Catholic Men, the Spiritual Life, and Our Growth in Holiness-Perfection

Living Faith as Conversion, Knowledge, and Joy According to the Thought of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

A Catholic Christian spiritual life has often been described in terms of “ways,” “stages,” “degrees,” and “conversions.”1 The focus of my article, however, will not be on giving an exhaustive overview of the spiritual life and its stages, but rather one particularly important element of it. I will focus on the centrality of faith for Christian men who are striving to live lives of perfection in their families, parishes, places of work, and the wider society.

I. The call to perfection or holiness is essentially what the Christian spiritual life is all about. We have this on the authority of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ himself, who told us: “You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). And a life of perfection consists in loving others even as Christ loves us. Jesus tells his disciples: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another. Such as my love has been for you, so must your love be for each other” (Jn 13:34). But because we do not achieve this perfection of charity all at once, we need to address how we – since we encounter many obstacles on our journey to holiness, including our own sin – might “hold on to and perfect in [our] lives that sanctification which [we] have received from God” (Lumen gentium, #40). Closely following the thought of then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as found in his seminal book, Principles of Catholic Theology, I will treat Christian faith as the foundation of the spiritual life in terms of conversion, knowledge, and joy.2

II. Before addressing the role of Christian faith in the spiritual life, however, I want to note first that I recognize that many men in our culture today are uncomfortable with talk about “holiness,” the “spiritual life,” or “spirituality.” For some, the closest they get to uttering words such as these are in the expressions: “holy crap!” “holy smoke!” and “holy cow!” Others, especially decent Christian men, often resist these terms because they seem “wishy-washy,” subjective, superficial, and even “New Age.” Or, unaware that in the best of the Catholic Tradition the “spiritual life” is a fully human life “led by the Spirit,” some may think that the “spiritual life” implies a life proper to “spirits,” one that disparages the human body and forgets that we are embodied beings.3

And still yet for another group of men, the terms are viewed suspiciously because the spiritual life and religion in general are seen to be in some sense unmanly. Some men have the false idea that religion is a concern best left to women (or worse, old ladies!). Hence, we witness, for example, the phenomenon of men attending church much less frequently than women as well as their leaving the religious instruction of the young to the women in the family.4 When the Second Vatican Council taught that “all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love” (Lumen gentium, #40), they were trying to overcome the mistaken notion that only priests and religious were called to the lofty heights of holiness, and that the laity were simply expected to keep the Ten Commandments and live a life of avoiding mortal sin. What might need to be overcome in our day, however, is the split not between clergy/religious and laity in the pursuit of holiness, but the one between men and women in the pursuit (or lack thereof on the part of men) of the same reality. Let us face the hard reality: without intending to stereotype, many men struggle with the spiritual life for one reason or another.5

Part of the problem, as some have argued, is the alleged “feminization” of the Church over the last fifty years or so.6 In response to this phenomenon, men, in perceiving the Church to have grown “soft” and to have become overly “feminine,” have withdrawn from Church life. Contrary to the assertions of certain radical feminists, then, the Church, according to this perspective, needs more, not less patriarchy! Not having the time to fully address this issue, I will say, in brief, that the Catholic Church has, it seems to me, struck – both theoretically and practically – a good “balance” between the following two essentials: the “feminine principle” (the so-called Marian dimension or profile) and the “masculine principle” (the so-called Petrine dimension or profile), even if we must affirm that ultimately the former is the real center or heart of the Church.7

In sorting out this problem, we need to remember that Jesus himself, who as the Council Fathers remind us is the “divine teacher and model of all perfection” (Lumen gentium, #40), was the perfect male and model of true masculinity, just as his (and our) sinless mother Mary, was the perfect woman and model of true femininity. But, in different ways, both sexes are to imitate Jesus and his virtues, just as in different ways, both sexes are to imitate Mary and her virtues.8

As my great teacher, the late Benedict Ashley, O.P., expressed this point Jesus showed all of us – men and women – what true maleness consists of, and often in counter-cultural ways. For example, Jesus was a chaste celibate and non-violent male in a Jewish religion and culture that expected its men to be procreators and its Messiah to be a warrior.9 At the same time, we know that Jesus was by no means a “shrinking violet.” In driving the moneychangers out of the Temple, he displayed proper righteous anger (see e.g. Mt 21:12-13). In raising natural marriage to the dignity of a sacrament, he showed great esteem for the created goods of sexuality and children (see Mt 19:1-12 and parallels; verses 12-15 relate Jesus’ blessing of the children). He was like us in all things but sin. And he understood our strengths and weaknesses better than we understand them. Nothing human was foreign to him! Not even our (male) human nature that he assumed and redeemed!

III. In discussing the need for faith to begin and progress in the spiritual life, we are faced with the necessity of cooperating with God in order to achieve communion with God. As the Catholic spiritual writer R. Thomas Richard has put it: “The spiritual {‘adult’} man or woman is the mature development of a spiritual ‘adolescent,’ who was once a spiritual ‘child’ who cooperated with the grace God gives for growth and advancement toward Him.”10 Unlike physical development, which largely occurs naturally, Richard notes, spiritual development requires our active effort and cooperation.11 But before we can cooperate, we need to know what it is that God expects from us. Hence, I turn now to examine faith, which provides, among other things, knowledge of what we need to know and to do in order to live the Christian spiritual life, achieve holiness, and gain eternal life in heaven with the triune God.

IV. We could of course approach the topic of faith in any number of ways. For example, we could describe how the human-divine act of faith comes about. We could talk also about faith in terms of its objective content, i.e. its doctrines and dogmas or what we believe (fides qua). Or we could speak of the ways in which faith is a theological virtue infused in us by God and directing us to God as its object (fides quae). Here, as noted earlier, I will closely follow Cardinal Ratzinger and treat faith as conversion, as knowledge, and as joy.

V. Faith as ConversionMetanoia. “Freedom comes and comes only,” as Ratzinger says, “to one who has the courage to changethe courage that the Bible calls metanoia; but it is precisely this courage that is wanting to us.”12 The Cardinal observes that the Greek word metanoia (repentance) has no special significance for the Greeks (e.g. the Neo-Platonists); individual acts of repentance do not involve the turning of one’s whole being around to a new way of life. Individual acts of metanoia remain exactly that: individual and separate acts of repentance that never unite into a single whole to become conversion, i.e., the transformation of one’s entire self.13 The Biblical concept of conversion, however, is much deeper. It is concerned not only with criticizing bad external behavior, but also with scrutinizing the evil lurking in one’s own heart, i.e. the transformation of man’s spirit and attitudes.

Although the ancient Greeks thought that by turning one’s gaze inward, one could find truth, the divine, Ratzinger notes that the word conversion in the Biblical sense is “more critical, more radical.”14 “It is not just the turning to oneself that saves,” says Ratzinger, “but rather the turning away from oneself and toward the God who calls.”15 According to Ratzinger, because metanoia is synonymous with obedience and faith, it is, therefore, not just any Christian mindset, but the fundamental Christian act per se, understood admittedly from a very definite perspective: “that of transformation, conversion, renewal and change. To be a Christian, one must change not just in some particular area but without reservation even to the innermost depths of one’s being.”16 Hence, if we are to change and grow spiritually in the Lord, we must hold nothing back, reserve no part of ourselves, but give over everything we have, even our (favorite!) sins, to God. What is it, we must ask, in our lives as men that, say as husbands and fathers, is desperately in need of change, of conversion, and repentance?

Change, in the Biblical sense of “change” (i.e., change of heart, of conduct, of direction), however, is very different than what the world means by this term.17 Often, we get a sense of change as the world understands it when we hear, for example, of technocrats who speak of progress as “material abundance and consumption” or of politicians campaigning on platforms that promise some vague, undefined “change” to come about if you elect them to office. This amorphous “whichever way the wind blows” sort of change, or change as the “gospel of material and technological progress” is not the path of change that the Christian should follow. Rather, the norm should be the following: The readiness to be changed by Christ and to break with every worldly standard of progress out of love for him. This is the exact opposite of the mentality that lets oneself be blown about by the shifting “winds of fashion,” whether they are social, political, or cultural in nature. It is, says Ratzinger of this readiness, a “standing-firm-in-Christ.”18

Paradoxically, then, Christian metanoia is “identical with pistis (faith, constancy), a change that does not exclude constancy, but makes it possible.”19 As Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote: “Unreserved readiness to change is the indispensable pre-requisite for the reception of Christ in our soul.”20 Christ, who is the “constant” (cf. Gaudium et spes, #10)“the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8)makes all real and authentic change capable of being true progress for us; for, the ability “to remain constant in the ‘Yes’ once given {to Christ, to another person} requires an unremitting readiness to changea readiness in which one grows to maturity.”21

VI. Faith as Knowledge and Praxisthe Fundamental Option of the Christian Credo. What does it really mean, asks Cardinal Ratzinger, to decide to believe in “God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth”? There are two misunderstandings of this faith that do not grasp its essential meaning. First, we have the view that sees the question of God in purely theoretical terms (e.g., positivist philosophy) and, thus, as having no practical significance for one’s life. The other, and diametrically opposed, view is the one that approaches belief in terms of an ideology of a particular social group or institution for man’s activity in the world (Liberation theology was often guilty of this in my view).22 Belief is simply the “party-line” and nothing more according to this view.

For a correct understanding of faith, Ratzinger turns to various texts in the Old Testament (Ex 3) and the New Testament (e.g. Gal 4). Following the Bible, Ratzinger affirms for us the radical practicality of the Christian way of life. Knowing and believing in God, he argues, is “an active-passive process, not a philosophical structure…; it is an act in which one is first touched by God, and then responds in thought and deed, but which one is, however, free to reject.”23 Our two “misunderstandings,” however, ignore the “passive element in our knowledge of God.” They know man “only as an active subject in the world, and see the whole of reality as but a system of lifeless objects manipulated by man.”24

The true understanding of faith is far from this reductionist perspective. It emerges as we consider the question of “whether we accept reality as pure matter or as the expression of a meaning that refers to us; whether we invent values or must find them.”25 In considering it, we affirm that the “passive” element for the Christian is at the core of the truth that we “find” and do not “invent” values, and thus it is in a very real sense prior to the “active” element. The Blessed Virgin Mary’s fiat (“Let it be done to me as you say,” Lk 1:38) beautifully expresses the priority that this passive element must have in every Christian lifeincluding men, who might struggle with itfor it shows “the dependent relation on God that discloses the inner meaning of all reality as gift … All that I am and have has been givenby God in Jesus Christ; and what has been given is to be shared.”26

For Ratzinger, the first article of the Creed signifies “a highly personal and, at the same time, a highly objective knowledge. A highly personal knowledge: the finding of a ‘thou’ who gives me meaning, to whom I can entrust myself absolutely. That is why this first article is formulated, not as a neutral sentence, but as a prayer, an address: I believe in GodI believe in thee, I entrust myself to thee.” But, the Cardinal points out that I can entrust myself absolutely to God precisely “because he is absolute, because his person is the objective ground of all reality.”27 Because God is trustworthy, confidence and trust are possible in this world. The same holds true for authentic freedom, the freedom to do good, to be holy. Only acceptance of the truth of God as the Creator of us, his creatures, ultimately “ensures that inviolable respect of person for person, for God’s creature, that, according to Paul, is the mark of one who knows God.”28

VII. Faith as Trust and JoyEvangelium. Christianity is not lifeless and opposed to joy, but rather evangelium“tidings of great joy” (Lk 2:10), as Ratzinger reminds us. But the thinking that our religion is opposed to joy, and the celebration of life, is surely quite common, and just possibly one of the reasons why some people leave the Church or refuse to consider its merits. Since the late 18th century, when French psychiatrists coined the phrase, the “Catholic sickness,” the idea has developed that the selflessness of the Christian “degenerates into a loss of self, and a denial of love, and his faith leads, not to freedom, but to rigidity and an absence of freedom.”29 In other words, we Catholics supposedly have serious “hang-ups” about authority and sex! We are, it is said, “killjoys”! How many times have we heard this old canard? But, Ratzinger asks, have we in fact become healthier, happier, and freer, now that we have thrown off our guilt, and freed ourselves from the “Catholic sickness”? Even the most secularized among us would have to admit, if they examine themselves honestly, argues Ratzinger, that “disgust and boredom consume themlack of freedom has increased …Morality and immorality seem to enslave man, to make him joyless and empty.” “Is there, in the last analysis,” the Cardinal asks, “no hope for him?”30

Cardinal Ratzinger resists, of course, the notion that man is an absurd being, condemned to meaninglessness, as the existentialist philosophers, Sartre and Camus, thought. By nature, man is a being who seeks meaning for his life if he is to exist at all as a human beingwhether Christian or not. The joy that Christianity proclaims is very different, however, than that artificial and fleeting kind proposed by the world. Jesus’ message is “glad tidings” of joy not because it makes us (feel) happy or contentedalthough it can do thatbut because it comes from him who has the “key to true joy.”31 Jesus tells us that he longs for his “joy” to be ours and for it be “complete” (see Jn 15:11). But, we can posses this joy, this fulfillment of our deepest spiritual desires, only if we live in Jesus’ “love,” and we do this, he tells us, by keeping his “commandments” (see Jn 15:10)key of which is that we “love one another” as he, the Lord, has loved us (see Jn 15:12).

Now, the truth (of Jesus) is not always pleasingin fact, sometimes it is a “bitter pill” that we swallowbut we must believe that it will set us free and make us joyful.32 And this joy is appropriated only by the man “who can love himself as part of the suffering members of Christ, who can be simultaneously forgetful of self, free, and so in harmony with himself.” Put another way, “the root of man’s joy is the harmony he enjoys with himself … And only one who can accept himself, can also accept the “thou,” can accept the world.”33 This acceptance of himself can take place only if someone says to him: “‘It is good that you exist’ … not with words, but with that act of the entire being that we call love.”34

With the word “love” having been spoken, let us now bring this discussion of joy down to its most basic reality. At the heart of the Christian message is this: God finds man so important that he suffered and died for him on the tree of pain. The Cross of Christ is the clearest affirmation of our existence as good, not merely in word, but in deed.35 To God the Father, maneach and every manis worth the death of his innocent and only-begotten Son. On this fact, we can be assured that we are loved, and loved in truth. This is the evangelium, according to Ratzinger. Thus, Christianity is “by its very nature, joythe ability to be joyful.”36

Yet, are we really joyful today? If not, how can Christianity make us joyful? Is it capable of doing so? First of all, Cardinal Ratzinger reminds us that the joy of the evangelium “reaches the roots of our existence, and proves its strength, not least in the fact that it sustains us when all else about us is darkness.”37 And all of us have experienced this darkness. Maybe we have lost a spouse, a child, or a parent. Maybe we have lost our job. Or, maybe we have lost our freedom, and find ourselves in prison, and abandoned by our loved ones. Maybe we are struggling with an addiction that acts as its own prison. Any number of problems can threaten our fragile peace, and our sense of self-worth. Christian joy, nonetheless, is meant to be present, and to sustain us, even in these dark times, when hope seems out of reach, and only a pipedream. Indeed, St. James says that this joy can even be a by-product of our suffering, which, in turn, leads to our gradual perfection in Christ: “Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jas 1:2-4; cf. Rom 5:3-5, 1 Pt 4:13). This same idea is expressed as well in St. Paul when he tells the Colossians: “Even now I find my joy in the suffering I endure for you” (Col1:24).

On the practical side, Ratzinger argues that too often today our Holy Days have become secularized holidays (as in the expression “Happy Holidays!”); they are mere days off from work and school to fool around and have fun!38 But we are still restless and bored! And so, to instill lasting joy in us, the Church needs to “learn again how to celebrate holy days, how to radiate the brightness of a holy day … The Church should invite us to the holy days she has preserved in faith. In doing so, she will enable even those to rejoice for whom her glad tidings are inaccessible because they are viewed too rationally.”39

Secondly, the Cardinal notes that faith “confers community, vanquishes loneliness.” Even when we experience physical absence as a lack of “community,” this need not lead to loneliness and isolation. The communion of saints shows us existentially that the possibility of a community, and friendship “that springs from faith is different from that of every club, every political party, whichever side one may choose.”40 The Church must therefore, argues Ratzinger, learn “to offer men the experience of community, to make them open to community. Precisely here lays her potential for making men joyful…”41 We men, who can be suspicious of community, need to take these words to heart, and find the support of other men who have a deep desire to live and model the Christian life.

Finally, Cardinal Ratzinger speaks of the difficulty that many have experienced in the Church today of discerning the true way from the false way amidst all of the dissent. What depression this induces! He provides a general, but by no means the only, basic rule to help us see through the “siren song” of false Christian teachers: “Where joylessness reigns, where humor dies, the spirit of Jesus Christ is assuredly absent. But the reverse is also true: joy is a sign of grace. One who is cheerful from the bottom of his heart, one who has suffered but not lost joy, cannot be far from the God of the evangelium, whose first word on the threshold of the New Testament is ‘rejoice!’”42

Let me add one further thought on how the Church might foster joy in her memberssomething that Pope Francis has insisted on, too. As we look around at our own culture, we see that its “art” (in the wider sense of the term) is often hostile to sound Christian values. The architecture of our cities, and even our churches, inspires not lofty thoughts, but despair. Much of the popular music on our airwaves, and the television shows on our networks, do not lift the spirit up, but bring it down. In the face of this anti-culture of ugliness, Christians need to create “oases” of beauty in their families, parishes, schools, workplaces, and so forth.43 They need, it seems to me, to enkindle, especially in the young, an appreciation of the beauty of God’s creation in all its forms. This might involve providing opportunities for young people to make the task of developing an authentic Christian “culture of beauty” a part of their personal vocations. One cannot change the culture overnight, of course, but if we are to have spiritual joy, we must start small and, with God’s help, hope to achieve big things in this area. And who knows, maybe our own “rejoicing in the Lord” (see Phil 4:4 for Paul’s exhortation), will be for non-Christians an incentive to conversion and emulation, as St. Paul hoped the unceasing rejoicing of the community at Philippi would be this incentive for the non-Christians of his day.44

VIII. Catholic Christian men are called to experience today, with God’s never-failing grace, faith as conversion, knowledge, and joy. In doing so, they will be both holier Christians, and truly better and happier men, in their faith lives, and families. May “the God of hope find you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:13).


This article was originally given as a retreat talk for the men
of the Community of
God’s Mercy,
in Clarkston, Michigan, on January 28, 2006. It has been revised for publication.

  1. See, e.g., among many books on the topic, Fr. John J. Pasquini, Light, Happiness and Peace: Journeying Through Traditional Catholic Spirituality (Alba House, 2004), which describes the spiritual life as a journey of various stages: purgative, illuminative, and unitive.
  2. See Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology (Ignatius Press, 1987), Part One, Section Two, pp. 55-84. Since this article is not meant to be a summary of Cardinal Ratzinger’s thought, I will pass over many insights found in these pages. Beside the intrinsic value of Ratzinger’s work, I thought it useful to employ his own thoughts on this subject in light of the fact that he is pope emeritus, and many, I am sure, would be interested in learning more about his theology, even if pre-papal. See also Pope Benedict XVI, The Yes of Jesus Christ: Spiritual Exercises in Faith, Hope, and Love (Crossroad, 1991), a wonderful book originally published before his election to the papacy, but reissued shortly afterwards. See especially Ch. 1, “Faith,” pp. 3-38.
  3. See William E. May, “The Unity of the Moral and Spiritual Life,” in the Franciscan Herald Press Synthesis Series (Franciscan Herald Press, 1979), p. 9.
  4. See, e.g., the illuminating March 6, 2000 article summarizing the findings of the national survey undertaken by the Barna Research Group on the spiritual life of men and women, “Women Are the Backbone of the Christian Congregations in America,” available at:
  5. See, e.g., the study cited in ibid, which shows the large gender “gap” in religious involvement between men and women, with the latter “spiritual heavy-weights” compared to men.
  6. See e.g. Leon J. Podles’ controversial book, The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity (Spence Publishing, 1999).
  7. See Hans Urs Von Balthasar, The Office of Peter and the Structure of the Church (Ignatius Press, 1986).
  8. See Benedict Ashley, O.P., “Moral Theology and Mariology,” Anthropotes 7.2 (December 1991): 137-153.
  9. See Benedict M. Ashley, O.P., Theologies of the Body: Humanist and Christian (Pope John Center, 1995), pp. 509-510.
  10. R. Thomas Richard, The Ordinary Path To Holiness (Alba House, 2003), p. 9.
  11. See ibid. p. 12.
  12. Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, p. 62.
  13. See ibid. p. 58.
  14. Ibid., p. 59. In a fascinating passage in his book, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000, Second Edition (Blackwell, 2003), historian Peter Brown contrasts the pagan philosophical understanding of conversion with the Christian understanding in the 3rd century: “Elements of the new {Christian} language of sin and conversion already lay to hand even in non-Jewish circles. Christians did no more than sharpen the assertion of ancient {pagan} philosophers that philosophy was a skill of self-transformation. Philosophers had always attempted to change the minds {= conversion} and the habits of their disciples. Serious persons were expected to file away at themselves, removing their failings so as to produce, like the carvers of Greek statues, a self in which the excrescences of raw human nature were honed down to produce an exquisite, harmonious whole. It was a demanding ideal {note omitted}. Christians merely claimed to do this better. Their ‘philosophy’ was a God-given ‘philosophy.’ The Church was a ‘school of virtue’ open to all. They claimed to be able to transform the human person entirely, through conversion and baptism, in a manner which shocked traditional pagans, as wildly optimistic and, even, as irresponsiblefor it seemed to offer easy, ‘instant’ forgiveness of crimes. But, in an age of heady change in all areas of society, Christians held out the prospect of total transformation of the person through conversion and baptism …” (pp. 67-68).
  15. Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, p. 60. “Man is oriented,” Ratzinger continues, “not to the innermost depths of his own being, but to the God who comes to him from without, to the Thou who reveals himself to him and, in doing so, redeems him.” (p. 60). Note, too, how the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry is inaugurated with the startling words, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:15).
  16. Ibid. Later, Ratzinger will note other characteristics of conversion: it is social in orientation, and it is both a gift to us, as well as an obligation for us (see pp. 64-67). Other writers, following the late Canadian theologian, Bernard Lonergan, S.J., note how conversion is four-fold: intellectual, moral, affective, and religious. On this four-fold sense of conversion, see David Bohr, Catholic Moral Tradition: In Christ, a New Creation, revised edition(Our Sunday Visitor, 1999), Ch. 4, pp. 104-120.
  17. See the entry “Repentance/Conversion,” in Xavier Léon-Dufour, Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Updated Second Edition (The Word Among Us/St. Paul Books & Media, 1988 {1973}), pp. 486-491.
  18. Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, p. 62. In a similar vein, Carlo Caffara says conversion is “the progressive going out of oneself in order to establish oneself as living in Christ.” See Carlo Caffara, Living in Christ: Fundamental Principles of Catholic Moral Teaching (Ignatius Press, 1987), pp. 199-205, at 202.
  19. Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, p. 62.
  20. Von Hildebrand, quoted in ibid. Von Hildebrand’s words are from his classic, mid-20th century book, Transformation in Christ.
  21. Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, p. 64. For a fuller discussion, see the subsection “Change and Constancy” (pp. 60-64), where Ratzinger draws on the thought of von Hildebrand’s book, Transformation in Christ, to examine the question of “the relationship between the Christian readiness to change that is metanoia and the contemporary will to change” in the sense of false modern ideas of progress.
  22. See ibid. p. 67.
  23. Ibid., p. 69.
  24. Ibid. This attitude is reflected, e.g., in some scientists’ use of human embryos as mere biological material to be exploited for research purposes.
  25. Ibid., p. 72. See pp. 69-72 for the full discussion of this matter.
  26. David L. Schindler, Heart of the World, Center of the Church: Communio Ecclesiology, Liberalism, and Liberation (Eerdmans and T & T Clark, 1996), p. 93.
  27. Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, p. 74.
  28.  Ibid., p. 75.
  29. Ibid., p. 77. Cf. Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, no. 3: “In the critique of Christianity which began with the Enlightenment and grew progressively more radical, this new element{in the understanding of love, agape} was seen as something thoroughly negative. According to Friedrich Nietzsche, Christianity had poisoned eros, which for its part, while not completely succumbing, gradually degenerated into vice {note omitted}. Here, the German philosopher was expressing a widely-held perception: doesn’t the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn’t she blow the whistle just when the joy, which is the Creator’s gift, offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine?” (This encyclical is available at:
  30. Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, p. 78. It is true, of course, that many non-believers would deny that they lack meaning in their lives, and that they are joyless! Joylessness, they say, is supposed to be our “department,” not theirs! This may well be true, I readily admit. But one would also have to ask, among other things, however, about the objective content of this joy, i.e., what is it that non-believers find joy in: a good marriage and family life, or promiscuous sex? In a decent job, or a life pushing drugs? Nonetheless, I want to make the point here that I do not deny that many non-believers are far from being simply hedonists, focused solely on pleasure. Many do display, in fact, sometimes more so than we Christians (!), lives of dedication and devotion to others in various worthy projects. They care for the sick and dying, they serve the poor, they often bear great burdens and sufferings with admirable courage; and some among them even engage in pro-life work. And they find immense joy in this work! Even in these cases, however, the Christian believes that the non-believer’s virtuous actions are made possible by the working of God’s grace in their lives, albeit a grace unbeknown to them. Just as what we accomplish as believers, is believed by us to be the fruit of our cooperation with divine grace. Christians believe, too, that they are given unique access to divine truths that would not be available without God’s revelationtruths that are also necessary in order to live a consistently good moral life in the knowledge that what one does is grounded in God’s will. As well, there are various infused moral virtues that help Christians to live upright moral lives. Much more, of course, could be said about these matters.
  31. Ibid., p. 79.
  32. See, ibid., Perfect joy awaits our union with the Trinity in heaven, when we shall see God face-to-face.
  33. Ibid. Ratzinger contrasts egoism, which must be overcome, with self-acceptance, which must be discovered. The two are often confused, with disastrous results for our moral-spiritual lives (see p. 79). 
  34. Ibid. p. 80.
  35. In his encyclical, Evangelium vitae, St. Pope John Paul II notes also that Jesus’ death on the Cross “proclaims that life finds its center, its meaning, and its fulfillment when it is given up” (no. 51). The encyclical is available at: For men, the Cross is a stark reminder that we are called to be servant-leaders, laying down our lives for our wives, our children, and others as the need may arise.
  36. Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, p. 81.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Cf. ibid., p. 82. The Cardinal is following the thought of the late German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper here.
  39. Ibid., p. 83.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Ibid., p. 84.
  43. See further, Aidan Nichols, O.P., Christendom Awake: On Reenergizing the Church (Eerdmans, 1997).
  44. See the explanatory note to Philippians 4:2-9 in The New American Bible (1970 translation).
Dr. Mark S. Latkovic About Dr. Mark S. Latkovic

Dr. Mark Latkovic is a Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, where he has taught since July 1990, and where he has also been Associate Dean of Studies from September 1999 until January 2000, and interim Dean of Studies from February 2000 until August 2000. He was made a full professor in March 2003. Dr. Latkovic received a dual bachelor's degree in 1986 in religious studies and philosophy (with a minor in communications) from Cleveland State University (Cleveland, OH) and a master's degree in 1989 in theology from The Catholic University of America (Washington, DC). He also received in 1990 a license in sacred theology degree (STL, Summa Cum Laude) that was directed by the late Benedict M. Ashley, OP (1915-2013), and a doctorate in sacred theology degree (STD, Summa Cum Laude) from the Lateran University's Pontifical Pope John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family (Washington, DC "session"), where he was a Michael J. McGivney Fellow working as a graduate assistant to Ashley. His licenciate thesis was a critique of the moral theologian Joseph Selling's understanding of Humanae vitae and his doctoral dissertation was a study of the moral theology of Fr. Ashley that was directed by William E. May (1928--) and defended in April 1998.


  1. Avatar Msgr Mark Merdian says:

    I am so grateful for Dr. Latkovic’s article. this is so needed and something we need to reclaim. I am so grateful for the holy women who grace the Church, but we need to ask where are men are. I am glad he has brought this issue to light. Thank you, Dr. Latkovic, for your spiritual guidance in this article. I look forward to sharing this.

    • Avatar Mark S. Latkovic says:

      Dear Msgr. Merdian,

      I am grateful for your kind comments about my article. I am also grateful that H&PR published it. I think that our (future) priests, some of whom I teach (as you know!), need to hear this message too so that they can pass it on to men — so may of whom are struggling (“spinning their wheels” ) in the Christian spiritual life.

      God bless,
      Dr. Latkovic

  2. Thank you, Dr. Latkovic, for this timely article that focuses on real needs in our Church today. We need to find our true path to spiritual growth, to actual human maturity in Christ. The world needs such witness, and we need to be faithful. Thank you for quoting the observation (certainly not uniquely mine) from my book, that spiritual growth comes in stages like those of natural growth – childhood, adolescence and then adulthood. A great concern of mine in this area is that we in the Church are largely stagnant – not growing. Many are stagnant at the very beginnings of what God calls us to complete: a long and wonderful journey in Him to holiness. I believe that the key to authentic vitality remains there at the beginning: the ever-potent Word of God.

    St. Paul connects directly the holy Word, the divine truth, to the birth of faith in a man:
    “But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?” (Rom 10:14-15)

    Paul presents a linkage here that is simple: men sent by God to preach HIs truth can do so, and do so, with power and unction. Such words have life, they have potency and they pierce to the heart (Heb 4:12), where transformation and regeneration can occur. Indeed, as Peter writes of those who have been thus regenerated:
    “You have been born anew, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God…” (1Pet 1:23)

    The process is simple and direct: God sends men to preach, so that other men can hear the truth. This hearing – this heart-piercing hearing – can generate living faith, supernatural life-receiving faith:
    “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” (Rom 10:17)

    This is relevant – urgently so – to the Church of today. There are zealous men and women of God in His Church – laity, religious and clergy! But the Church of today in the West is weak because there is mixture and compromise among us who are called to holiness, to purity and fidelity and to growth in virtue. We have strayed from the path: the Church in the West has become emasculated and worldly, tepid, institutionalized and wealthy – yet thanks be to God not completely so. We need to “strengthen what still remains,” as the Lord said to the church in Sardis.

    Our weakness, I believe, is malnourishment – in the midst of His presence we have a poverty of the Word, His living and life-giving Word. In Him is our true wealth, and vitality, and potency; our intended maturity. The remedy is simple: return. Faith comes from what is heard; we have not been hearing Him! We need to hear Him, with opened and receptive hearts. We need the living Word, the piercing Word, straight and bold, preached with unction and heard with trembling. We need to listen until we hear, hear until we believe, so as to live as witnesses whom He has sent.

    • Avatar Mark S. Latkovic says:

      Thank you, Thomas (Richard), for your comments. Of course, I agree with everything you say here. I also think that we need to do a better job of emphasizing (and informing Catholics about) the concept of personal vocation: how to find it, accept it, and then faithfully carry it out as a way to progress in the spiritual life.

      God bless,

  3. Mark, thank you for this wonderful essay. Pope Benedict is the deepest of wells which we will all be going to for decades to come. God bless your ministry

    • Avatar Mark S. Latkovic says:

      Dear Jim,

      Great to hear from you! I am happy to know that you enjoyed my essay! Yes, what you say of Pope Benedict XVI is so true!

      God bless you, my friend!

  4. Avatar Rev. John R. Evans says:

    Dear Dr. Latkovic,
    I greatly enjoyed reading this article. Perhaps, however, I am asking the obvious here. In thinking of the life of faith as conversion, knowledge and joy, are we/Ratzinger restating the traditional threefold path of the spiritual life as purgative, illuminative, and unitive? If so, it seems a more appealing way to present the traditional path to people today.

    In Christ,
    Fr. Evans