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The new paganism and practical atheism

In 1958, a young professor of theology named Joseph Ratzinger published an article entitled "The New Pagans and the Church." Ratzinger, as a newly minted professor, did not shy away from the more controversial topics of his time. The idea of there being a presence of "new pagans" in the church is as relevant to us today just as it was sixty years ago. Although he had focused on salvation and concerns of "who is in" and "who is out" (an important question, which he does address), the idea of pagans in the church persists as a reality. By "pagans," Ratzinger refers to those who, while they may have been baptized and received the other Sacraments of Initiation, do not believe in them, or in God for that matter. Of course, the distinction between doubt or genuine struggle and outright unbelief goes without saying.

I'd like to somewhat expand upon Ratzinger's thought (matching or exceeding it is beyond my capability and my purpose) as well as explore the general reasons why this occurs today. First, Ratzinger is fairly broad in his application of the term "pagan." It applies to those who, while baptized members of the Church, are either non-practicing, or those who partake in the sacraments and in the life of the church (Eucharist, marriage, burial, etc.) as a sort of cultural custom; something that you just "do" because you were raised catholic. An attachment to the signs and symbols of the faith due to their cultural association empties them of meaning and efficaciousness, in those instances. The purpose of the sacraments, and of the church, is to draw each of us into communion with God. A hostile or indifferent will renders the outward participation in these sacraments as meaningless as the interior.

There are two aspects of life in the Church that are especially important for the Christian. They involve not only the outward ritual action and charity for one's fellow man, but also an internal piety and faith that is ultimately the backbone of catholic ritual. A common idea associated with Catholicism as a whole is the incorporation of a "both/and" religiosity- namely that inclusivity of practices and ideas is welcome, even required. When applied to Christian "pagans," one finds that there is something missing from the "both/and" formula espoused by many catholic leaders. The ritual, outward aspect of the faith is primarily liturgical- this includes the mass, eucharistic adoration, communal prayer, and others. Each of these events are built upon a two-thousand-year-old tradition where we, as physical creatures, participate in ritual to not only remember the sacrifice of Christ, but also to put ourselves there. Properly, the mass is a "re-presenting" of the sacrifice of Christ. It is not a repeat, nor an iteration- it is a participation in the cosmic, timeless liturgy that is the mass; that is the sacrifice of Christ.

The outward form or ritual is fundamentally based, therefore, on an awareness of that which is sacred in history, tradition, and even in our midst. The Mass, for example, was handed down from the Apostolic age to our own, evolving over time yet remaining the same. The fundamentals of the Mass, i.e. the Eucharist itself, the Liturgy of the Word, and prayers on behalf of the community have always been present. Throughout time, the Mass expressed different cultures and values- some even becoming rites of their own, such as the Byzantine Rite or the more common Roman Rite. Each rite has the same essential structure, however music, prayers, and the general atmosphere of each feels quite different, at risk of over-simplifying the differences.

These all, of course, find their root in not only the culture, but also the theological and artistic emphases found throughout the world. This leads to varying expressions of essentially the same thing. Each Rite's external form or ritual is nourished by the spirituality of the great saints and the theology of great scholars. Therefore in order for the ritual to be efficacious and worthy of being liturgy, it must be rooted in the apostolic tradition. The nourishment and pruning it receives over time further our understanding of the great mysteries of the liturgy and of the Church, which eventually bring us to the 21st century, with two thousand years of history and tradition behind us and, in a way, alongside us.

The segregation of the internal and external life of the church has brought about numerous crises. Without the internal "I" of faith, the external forms become cultural ceremonies, sacraments seen as different rites of passage- especially Confirmation. Without the external form, there is nothing to guide the believer. He or she is thus able to subscribe to any idea they desire, with nobody else to address it. It becomes, ultimately, a religion of self-affirmation, where one is rarely, if ever, challenged or even encouraged in their journey. There is a paganism in both of these camps, and it is unfortunately very prevalent in the church today. Ratzinger, in his original article, cites statistics that about 50% of Catholics did not practice. This is the late 1950's, the so-called "golden age" of the Church- yet half of the congregation either wasn't present or just didn't believe.

I cannot really solve the issues facing the Church right now- that is far beyond my capacity. I am merely addressing the fact that there is a spiritual emptiness in the world, especially in America and Western Europe. Everything is not okay. We are starved from that which gives us life, and we are just barely starting to see the consequences.


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