The Young Father Ratzinger

and the Two Motu Proprio

Part III: St. Bonaventure on the “Passion” of the Church

Part I of this series described the twofold restoration of the Church’s worship and of Christian society, which St. Bonaventure foresaw taking place at a future time in the history of the Church. Part II discussed the “future order” that he described as the instrument that would bring this restoration. A third element in his teaching describes the historical circumstances in which these developments would occur, and this he called the “passion” of the Church. As the young Father Ratzinger explained it, “By means of a typological explanation, the Passion of Jesus is extended from the ‘Head’ to the ‘Body.’”1 Father Ratzinger further explained: “And corresponding to the Babylonian Exile of Israel, there must be a second great tribulation for the Church. Out of this time of tribulation will emerge the ordo futurus….”2

At first these might seem to be merely personal theories of Saint Bonaventure. But the fact that this teaching was brought to light by the young Father Ratzinger in the 1950s, the decade before the Second Vatican Council, and that Pope John Paul II later promulgated The Catechism of the Catholic Church, shows that a new element was introduced into any examination of the present crisis in the Church. The new Catechism may have seemed to have replaced the older Catechism of the Council of Trent, but in fact a paragraph in John Paul II’s Catechism, the Catechism of Vatican II, can be understood only when interpreted in the light of the Catechism of Trent, the Catechism of Pius V. For the new Catechism states in paragraph 677: “The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection.” In the last sentence of the previous paragraph the Catechism text referred to “the ‘intrinsically perverse’ political form of secular messianism,” citing Pius XI’s condemnation of Communism in Divini Redemptoris.

What does the Catechism mean by saying that the Church will follow her Lord in His death? It clearly signifies what St. Bonaventure meant by the passion of the Church. But can the Church die, just as Our Lord died? Because of Our Lord’s promise of indefectibility to the Church, she cannot die in the sense of ceasing to exist. This can refer only to a mystical death of the Church, whereby, in Father Ratzinger’s explanation of St. Bonaventure, “the Passion of Jesus is extended from the ‘Head’ to the ‘Body.’”

If one compares the Catechism of the Council of Trent of Pius V with The Catechism of the Catholic Church of John Paul II, one finds two distinct descriptions of the nature of the Church. The Catechism of Pius V clearly distinguishes between the Catholic Church and the schismatic or heretical bodies that are separated from her, whereas the Catechism of John Paul II strives to describe the latter as being in varying degrees in communion with the Catholic Church. To achieve this latter objective, however, the new Catechism, following the Second Vatican Council – just as the traditional Catechism followed the Council of Trent – proposed a new theological description of the Church.

A historical comparison is essential to understand the difference. Protestant denominations defined the Church as an invisible community of the saints, the elect, while visible ecclesiastical structures were reduced to outward expressions of this, but of human origin. The leading Catholic apologist who countered this teaching was St. Robert Bellarmine, who expressed the Catholic doctrine as follows:

This is the difference between our teaching and all others, that all others require external virtues to constitute someone in the Church, and for that reason they make the Church invisible; but even though we believe all virtues (e.g. faith, hope, and charity and the rest), are discovered in the Church, still that someone could absolutely be called part of the true Church, on which the Scriptures speak, we do not think any internal virtue is required, but only the external profession of faith, as well as the communion of the Sacraments which is taken up in that sense. For the Church is a body of men that is just as visible and palpable as the body of the Roman people, or the Kingdom of France, or the Republic of Venice.3

St. Robert Bellarmine was saying that the Church is composed of saints and sinners alike, for she was founded by Our Lord for the conversion of sinners. To make the Church on earth solely a community of those who have achieved sanctity is to render her invisible, for the Church does not judge the internal state of souls. In the twentieth century, to counter the Protestant error, Pius XII in his encyclical Mystici Corporis taught that the Catholic Church alone is the Mystical Body of Christ, and the Holy Spirit is the Soul of the Mystical Body, giving her divine life, and that she is visible through her hierarchical structure, and holy through the graces and charisms at work within her.

At the Second Vatican Council, however, a change came about in the presentation of this teaching. The noted French theologian Father Louis Bouyer observed that the Council’s document Lumen Gentium failed to give sufficient importance to the Holy Spirit.4 Among traditional Catholics, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre cited Father Bouyer’s observation, making it his own, in a conference that he gave in his Swiss seminary on February 15, 1979.

Whereas Pius XII had emphasized the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ as the most perfect expression of Catholic teaching about the nature of the Church, the Second Vatican Council emphasized other images, such as that of the People of God, with its emphasis on the human instead of the divine element in the Church, the Holy Ghost. This was necessary in order to place less emphasis on the essential difference between the Catholic Church and other religions, and therefore the unique presence of the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity within the Catholic Church alone.

This diminishing of the role of the Holy Spirit, as noted by Father Bouyer, inevitably led to a theological separation of the body of the Church, understood as its purely human members, from the divine presence in the Church through the Holy Spirit. This separation of the Soul from the Body of the Church could only result in a theological lessening of the supernatural life of the Church – a mystical death, foreseen by St. Bonaventure with his teaching regarding the Passion of the Church, and confirmed by the hierarchy itself when John Paul II promulgated a new Catechism, affirming that the Church would follow her Lord in His death and Resurrection.

Therefore, the present crisis in the Church, foreseen by St. Bonaventure, necessitates the clearer doctrine of The Catechism of the Council of Trent to understand the Church’s traditional teaching about the nature of the Church – that the Catholic Church alone is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. For the Catholic Church is not merely the People of God, but the Mystical Body of Christ, as Pius XII taught, because within her alone the Holy Spirit dwells, as the Soul giving life to this Mystical Body. When this truth is obscured, as has happened since the Second Vatican Council, the Church experiences a Passion and Death, in the historical circumstances in which the new Catechism itself has since acknowledged.


1 Joseph Ratzinger, The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1971), p. 28.

2 Ibid., p. 30.

3 Robert Bellarmine, De Controversiis, Ryan Grant, trans. (Post Falls, ID: Mediatrix Press, 2016).

4 “Yet we are struck above all by two lacunae in the teaching of Lumen Gentium, and would search the other conciliar texts in vain to find any compensation for this situation…. The Constitution on the Church…with the exception of a paragraph that is more pious than doctrinal, completely ignores the Holy Spirit…. In particular, if the ecclesiology of the council is strongly Christological, it gives practically no place to the Spirit, despite a few preliminary statements in the first chapter of Lumen Gentium.” Louis Bouyer, The Church of God: Body of Christ and Temple of the Spirit, translated by Charles Underhill Quinn (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1982), pp. 171-172. L’Église de Dieu, corps du Christ et Temple de l’Esprit (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1970).