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Would Jesus Be in the Church Today? | Christoph Cardinal Schönborn | From Who Needs God? Barbara Stöckl in Conversation with Christoph Cardinal Schonborn | Ignatius Insight

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Can someone be a Christian without a church? There are so many people who work with the sick, the elderly, with homeless people and the marginalized in our society, who are there for these people and, thus, living Christian ideas in their most unadulterated form. Many of them, however, are not Catholic, nor do they have any use for the Church's rules and regulations. Nonetheless, I ask myself: Are they not the better Christians, at any rate, better than very many who go to church on Sundays?

Yes, and no. I often hear that: ''I'm not a bigot, I don't go to church, but I am a good Christian." And then I say again, "Which of us is a good Christian is something Christ will ultimately decide; we all have to appear before his throne of judgment." He will judge whether, in his eyes, I have been a good Christian. Part of being a good Christian, in the human, earthly order of things, is going to church to worship. For that is actually, as they used to say, our Christian duty. And part of it, of course, is also keeping the commandments of loving God and one's neighbor and not behaving like a scoundrel or a slave-driver. That is the human order of things. According to the human, earthly order of things, of which the Church order is also a part, I would have to answer someone who says, "I don't need any church in order to be a good Christian": That is not right. In order to be a Christian in the sense of our earthly pilgrimage, you need a church, and you need a community. "A single Christian is not a Christian", wrote Tertullian (d. 220), an early Christian writer.

That is to say, you cannot be a Christian on your own. Another question is, "How do I stand before God?" In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25, Jesus is talking about the final judgment. There, he does not ask, "Have you gone to church on Sundays? Have you paid your parish contributions? Have you obeyed your bishop?" There, the judge says only, "I was sick, and you visited me. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was in prison, and you visited me. I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink." Then those concerned will ask, "When did we see you naked and clothe you?" and so on. And then Jesus replies, "Whatever you did for the least of my brothers , you did for me." They had not perceived that at all . They simply did it. In the judgment of God, no doubt, the critical point will not be whether I have fulfilled all the Church's commandments, but whether I have lived love. There are, no doubt, many people who are not part of the visible community of the Church, and in that sense are not Christians, but to whom Christ will say, "Come, O blessed of my Father, for the kingdom of heaven is prepared for you."

Yet since we are pilgrims on earth, I still have to say to our dear former Christians: You cannot make things quite so easy for yourselves by saying, " I don't need the Church" , since the passage is not so simple. Renouncing all the help and support, all safe-conduct on the path, that I find in the community of faith is somewhat irresponsible. I think many people in our society are dealing irresponsibly with the capital of their lives, with what we need by way of spirituality in order to pass along the path of life, when they say, "I don't need the Church."

In fact, many people—I will call them the "seeking generation for now—want this search and the fascination of a higher power, which they associate with positive values like love, peace, and humanity. Different, negative things are associated with the Church: inflexible rules and dogmas, restrictions, obligations, and even anxiety and fear. What is going wrong with communication here? What is going wrong with the public relations, so that God is in fact love, but the Church is the problem?

I would like to compare that to some extent with a situation we come across quite frequently these days, one that is often very painful—that of children of divorced parents. The mother has the task of bringing them up, and the father sees the children once every two weeks. The father spoils the children, when they come to him every two weeks; he is the generous one and does not have to take on all the trouble of everyday life with the children. The mother, in addition to her role as mother, has to take on the father's role in daily life. That means she has to be twice as strict, has to carry out a double share of their upbringing. And of course, mother is the bad one and father the good one.

That comparison does not add up...

Mother Church ...

... because that would mean that God is off the hook, because he is not there in everyday life.

That is actually a very good objection—as with every comparison, my comparison obviously has its weak points. I do not think it is entirely wrong, since any comparison has just one point in which it holds, and the point here is that the Church in this society, is something lIke a single mother. The "fathers", who have far less concrete responsibility, are what is offered by our society. Mother Church has the unpleasant task of constantly saying to us, in our everyday affaIrs, "But you ought to do that this way, and you are not allowed that, and you must do this ..." Exactly as a single mother has to do in the daily task of bringing up her chIldren. The competition facing the Church is enormous. The offers that say, "Take it easy", "Have a good time", "Don't worry about it", are multitudinous and far more tempting than the sober, strict choice offered by the Church, which challenges you, "You have to get up on Sunday and go to church, and you have to go to confession and take a look at what is not in order in your life." These are all things people do not lIke to hear, and the alternatives offer something far more enjoyable. The Church is not the only one in the marketplace.

Prebendary Koch (Cologne) says this on the subject: "Most people regard the Church as a supermarket. People pick up the interesting offers—kindergarten, school, special worshIp servlces—and leave the Commandments and the pope; they pay their church tax at the cashier and expect prompt service. Then they go into the next shop and see what astrology, Buddhism, and psychotherapy have to offer today. And the following week, they make these decisions all over again." Does this image fit the current situation?

Perfectly. I think one could not put it better. As a psychotherapist or psychologist, however—I have also studIed that a little—one would have to say that this is a dangerous approach to life, because ultimately it gives no structure. It leaves you with a rather ambivalent attitude that cannot make you happy, either. Why is it we know from our own experience or from observation, that a good upbringing, a loving upbringing, is also a strict upbringing? Because it gives structure, because it strengthens your backbone, because it prepares you for a life that does not shift like a jellyfish, but where you can walk upright. And in what it offers you, the Church is of course in the same position as parents who are not willing to let their children get into every "Playmobil" or video game and who set limits.

But how can the Church raise her profile now in the market for life coaching and the search for meaning? How can I reach the believer who also goes to the astrologer, to the life coach, the health guru, and the psychotherapist? How can I say, "Have a look at what I can offer"? The German "Lufthansa" airline, for example, had the slogan, "We keep the skies open". Is not that really the slogan of the Church?

That is a nice slogan, but the slogan should not be too much at the service of vague, general emotions.

What is the Church's slogan today?

I am convinced that it can only be the offer of Jesus himself. At times of crisis like this, you always have to ask: What is the core? What is the essence? In the course of her history, the Church has made the strongest gains in times of crisis when she has recalled the essence. Take Benedict of Nursia (d. 547) and the monastic movement in a period of chaos, when people recalled what "following Jesus" really meant. The most memorable instance, for us, is perhaps the thirteenth century with Francis (d. 1226) and Dominic (d. 1221): the rise of towns, the emergence of the marketplace, in fact , the first steps toward our modern economy—and into this came a way of life with a clear and definite shape, the movement for evangelical poverty, the mendicant friars, the Franciscan movement. The gospel as alternative. In the twentieth century, perhaps the most obvious example is that of Mother Teresa (d. 1997).

The most interesting thing is that as soon as the gospel can be seen in a clearly defined, concrete manner, it speaks to people right across religious divisions and challenges them, because—and this is the most profound conviction of the Christian faith—the gospel of Jesus has truly revealed God's innermost heart. This is what our God is like, and this is how he wants us to live. Wherever people encounter the gospel, there God is, in our so vague and often banal, trivial, and uncommitted times. Suddenly we feel, "That's exactly it, that is exactly what is necessary." That is why I do not see the Church's path in successful slogans like, "keep the skies open", but in forms in which the gospel can be read. These are always concrete people, groups, communities.

The very first people who followed Jesus were John and Andrew, when he was down by the Jordan with John the Baptist. They were walking behind him, and Jesus turned around and asked them, "What do you seek?"—and they wanted to know from him, "Teacher, where are you staying?" At that, he said to them, "Come and see." And they went with him, and saw where he was staying, and remained with him for the day. "Come and see!" There is nothing more urgently needed in Christianity than a place, and especially people, in which and in whom it can be seen. So I do not concern myself about the Church's PR. Jesus did not give us the mission of making as much and as good PR as we can; rather, he said, "Preach the gospel, the good news." That must become visible and audible.

Who Needs God?

Barbara Stöckl in Conversation with Christoph Cardinal Schönborn

We are experiencing a dramatic social upheaval in today's world, a breakdown of our living conditions and values. A non-stop world: No one can stop it, and we find no place to stop in it. Political boundaries become less important; social structures seem to disintegrate--all is subordinated to cash flow and profit maximization. With growing individualism, the concept of the good and proper life has been lost. Whether one is faithful or unfaithful, fair or unfair, honest or dishonest seems to have less importance. Freedom and prosperity are the magic words. We live flexibly and without commitment, go where we wish, when we wish. This does not produce living conditions that facilitate belief in God and contact with God, as one perhaps had during childhood. The longing for old values such as faith and deeper spiritual meaning has consequently been reawakened.

What repercussions does this development have on society, children, the elderly, the ill? Whom do people allow first to be God? Who is our pilot? Is it the coach, the psychologist, the investment counselor? Who is supposed to support man in the future through his crisis, whether public or private? Who needs God? What does God provide? Can we truly live without faith or the Church? Why does the Church so often seem not to understand us and our needs?

These and many other questions posed to Christoph Cardinal Schönborn in this book are the questions asked today by many people who are searching for God and want to live the experience of faith.

"When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing--they believe in anything." -- G. K. Chesterton

Barbara Stöckl is an Austrian television and radio journalist. The host of numerous broadcasts, she has recently launched a new televised magazine Stöckl an Samstag.

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn is the Archbishop of Vienna, Austria. He was the general editor of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, co-author (with Cardinal Ratzinger) of Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and the author of God's Human Face and Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church: The Creed (Vol. 1), The Sacraments (Vol. 2), Life in Christ (Vol. 3), Paths of Prayer (Vol. 4), and Chance or Purpose? Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith.

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