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The Ratzingerian Constants and the Maintenance of Harmony in the Church

The religious activities of over a billion Catholics around the globe, Benedict XVI maintained, can be reduced finally to three fundamental moves.

(Image: K. Mitch Hodge |

Some years ago, my friend Msgr. Francis Mannion wrote an article concerning the three essential features of the Eucharistic liturgy—namely, the priest, the rite, and the people. When these elements are in proper balance, rightly ordered liturgy obtains. Further, from these categories, he argued, we can discern the three typical distortions of the liturgy: clericalism (too much of the priest), ritualism (a fussy hyper-focus on the rite), and congregationalism (a disproportionate emphasis on the people). It was one of those observations that just manages to spread light in every direction.

A similarly illuminating remark was made by Pope Benedict XVI concerning the work of the Church, and I would like to spend a little time exploring it. Papa Ratzinger said that the Church performs three basic tasks: it worships God, it evangelizes, and it serves the poor. The religious activities of over a billion Catholics around the globe, he maintained, can be reduced finally to these three fundamental moves.

So for example, the liturgy, the celebration of the sacraments, individual and collective prayer, the singing of monks, the whispered petitions of cloistered religious, praise and worship songs, the recitation of the rosary—all belong under the heading of worshiping God. And the teaching of the kerygma, street preaching, catechesis, university-level theology, the evangelization of the culture, proclaiming the faith through the new media—all of that can be categorized as evangelization. Finally, care for the hungry and homeless, outreach to immigrants, Catholic Worker soup kitchens, the work of Catholic charities, hospitals, and orphanages—all are expressions of the Church’s commitment to serve the poor. The life of the Church consists, Pope Benedict maintains, in the harmonious coming-together of these three ministries, no one of which can be reduced to the other two and each one of which implies the other two. Properly evangelized people want to worship God and long to help the needy; helping the needy is a way of proclaiming the Gospel and a vehicle for the teaching of the faith; liturgy by its very nature leads to theology (lex orandi, lex credendi) and the instantiation of the kingdom through service.

If I might borrow from Msgr. Mannion, we can also read off of these categories typical distortions in the life of the Church. When the worship of God is exaggerated or exclusively emphasized, the community becomes hyper-spiritualized, disincarnate, and at the limit, superstitious. What is required is the critical intelligence provided by theology as well as the groundedness provided by the concrete service of the poor. When the evangelical mission is exaggerated, the Church runs the risk of falling into rationalism and of losing affective contact with God. What is particularly needed in that case is the visceral sense of the transcendent provided by the liturgical praise of God. When outreach to the needy is one-sidedly stressed, the Church tends toward a reduction of the supernatural to the natural, becoming, as Pope Francis puts it, just another NGO providing social service. What is required in that case is the robust supernaturalism to which a healthy theology and liturgy give access. The point is that it is in the tensive play among the three elements, each complementing and checking the excesses of the other two, that the Church finds its health and equilibrium.

I don’t want to oversimplify the matter, for there are plenty of ideological battles within the three “groups”: liberal liturgists against conservative liturgists, left-wing approaches to evangelization versus right-wing approaches, etc. But I might suggest that many of our disputes in the life of the Church today have to do with a kind of imperialistic reductionism. I mean that people who are particularly interested in the praise of God sometimes think that the praise of God is everything; and that people who are really into evangelization sometimes think that the whole Church should be nothing but evangelism; and that people who are passionate about the service of the poor think that this ministry should take all the oxygen in the room.

At its best, the Church resists this kind of imperialism, and you can see it in the lives of the great saints, who seemed to have a feel for the manner in which these three ministries harmonize. Just think of Teresa of Kolkata, pouring herself out in service among the poorest of the poor in the worst slum in the world and passing hours and hours in contemplative prayer; or of Edith Stein, one of the premier intellectuals of the twentieth century and a woman who spent hours every day in silence before the Blessed Sacrament, and who, at the climax of her life, offered herself as a martyr on behalf of her people; or of Francis of Assisi, who was married to Lady Poverty and who, judging from some of the few authentic letters we have of his, was extremely concerned about altar linens and the proper maintenance of tabernacles and churches.

By nature, training, or personal predilection, each of the baptized probably gravitates more readily to one or other of the basic Ratzingerian tasks. I, for example, have long been oriented toward evangelical work: preaching, teaching, writing, communicating, etc. But I cannot tell you how often in the course of my priesthood I have had to battle an anti-intellectualism, usually justified through appeal to the urgency and primacy of social justice work. And I have certainly known advocates of that third path who have endured attacks from liturgy devotees, claiming that service of the poor is “secularist.” And indeed I have known passionate liturgists who have been forced to endure taunts for how fussy and out of touch they are with the “real” needs of the people of God, etc.

Could we please cut this out? It is not only stupid; it also crucially undermines the work of the Church, which is a harmonious and mutually correcting interplay of the three Ratzingerian constants. I might close with a word of encouragement to my brother bishops. A major part of our work as “overseers” (episkopoi) of the Church is to assure that a symphony among the three basic charisms remains vibrantly in place.

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About Bishop Robert Barron 205 Articles
Bishop Robert Barron has been the bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester in Minnesota since 2022. He is the founder of, a nonprofit global media apostolate that seeks to draw people into—or back to—the Catholic faith.


  1. Faith inspires prayer and action in that order. Complimentary to Bishop Barron’s pertinent commentary on Josef Ratzinger’s Constants for Church harmony is Pius XII in Mediator Dei. Here the Pontiff addressed the misunderstanding of Prosper of Acquitaine’s Lex Orandi Lex Credendi. “46. We refer to the error of those who have claimed that the sacred liturgy is a kind of proving ground for the truths of faith, meaning the Church is obliged to declare such a doctrine sound when it produced piety and sanctity through the sacred rites of the liturgy and to reject it otherwise. Hence ‘Lex orandi, lex credendi’ the law for prayer is the law for faith. 47. But this is not what the Church teaches. The worship she offers to God is a continuous profession of Catholic faith and a continuous exercise of hope and charity as Augustine puts it ‘God is to be worshiped by faith, hope and charity’. In the sacred liturgy we profess the Catholic faith” (Pius XII). Rarzinger correctly cites the order of Priest Liturgy People. The presbyter is commissioned to teach the faith. As it has always been the at heart of the issue of harmony v disharmony is the excellence of the faith of the presbyter in emulating Christ’s loving obedience to the Father giving Him alone the glory. Whether preaching or offering the Mass. Laity thus fed Christ live Christ.

      • Jeff [I’m honored by your comment] Msgr Francis Mannion Bishop Barron’s friend actually cited the correct sequence, those “essential features of the Eucharistic Liturgy” as Priest Liturgy People. The “Ratzingerian” variation three basic tasks of the Church worship of God, evangelization, serving the poor is “similarly illuminating”. Presbyters are tasked to teach the faith and worship of God. Evangelization serving the poor is faith lived. Msgr Mannion’s “essential features” give substance to the three basic tasks of the Church cited by Benedict XVI. Liturgy and how its enfleshed within the People is that from which all else that is good transpires.

  2. In this instance, Ratzinger may have been guilty of a simplistic reductionism of the tasks of the church, which leaves no room for explicating the ordinary path to holiness or the lay vocation. The three basic tasks are works of the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:36-40, etc.) but not the only ones, and the others are not reducible to the three.

    It is partially because the American bishops have forgotten the order of charity, especially as it applies to the Christian faithful, as they have adopted liberalism instead, that their attempts to adapt Roman Catholic social teaching to current political issues goes awry.

  3. Bishop Barron reminds us well that BEAUTY is a path toward the divine. Ratzinger/Benedict beckoned in this promising direction decades ago when he commented, “A theologian who does not love art, poetry, music and nature can be dangerous. Blindness and deafness toward the beautiful are not incidental: they necessarily are reflected in his theology” (The Ratzinger Report, 1985).

    So, yes to Barron’s unifying “symphony among the three basic charisms” [liturgy, evangelization, care for the poor].

    Without pretending to add even a candle to this message, perhaps there is still something more said by Benedict about, say, the SILENCE between the notes of this tripartite symphony…

    Of the LITURGY (and some overreaching liturgists?) he remarked “Many liturgies now lack all trace of this silence.” And though I cannot recall the moment, he also once said that there might even be merit voluntarily refraining from Communion (!) now and then—in solidarity with the persecuted and the truly POOR who cannot receive at all (today China and refugee camps; not to mention refraining at least from routinized/unreflective and unrepentant [?] and possibly sacrilegious reception of the Eucharist). And related to EVANGELIZATION, many applauded another remark about ecclesial paper mills versus preaching without words (St. Francis)—-when Ratzinger once suggested that it might be well if the Vatican went for a whole year without publishing anything! Let the dust settle on the unread, and let the Amazon mud clear itself.

    So, yes to the symphony—but a symphony with silence between the notes. Elijah was smitten, finally, not by the thunder and earthquake, but by the whispering sound…

    • Dear brother Peter, thanks for your comment. One observation: Beauty is not the most excellent path to the Divine, JESUS-TRUTH IS, whole and complete, not fractured. My highest respect for Bishop Barron and his use of ONE single aspect of the Infinite Jesus, Beauty, to attract others to Christ and His Church. At the same time, like his very own article here states, overemphasizing to the extreme one aspect of the trinity of the nature of the Church over another leads to disastrous imbalances.

      LIKEWISE, overemphasizing to the extreme one of God’s main attributes over another (Goodness, Truth, Beauty) leads to disastrous results as well, sooner or later. I DO appreciate Catholic Beauty, modern or old, and can spend hours transfixed by it (I’ve been nicely reminded about a churches’ or museum’s closing time because of this). Still, two things. First, God’s Beauty is so easy to distort without His Goodness and especially, without His Truth. Never forget that the Evil World System convinced the Culture that the heinous, ugly crime of abortion was indeed a thing so beautiful and so worth fighting that a whole political party is now passionately, willfully and totally rejecting its own members that want to protect the unborn babies.

      Jesus talked about the lilies of the field, the children, the widow’s mite and other beautiful things but he never used Beauty unless He was guiding people to Authentic Goodness which also becomes evil without the attribute that we run away from the most: TRUTH. Truth makes or breaks your Faith to a higher level of Beauty and Goodness. That’s why nothing, nothing, nothing is absolutely more beautiful than the Bloody Cross of Christ, calling us to repentance, conversion and TOTAL surrender to Jesus. If Beauty does not lead us directly to that, it is not Catholic at all: “May I never boast except in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world”, Galatians 6:14 (also 1 Corinthians 1:18). Now THAT’S True CATHOLIC Beauty!!

  4. Thank you, Bishop Barron for your timely article and goes right to the point! Thank you, Sir for becoming a priest. The Church NEEDS you now in the worst way!

  5. Unfortunately, the Church does not seem to be able to resist this imperialism. In an attempt to be charitable, It bounces from one of the three principles to the other, creating confusion among the laity, and even the priesthood. It is more like a federal government that tries to provide something for everyone but ends up throwing crumbs at them. Pretty soon the people get hungry and go elsewhere, as we see with six Catholics leaving the Church when only one enters.

    In vainly trying to be relevant, the Church instead is becoming irrelevant and irreverent. The harder it tries, the worse it gets. I would suggest the whole Church go on retreat, take a step back, stop trying to fix every single earthly injustice and institution on this planet. For just a little while, say, a year. Can we have a year of Personal Holiness? A year of Repentance and Examination of Conscience when the entire Church takes stock of where it is and where Christ wants it to be? A year of Silence? Even for the Pope?

    • Excellent, Romy, so well said! The Catholic Church today is trying to be everything else but the Catholic Church. We are pushing each other out of the way and falling over ourselves to show who is the most “compassionate”, “modern” Catholic, playing right into the hands of the Evil One and His Poisonous Addictive Cotton Candy Activist Gospel.

      We are on a destructive, Spiritual Sugar Coma right now and the only way to health is JUST BEING GENUINELY CATHOLIC and, like our holy ancestors for 2,000 years, reject and ignore the world loudly barking and showing their fangs with both their threats, accusations and persecutions, and on the other side, their spiritual prostitution, seductions and the empty, sweet applause so many crave.

      A True Catholic is not a puppet craving acceptance, but a human being MOST fully and highly evolved, very willing to stand alone, like Jesus, if he/she ever must. A True Community only exists with people like that, sugar-craving clones don’t make community and don’t know Real Charity.

    • “I would suggest the whole Church go on retreat, take a step back, stop trying to fix every single earthly injustice and institution on this planet. ”

      That would be the patriarchate of Rome.

  6. The poor also include the sick, and today there are more people who are sick – starved of Truth – the spiritually poor, than any other group in the western world. This article was very helpful. Thank you Bishop Barron.

  7. Jesus said to Saint Faustina: ” I demand ..deeds of Mercy, which are to arise out of love for Me.” It is frightening to see many parishes busy with dozens of committees and activities but only a handful come to adoration. Its all about LOVE of God and our submission for the GLORY of the Eternal Father. The First commandment has total primacy and the second flows from that because if we do good it is a gift from the all Good in God. To start back from the basic Truth of the Joy of the Gospel, as Saint Peter calls us to rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy. Was it St Augustine that said: Love and do as you want. The day after Pope Francis was elected, he explained the name Francis because “Francis loved the poor.” Immediately I thought there is something amiss. To characterize St Francis, firstly the poor hated him because there was another beggar in their midst, secondly, St Francis is called the Seraphic Father because his heart was inflamed for Christ. His radical love for Christ made him this great Saint and renewed the church

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