Why the uproar from some Catholic pundits regarding the recently released essay on the abuse crisis from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI?
I think it’s pretty simple—regardless of what else one thinks of Benedict (and most of the critics were never fans of his), he speaks and writes with a voice that is truly paternal. The man has fully lived out his priesthood as “Father,” and, even in his nineties, he has a father’s care for the faithful. Benedict’s voice is a unique mix of theological clarity, precision, and paternal affection.
Many would rather ridicule and criticize his words instead of accepting them as they would those from a loving father. But it’s precisely because of his unique voice that the critics are hard-pressed to dismiss him. Let’s take a brief look at his essay on the abuse crisis, originally published in German for a modest monthly Bavarian publication called “Klerusblatt” and addressed largely to his fellow German clergy.
But first we need to keep in mind that Benedict is addressing these German clerics from his own experience and memory. Benedict concludes his essay focusing on a truly “interior” landscape that can provide a basis for a more practical nuts-and-bolts response by the Church to the abuse scandal.
In short, he’s a German theologian primarily looking at the issue as a theologian of his age and experience would be expected to do.
He lays out his thoughts in three major sections: first, he presents the “wider social context” of the scandal that is crucial to understanding it; he then examines the effects of this context on priestly formation and life; and finally he presents some “perspectives for a proper response” to the issue by the Church.
In the first part, Benedict gives us a glimpse—using concrete times and places—of how he personally encountered this context as a member of the German clergy. It is likely that, given his audience, he presumes this will be of interest to his countrymen and brother priests.
While some have objected to several of his comments as seemingly out of place, in context they make real sense—they are literally a part of his past, not just mere anecdote or speculation. When Benedict talks about the “Sexual Revolution,” we need to keep in mind that he lived through it in Europe, not the United States. In his country, it took shape as aggressive sex education took hold in German schools. He references the example of an Austrian sex-ed “suitcase” of resources that was prevalent in the late 1980s; he notes the influence of sex and porn films shown openly in German cinemas; and he refers to a 1970 German billboard featuring a fully naked couple embracing.
For Benedict, the sexual license that overwhelmed the culture arose largely from the 1968-era “revolution” that we in the United States know all too well. But then Benedict references something that I for one had not properly considered or understood about this period of social upheaval. He mentions that the “physiognomy” of this era included the serious push to normalize and legalize pedophilia itself.
Readers, take note of this. It’s an important reminder that sex “experts” at that time sometimes did not stop at recommending the normalization of homosexuality and fornication as “healthy” human experiences, but that even pedophilia was being touted in similar fashion.
Next, Benedict focuses on his experience as a theologian living through the absolute undoing of moral theology that took place in the same era. The move was from natural law and its moral absolutes to moral relativism and the “proportionalism” that became the darling of Catholic clergy and moral theologians of the 1960s and beyond. This compelled Pope John Paul II to defend the Church’s truth in his encyclical “Veritatis Splendor.” Moral theologians in Benedict’s sphere were determined to reject the existence of any absolute moral evil, and this further eroded the sense of morality among Catholics in general and clergy in particular.
Benedict notes the perennial value of martyrdom and witness to the absolutes of both faith and morals. He lived through the attempt to weaken the role of the Church’s Magisterium as the final arbiter of such matters. In the face of this weakening Benedict calls us back to faith in God and to an awareness of our existence as “image of God.”
In the second part, Benedict illustrates how 1960s radicalism affected the priesthood and seminary formation. Tradition, traditional morality, and theology were all readily jettisoned in seminaries featuring “homosexual cliques” that had a major impact on these environments. “Pedophilia” (a word which Benedict appears to use here as a catchall for clergy sex abuse) arose as an issue of concern in the 1980s, which posed a problem because the newly constructed 1983 Code of Canon Law had not made an adequate provision for addressing such matters.
Benedict notes that Church justice emphasized “guarantorism,” in which the rights of the accused—not those of the victim and not even the good of the Faith itself—are held as the principal value. He suggests that canon law needs to provide a “double guarantee” that includes “legal protection of the good at stake.”
In the third part, he asserts that the experiment of coming up with a “new” kind of Church to solve these problems has already been tried and failed. The true answer is only found in the Church founded by Christ, not one re-made by us.
The landscape for a true solution will necessarily require a culture and society that includes God. “Absence of God” is what Benedict says ultimately brings about a society that excuses even pedophilia. (Clergy and laity often don’t like to speak about God.)
In bringing God back to the culture, we must again centralize the Eucharist in the Church. Benedict says: “What is required first and foremost is the renewal of the Faith in the Reality of Jesus Christ given to us in the Blessed Sacrament.”
Lastly, Benedict states we must rediscover the “Mystery of the Church” and once again profess to live as its “martyrs”—as real witnesses. To do so will mean that whatever sin and evil remain in our midst will not prevail over the “indestructible” Church founded by Jesus Christ, the “first and actual witness for God” and “the first martyr.”
Benedict’s message is clearly not intended as a magic-bullet solution for the abuse crisis. For others to criticize it for merely being what it is—a loving word of encouragement from a spiritual father—is to miss the boat entirely on his intention and on the true value of what he has written. Even at his advanced age—or perhaps precisely because of it—his words provide a kind of consolation and encouragement that fathers are especially good at in challenging times. All is not lost. He knows what we have been through because he himself lived through it. But there is a way forward.
Some fundamental words of wisdom from a spiritual father who still loves us—remember God, and love Jesus in the Eucharist—could help us all heal a little bit faster.