It will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows the writings of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI that he should choose during his Pastoral Visit to Freiburg for an appeal to Catholics to explore the true nature of the Church. It has always been a concern of the Pope Emeritus to seek, to explore and to disclose matters from their first principles. When considering the nature of the Church, it is impossible to limit one’s consideration to purely secular categories. One can never lose sight of the fact that Jesus Christ is the founder of the Church. The Church’s structure is determined by his work and ministry, and he has vested her with a dimension that cannot be adequately explained by political or sociological terminology alone.
In spite of the weaknesses and faults of her members, the Church transcends a purely worldly logic of why various organisations and societies are formed. Her head is Christ. He is the source of her saving power. That holds true for the Sacraments, which are not mere family celebrations, but vehicles of grace – his grace. The world knows no apparatus for measuring or scrutinising this dynamic of grace.
When Benedict XVI recommended the concept of “unworldliness” to the attention of the Church in Germany, he was not addressing the question of the church tax. Rather his concern was that the Church should free herself from the captivity of a purely worldly mindset. The Church is not in the business of politics; her mission is to proclaim the Gospel. The Church should not supply re-iterations of politically correct opinions; her hallmark is to stand up for true humanism, for the dignity and rights of man – to defend all that for which there is only one ultimate ground, namely God. He is the central theme of the Church. The Church is supposed to lead the world and man to Him. “Unworldliness” is not a withdrawal from the world, but a spiritual presence in the world.
Benedict XVI's "Unworldliness Speech" in Freiburg, Germany is regarded as one of the great, almost prophetic speeches he gave as Pope.
The ‘unworldliness’ which Benedict advocates so strongly is not a rejection of the world. Rather it is a call to the Church to remain faithful to her origin and mission.
The Church does not adopt a negative attitude to the world. Why would she do that? The world is God’s creation and therefore good – as the creation narrative relates so movingly. It is clear that the “unworldliness” which Benedict advocates so strongly is not a rejection of the world. Rather it is a call to the Church to remain faithful to her origin and mission. The Church needs to ask herself to what extent she has allowed herself to be caught up in purely human a frenzy of activity and has lost sight of God, the Creator and Perfecter of all things.
“Unworldliness” is the programme of “back to basics”. It is the motto of a turning to God, to renew our gratitude to the Creator and to express our hope and trust in God’s goodness.
In the middle of the hustle and bustle of the world it is a source of great comfort to be able to tune into the spiritual dimension of reality and realise that man is greater than his possessions, greater than what he appears to be. It is comforting to put one’s trust in the goodness of God, to be able to view other human beings as “my neighbour”, to discover that the beauty of creation is a foretaste of the beauty of Heaven.
Benedikt XVI was not at all interested in seeing the Church withdraw from the world. What the Pope actually wanted was to see the Church freed from a worldly mindset in order to be able to live the Gospel authentically and effectively.
We must learn the logic of unworldliness, so that we can rediscover and experience our identity as children of God.
We must learn the logic of unworldliness, so that we can rediscover and experience our identity as children of God. This attitude opens up new horizons. It allows us to remain down to earth, but at the same time the knowledge of the heavenly dimension allows us to tread more lightly and joyfully. In the words of Pope Benedict XIV:
“Openness to the concerns of the world means, then, for the Church that is detached from worldliness, bearing witness to the primacy of God’s love according to the Gospel through word and deed, here and now, a task which at the same time points beyond the present world because this present life is also bound up with eternal life. As individuals and as the community of the Church, let us live the simplicity of a great love, which is both the simplest and hardest thing on earth, because it demands no more and no less than the gift of oneself.”
The Pope Benedict XVI Institute
The author, Dr. Christian Schaller, is a Catholic Theologian and Assistant Director of the Pope Benedict XVI Institute in Regensburg. In 2013 Schaller received the Joseph Ratzinger Prize in recognition of his work.