That an earthly agency might hold the key to the kingdom of heaven is a fond hope of mankind, such that the passing of the Vicar of Christ touches even those who long since rejected that hope. Into whose hand will the key pass? News reports suggest that the succession may fall to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the Vatican’s chief theologian. With no way to game the odds that this might happen, I think it worth noting that Ratzinger is one of the few men alive capable of surprising the world. Ten years ago, he shocked the Catholic world with this warning:
We might have to part with the notion of a popular Church. It is possible that we are on the verge of a new era in the history of the Church, under circumstances very different from those we have faced in the past, when Christianity will resemble the mustard seed [Matthew 13:31-32], that is, will continue only in the form of small and seemingly insignificant groups, which yet will oppose evil with all their strength and bring Good into this world. 
He added, “Christianity might diminish into a barely discernable presence,” because modern Europeans “do not want to bear the yoke of Christ”. The Catholic Church, he added, might survive only in cysts resembling the kibbutzim of Israel. He compared these cysts to Jesus’ mustard seed, faith of whose dimensions could move mountains. Ratzinger’s grim forecast provoked a minor scandal, complete with coverage in Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading newsmagazine. The offending sentences did not appear in the English translation, “Salt of the Earth”, and were not discussed further in polite Catholic company.
Cardinal Ratzinger is a Prince of the Church who threatened, as it were, to abandon the capital and conduct guerrilla war from the mountains. Years before Europe’s demographic death-spiral was apparent, Ratzinger had the vision to see and the courage to say that the Catholic Church stood on the brink of a catastrophic decline. This observation is now commonplace. As George Weigel, John Paul II’s biographer, wrote in March, “Europe, and especially Western Europe, is in the midst of a crisis of civilizational morale … Europe is depopulating itself at a rate unseen since the Black Death of the 14th century.”  He continued:
The demographics are unmistakable: Europe is dying. The wasting disease that has beset this once greatest of civilizations is not physical, however. It is a disease in the realm of the human spirit … Europe … is boring itself to death. Europe’s current demographic trend lines, coupled with the radicalization of Islam that seems to be a by-product of some Muslims’ encounter with contemporary, secularized Europe, could eventually produce a 22nd-century, or even late-21st-century, Europe increasingly influenced by, and perhaps even dominated by, militant Islamic populations … it is allowing radicalized 21st-century Muslims – who think of their forebears’ military defeats at Poitiers in 732 … as temporary reversals en route to Islam’s final triumph in Europe – to imagine that the day of victory is not far off.
Weigel blames “a lethal explosion of atheistic humanism” in the form of World War I for Europe’s decline. That cannot be quite true, for World War I burst out of the Balkans conflict between Catholic Austria-Hungary and Orthodox Russia. The messianic Slavophiles of the court of Czar Nicholas II confronted the most Catholic of all European entities, the multinational empire of the Habsburgs. France, to be sure, also incited Russia to mobilize, but it was the Catholic French army rather than the secular parties who most wanted war.
It would be more accurate to say that “atheistic humanism” was the residue spot left on the ground after the Catholic Universal Empire had exploded. Catholic Europe spent its first 10 centuries absorbing hosts of invaders. Its genius was syncretic: each tribe could retain aspects of natural religion in the form of specific saints, rituals, and so forth, within the Catholic umbrella. That is the tragic weakness of this great project, as I have argued elsewhere. 
The Universal Empire model collapsed with the Thirty Years’ War, although not, as the usual explanation goes, because of the fanaticism of the Catholic and Protestant combatants. The Thirty Years’ War became an artifact of French policy. France under Cardinal Richelieu first identified its own national glory with the salvation of the Christian world (Sacred heart of darkness, February 11, 2003). Messianic nationalism became the rival of Universal Empire, and the delusion of messianic nationalism passed from France to Russia and then to Germany, with ruinous consequences.
The United States of America created a different, Protestant sort of universality, calling on the nation’s immigrants to abandon their cultures and form a new people. The US might represent the only workable Protestant model. Without the weight of Church authority to suppress tribal eruptions, European Protestantism too easily became the bearer of a perverse, neo-pagan nationalism. For all the opprobrium heaped on the Vatican Nuncio in Germany, the future Pius XII, the Catholic Church offered far more resistance to Adolf Hitler than did the German Protestant churches.
I doubt that the Catholic model ever again will provide a template for human society, but I am loath to see the Catholic message diluted or diminished. Our guesses about the direction of human events are no more than that; no human being has cracked the code of history. Until a generation ago, Christian opinion was nearly unanimous that the New Covenant had superseded the miserable remnant that clung to the Old Covenant of Judaism. The return of the Jews to Jerusalem persuades many Christians that the Jews yet may have a role to play. If the Jews can raise themselves from the ashes, what shall we think about the prospects for the Church that embodied Western civilization for so many centuries?
In the US, the Catholic Church tends toward the model of a social-welfare agency, replete with the social mores of the political left, culminating in the sex-abuse scandal of the past several years.  In Latin America, “liberation theology” turned large parts of the Church into a quasi-revolutionary political movement. These efforts were doomed to failure. What religions do to ameliorate social or political conditions is incidental; religions exist because humankind is terrified of death.
John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger belonged to the “Augustinian” minority of senior clergy who tried to steer the Church back to its fundamental mission, namely repentance and salvation. Anthony Mansueto of the University of New Mexico, a left-wing critic, remonstrates bitterly against this current:
[Around Vatican II] a new Augustinian Right emerged which regarded Neo-Thomism and Social Catholicism as too focused on the social apostolate and ineffective in communicating what they saw as the essential message of Christianity: human sinfulness and God’s offer of forgiveness. This group, which developed around the journal Communio, and which includes both the current pope and his chief theologian, Joseph Ratzinger, but of whom the most important theological representative was Hans Urs von Balthasar, explicitly rejects both the “cosmological” approach of historic Thomism, which rises to God through an attempt to explain the natural world, and the “anthropological” approach of the conciliar (and in a different way the liberation) theologians, in favor of an “esthetic” approach which gives priority to the passive reception of the self-sacrificial gift of Christ on the cross. The effect is a sort of clericalized Lutheranism. 
Mansueto intends the term “clericalized Lutheranism” as an insult, but there is a grain of truth here. John Paul II’s Augustinian leaning made him more of a unifying figure in the Christian world, in particular among US evangelicals. The scriptural rather than philosophical emphasis of the Augustinian current, moreover, deepened the late pope’s instinctive sympathy for Judaism, the scriptural religion par excellence.
Ratzinger was not only the Vatican’s chief theologian, but John Paul II’s closest theological collaborator. From his first academic work on St Bonaventure, Ratzinger took the Protestant bull by the horns. Scriptural revelation is an act by which God reveals himself, he argued, and revelation requires someone to whom revelation is made manifest. He wrote in his autobiography:
The word “revelation” refers to the act in which God shows himself, and not to the objectified result of this act. Part and parcel of the concept of revelation is the receiving subject. Where there is no one to perceive revelation, no re-vel-ation has occurred because no veil has been removed. By definition, revelation requires a someone who apprehends it. 
For Ratzinger, this “someone” is of course the Church, as opposed to the Protestant contention that each individual must read Scripture for himself. By making revelation the subject of discourse, though, the Augustinian Ratzinger may have more in common with evangelical Christians than with the neo-Thomists of his own Church. For the first time, Catholic congregations in the US south are attracting the sort of people who normally would join evangelical denominations. On the surface, the US Church is deteriorating, bulked up by Hispanic immigrants but losing clergy and parochial-school attendance. I consider the odds very small, but cannot rule out that the Wojtyla-Ratzinger current yet might turn out to be the mustard seed of which Ratzinger wrote. It is not, as some suggest, that the US Catholic Church has assimilated into the ambient Protestant culture of US, but rather that a Catholic current of ancient lineage might compete with evangelical Christianity on its own terms.
The popular media have assigned Ratzinger the image of a dour conservative, cracking down on dissenting theologians. Quite the opposite might be the case: as pope, Ratzinger might conceivably become something of a unifying figure in the Christian world.
From an institutional vantage point the Church appears weakened beyond repair. Not only the faith but also the faithful are at risk. I hold out no hope for today’s Europeans. But Ratzinger places his hopes on the purely spiritual weapons that made Christianity a force to begin with. He has said, in effect, “I have a mustard seed, and I’m not afraid to use it.” I do not know, of course, whether he will have the opportunity, but were he to ascend to the throne of St Peter, the next papacy might be more interesting than the last one.