How Does The Church Survive?
Question: In the course of two thousand years of Christian history, the Church has divided time and again. In the meantime, there are around three hundred distinguishable Protestant, Orthodox, or other churches. There are way over a thousand Baptist groups in the United States. Over against these there is still the Roman Catholic Church with the pope at her head, which claims to be the only true Church. She remains at any rate, and despite every crisis, indeed the most universal, historically significant, and successful Church in the world, with more members today than at any time in her history.
Answer from Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) I think that in the spirit of Vatican II we ought not to see that as a triumph for our prowess as Catholics and ought not to make much of the institutional and numerical strength we continue to enjoy. If we were to reckon that as our achievement and as our right, then we would step outside the role of a people belonging to God and set ourselves up as an association in our own right. And that can very quickly go wrong. A Church may have great institutional power in a country, but as soon as faith is no longer there to back it up, the institution will break down.
Perhaps you know the mediaeval story of a Jew who traveled to the papal court and who became a Catholic. On his return, someone who knew the papal court well asked him: “Did you realize what sort of things are going on there?” “Yes,” he said, “of course, quite scandalous things, I saw it all.” “And you still became a Catholic”, remarked the other man. “That’s completely perverse!” Then the Jew said, “It is because of all that that I have become a Catholic. For if the Church continues to exist in spite of it all, then truly there must be someone upholding her.” And there is another story, to the effect that Napoleon once declared that he would destroy the Church. Whereupon one of the cardinals replied, “Not even we have managed that!”
I believe that we see something important in these paradoxical tales. There have in fact always been plenty of human monstrosities in the Catholic Church. That she still holds together, even if she groans and creaks, that she is still in existence, that she produces great martyrs and great believers, people who put their whole lives at her service, as missionaries, as nurses, as teachers, that really does show that there is someone there upholding her.
We cannot, then, reckon the Church’s success as our own reward, but we may still say, with Vatican II—even if the Lord has given a great deal of life to other churches and communities—that the Church herself, as an active agent, has survived and is present in this agent. And that can only be explained by the fact that he grants what men cannot achieve.
Ratzinger, J., & Seewald, P. (2002). God and the World: Believing and Living in Our Time: A Conversation with Peter Seewald. (H. Taylor, Trans.) (pp. 63–65). San Francisco: Ignatius Press.