk presenting themselves as essential, thus distracting from what is really and truly essential. That is why institutions must always be “removed” like scaffolding that has become superfluous. Reform is always a new ablatio—a trimming off, so that the forma nobilis may emerge once more: the face of the Bride, and with it, the face of the Bridegroom himself, the living Lord. A similar ablatio, a “negative theology”, is a way toward a goal that is all positive. Only thus can the Divine penetrate, and only thus can there emerge a congregatio—an assembly, a gathering, a purification, that pure community that we yearn for—a community in which the “I” is no longer against another “I”, a “self” no longer against another “self”. Rather, self-giving, that trusting abandonment which is part of love, becomes the reciprocal receiving of all that is good and all that is pure. Thus, for each of us, the word of the generous father applies, who reminds his envious son of what is contained in every freedom and every utopia that is realized: “All that is mine is yours” (Lk 15:31; cf. Jn 17:1ff).

Once again, true reform is ablatio, which, as such, becomes congregatio. Let us try to grasp this basic idea in a more concrete way. In a first approach, we opposed the activist to the admirer, and we decided in favor of the latter. But what exactly does their opposition mean? The activist, who always wants to be doing something, places his own activity above everything. This limits his horizon to only that which is doable, to what can become an object of his doing. Properly speaking, all he sees are objects. He is not, in fact, capable of seeing anything bigger than he is, because that could set a limit to what he can do. So he restricts the world to only that which is empirical. Man cuts himself off. And the activist builds his own prison, against which he himself will later protest to high heaven.

Instead, true wonder says no to this restriction to the empirical, to the mere here and now. True wonder prepares man for an act of faith that opens wide before him the horizon of the Eternal. Only the Eternal has no limits and is sufficiently wide for our nature, because only the unlimited is adequate to our calling as human beings in the likeness of God. Where this horizon disappears, every residue of freedom becomes too small, and all freedoms that can be subsequently proposed are an insipid surrogate that will never suffice. The first fundamental ablatio that is necessary for the Church is always the act of faith itself—that act of faith that rips the barrier of the finite and opens up space for reaching out to the limitless. Faith leads us a long way, into limitless lands, as the Psalms say. Modern scientific thinking has increasingly caged us within the prison of positivism and has thus condemned us to pragmatism. Through it, many things can be achieved. We can even travel to the moon and beyond in the limitlessness of the cosmos.

Notwithstanding all this, we remain at the same point, because we cannot go beyond the frontier of the quantifiable and the doable.

Albert Camus described the absurdity of this form of freedom in the figure of the emperor Caligula. Everything was at his disposal, and yet everything was too narrow for him. In his mad desire to have increasingly more, increasingly greater things, he cried out: “I want the moon, give me the moon!” Meanwhile, it has become possible for us to have the moon in some way. But until the true and real frontier opens, the frontier between Heaven and earth, between God and the world, even the moon is simply another piece of ground, and reaching it does not bring us a step closer to the freedom and fullness that we desire.

The fundamental liberation that the Church can give herself is to stay in the horizon of the Eternal, to leave the limits of our knowledge and power. Faith itself, in all its greatness and amplitude, is therefore the constant essential reform that we need. Starting with the faith, we must always put to the test those institutions that we ourselves have made in the Church. This means that the Church must be the bridge of faith, and that she—especially in her associations within the world—cannot be an end in herself. The notion has become widespread, even in high Church circles, that a person is more Christian the more he is involved in Church activities. There is an urge toward a kind of ecclesiastical therapy by activity, to make work—to try to assign everyone to some committee, or at any rate, some task within the Church. Somehow, so they think, there must always be some ecclesial activity. One must always talk about the Church, one must always do something for her or in her. But a mirror that reflects nothing but itself is no longer a mirror. It is no longer a window that allows looking toward a farther horizon, but it becomes a screen between the observer and the world, and therefore has lost its sense. It may happen that someone uninterruptedly exercises ecclesial activities but is not necessarily Christian—just as someone could simply live from the Word and the sacraments and practice the love that comes from faith without ever being part of a Church committee, never bothering about developments in Church politics, never taking part in synods or voting in one, and yet be a true Christian. We need not a more human Church but a more divine one, because only then can she be truly human. Thus it is that everything done by man within the Church should be recognized for the service that it is, but it must take its place behind what really counts and what is essential. Freedom, which we reasonably expect from the Church and in the Church, is not realized by applying the principle of majority rule. It does not depend on the fact that the widest possible majority must prevail over the narrowest possible minority. Rather, it depends on the fact that no one can impose his own will on others, but that everyone must acknowledge being bound to the word and the will of the Only One who is our Lord and our freedom. The atmosphere becomes closed and suffocating in the Church if the bearers of its ministry forget that the sacrament is not a distribution of power, but rather an appropriation of the self, of myself, in favor of him in whose person I as a priest must speak and act. Wherever greater responsibility corresponds to ever greater self-expropriation, then no one is a slave to another. The Lord dominates, and thus the principle that the Lord is the Spirit, “and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3 :17).

The more apparatuses we construct, even the most up-to-date, the less space we have for the Spirit, the less space we have for the Lord, and the less freedom we have. I think that we should, from this viewpoint, initiate in the Church at all levels an examination of conscience without reservations. At all levels, this examination of conscience should have sufficiently concrete consequences, and bring with it an ablatio that will allow the true face of the Church to appear once more. This could give back to all of us a sense of freedom, and allow us to find ourselves at home in the Church in a completely new way.

Let us look briefly, before proceeding further, at what we have brought to light so far. First, we spoke of a double “cutting away”, of an act of liberation that is twofold: an act of purification and of renewal. We touched on the faith that can break down the wall of the finite and can free our vision toward the dimensions of the Eternal—not only our vision, but also the path. Faith is not just knowing and acknowledging, but a functioning. It is not just a break in the wall, but a hand that saves, that draws us out of the cave. From this, we drew the consequences for institutions, in that the essential basic order of the Church always needs new concrete developments and concrete configurations, but these configurations cannot become the essential thing. Indeed, the Church does not exist for the purpose of keeping us all occupied like any other worldly association, nor of keeping herself alive as such. She exists to be for all of us the access to eternal life.

Now we must take the next step and apply all these reflections not only in the general and objective sense, as we have done till now, but personally. In fact, even here in the personal sphere, it is also necessary to effect a trimming off that liberates us. On the personal level, it will not always be the forma nobilis, that is, the image of God inscribed in us, that will leap to the eye. Instead, we see ourselves as the image of Adam, of a man who is not totally ruined but nonetheless degraded. We can see the incrustations of dust and filth that overlie the image. We all need the true Sculptor who will cut off all that distorts the image. We need forgiveness, which constitutes the nucleus of every true reform. It was certainly not by chance that in the three decisive stages of the Church’s formation, as told by the Gospels, the remission of sins plays an essential role. First, when Jesus entrusted the keys to Peter, the power given to him to bind and unbind, to open and close—which is what we speak of with regard to sins—is, at its core, a charge to allow entry, to give a welcome home, to forgive (Mt 16:19). We find the same thing at the Last Supper, which inaugurated the new community based on the Body of Christ, and in the Body of Christ. It became possible from the fact that the Lord shed his blood “for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:28). Finally, the Risen Lord, in his first appearance to the Eleven, founds the communion of his peace on the fact that he gives them the power to forgive (Jn 20:19-23). The Church is not a community of “people who do not need doctors”, but rather a community of converted sinners, who live on the grace of forgiveness, transmitting it in turn to others.

If we read the New Testament carefully, we discover that forgiveness in itself has nothing magic about it; but neither is it a pretense of forgetting, of “pretending it didn’t happen”. Rather, it is a process of change that is very real, one that the Sculptor accomplishes. When sin is taken away, something is really removed, and the advent of forgiveness is revealed by the penitence that follows. In this sense, forgiveness is both an active and a passive process: the powerful creative word of God brings upon us the pain of change, which becomes an active transformation. Forgiveness and penitence, grace and personal conversion, are not contradictory, but two faces of one and the same event. This fusion of activity and passivity expresses the essential form of human existence. Indeed, all our “creating” starts with our being creatures, with our participation in the creative activity of God.

And here we come to a truly central point: I believe that the spiritual crisis of our time has its roots in the obscuring of the grace of forgiveness. But let us first observe the positive aspect of the present: the moral dimension is beginning to be held up anew little by little. It is being acknowledged—or rather, it has become evident—that every technical progress is questionable and ultimately destructive if each step forward does not also correspond to a moral growth. It is recognized that there cannot be a reform of men and of mankind without moral renewal. But the invocation of morality remains ultimately listless and weak, because its parameters are hidden behind a dense cloud of debate. In effect, man cannot abide pure and simple moralism—he cannot live with it. It becomes for him a “law” that provokes his desire to contradict it, and thus generates sin....

In general terms, one can say that moral discussion today tends to liberate men from blame, to the point of making sure that the conditions for its possibility never enter into the discussion. One is reminded of a mordant expression from Pascal: “Ecce patres, qui tollunt peccata mundi!”: “Behold the fathers who take away the sins of the world.” According to these “moralists”, there is simply no blame anymore. Naturally, this way of freeing the world from blame is much too cheap. Within themselves, the men who are thus “liberated” know quite well that all this is not true, that there is sin, that they themselves are sinners, and that there must be an effective way to overcome sin. Jesus himself did not call to himself those who had already been liberated on their own and who therefore believed they had no need of him, but those who knew themselves to be sinners who therefore did need him.

Morality preserves its own gravity only if there is forgiveness, true forgiveness that is effective. Otherwise, it falls into pure and empty conditionalism. True forgiveness only comes at a price, “an equitable exchange rate”, if the sin is expiated, if there is expiation. The circle of morality-forgiveness-expiation cannot be broken up: if one element is missing, everything falls apart. The undivided nature of this circle determines whether there is redemption for man or not. In the Torah—the five books of Moses—these three elements are indivisibly tied to each other, and it is therefore not possible to extract a moral law that is always valid from this central covenant of the canon of the Old Testament, as the Enlightenment thinkers did, while abandoning the rest of it to history. This moralistic modality of interpreting the Old Testament necessarily ends in failure. This was precisely the error made by Pelagius, who has more followers today than one might think at first glance. Instead, Jesus fulfilled the whole Law, not just a part of it, and therefore, he renewed it from the base. He himself, who suffered in expiating every human sin, is expiation and forgiveness contemporaneously, and is thus the only sure and always valid basis for our morality.

One cannot dissociate morality from Christology, because it cannot be separated from expiation and forgiveness. In Christ, every part of the Law is fulfilled, and therefore, morality becomes for us a true and fulfillable exigency. Starting with the nucleus of faith, then, the way to renewal is always open for the individual, for the Church in her entirety, and for mankind.

There is much to say about this. But I will try, very briefly, to emphasize once more, in conclusion, that which seems to be most important in our context. Forgiveness and its realization in myself, through penitence and its consequences, is in the first place the center of everything personal in any renewal. But precisely because forgiveness concerns the individual in his most intimate nucleus, he is capable of accepting it integrally, and he can become a center of renewal for the larger community. If, in fact, the dust and the filth are cleaned away that had made me unrecognizable as an image of God, then I am not different from my neighbor, who is also an image of God. Above all, I become similar to Christ, who is the human image of God without any limitations whatsoever, the model upon which all of us were created. Paul expresses this process in rather extreme terms: “The old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17), and “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). It is a process of death and rebirth—I am torn away from my isolation and am received into a new community-subject: my “I” is inserted into the “I” of Christ and is thus united to that of all my brothers. Only from the profundity of such a renewal of the individual is the Church born—the community that unites and sustains in life and in death. Only when we take all this into consideration will we see the Church in her correct order of magnitude.

The Church is not only the small group of activists who find themselves together at a certain place to initiate a communitarian life. Nor is she simply the great host of those. who gather together on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist. Finally, the Church is also much more than the pope, bishops, and priests, those who are invested with the sacramental ministry. All these whom we have named are part of the Church, but the radius of the society that we join through faith extends far beyond that, even beyond death. All the saints, beginning with Abel and Abraham, are part of her, along with all the witnesses to hope that the Old Testament recounts, and Mary, Mother of the Lord, and his apostles, down to Thomas Becket and Thomas More, to Maximilian Kolbe, Edith Stein, and Pier Giorgio Frassati. And so are all the unknowns and the unnamed, whose faith no one has known except God, the men and women in all places and all times whose hearts reached to Christ with hope and love, to the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith”, as the letter to the Hebrews calls him (12:2).

It is not the occasional majorities that form here and there in the Church who decide her path and ours. The saints are the true determining majority according to which we orient ourselves. It is to them that we look! They have translated the divine into the human, the eternal into time. They are our teachers in humanity, who do not abandon us in pain and in solitude, but even at the hour of death are there beside us.

Here we touch on something very important. A vision of the world that cannot give meaning to pain and make it precious does not serve for anything. It fails precisely where the decisive question of existence arises. Those who have nothing else to say about pain but that we should fight it are deluding us. Of course we should do everything to alleviate the pain of so many innocents and to minimize suffering. But there is no human life without pain, and whoever is incapable of accepting pain excludes himself from that purification which alone can make us mature. In communion with Christ, pain becomes full of significance, not only for me, as a process of ablatio, in which God strips from me the debris that obscures his image, but beyond me, useful for everyone, so that we can all say with Saint Paul, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24). Thomas Becket—who together with Einstein and the figure of the Admirer has been our guide in our reflections these days—encourages us to take a further step. Life goes far beyond our biological existence. When there is no reason that is worth dying for, then life itself is not worth living. Where faith has opened our eyes and made our heart larger, then, another expression from Saint Paul acquires all its power of illumination: “None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom 14:7-8). The more we are rooted in the society of Jesus Christ and all those who belong to him, the more our life shall be sustained by that irradiating trust to which Saint Paul also gave expression: “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).

Dear friends, it is with such faith that we should allow ourselves to be filled! Then the Church will grow as communion in our journey within true life, and she will renew herself day by day. Then she will become the great house with many dwellings. Then the multiplicity of the Holy Spirit’s gifts can work within her. Then we shall see “how good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell in the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there, the Lord has commanded the blessing, life for evermore” (Ps 133:1-3).

This translation of Cardinal Ratzinger’s address to the Rimini Meeting for Friendship among Peoples, September 1, 1990, was modified for style by Ignatius Press and published in Robert Cardinal Sarah, He Gave Us So Much: A Tribute to Benedict XVI, based on the translation by Teresa Benedetta for the International Association for the Preservation of the Heritage of Benedict XVI (Papst Press).

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