Religion

The Former Pope Speaks, Candidly and Acidly, On Abuse

Pope Emeritus Benedict looks on as Pope Francis arrives to lead a mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in 2015. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)
Benedict’s intervention in this debate is both powerful and sad.

Pope Emeritus Benedict has allowed the publication of a letter he addressed to bishops and cardinals who met in February to discuss the problem of child abuse. The letter is a collection of personal remembrances and acid observations about other churchmen, theologians, and recent Church history wrapped around an argument.

The Emeritus Pope’s argument is explosive. (The full text can be read here.) In summary, Benedict charges that a revolutionary spirit from the world entered the Church in the 1960s. Possessed by that spirit, arrogant theologians determined on creating “another Church” destroyed the traditional moral theology of the Faith, leading to a complete breakdown of moral discipline in the clergy and even a generalized spirit of blasphemy, which Benedict intimately and unforgettably connects with the phenomenon of child abuse. Along the way, he points out how, having abandoned a traditional understanding of the Catholic faith, bishops and cardinals felt no compulsion to protect the Faith itself, and allowed the rights of accused clergy to develop in such a way that they totally obliterated the prerogative of serving God and passing on the faith to the next generation. “The Church is dying in [people’s] souls,” he observes in a spirit that reads equally mordant and mournful.

Although he does explain his own view that abuse can be adjudicated as a crime against the Faith, the former pope tries to transcend a debate that he views as too focused on managerial or technical solutions. Benedict XVI argues that churchmen themselves must be converted into believers who fear and honor a living God. “Why did pedophilia reach such proportions? Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God.”

Benedict begins with a denunciation of “the revolution of 68,” and attributes to that time a lawless spirit that entered into the Church itself, and that would bring havoc for decades. The former pope illustrates this with stories about the lax atmosphere of seminaries, and even the wave of dissent from leading moral theologians and bishops against the intention of John Paul II to reiterate Catholic teaching that some acts were intrinsically immoral and could never “become good” by being placed in different circumstances. This may seem like the most basic understanding of moral law common to revealed monotheistic religion, but it was fiercely contested in the times. Benedict writes with a good bit of acid:

I shall never forget how the then-leading German moral theologian Franz Böckle, who, having returned to his native Switzerland after his retirement, announced in view of the possible decisions of the encyclical “Veritatis splendor” that if the encyclical should determine that there were actions which were always and under all circumstances to be classified as evil, he would challenge it with all resources at his disposal. It was God, the Merciful, that spared him from having to put his resolution into practice; Böckle died on July 8, 1991. The encyclical was published on August 6, 1993 and did indeed include the determination that there were actions that can never become good.

He also reports, “Perhaps it is worth mentioning that in not a few seminaries, students caught reading my books were considered unsuitable for the priesthood.” But he also talks about the failures of the Vatican’s furtive efforts to rectify the culture of the clergy. He says that Vatican visitations to American seminaries (investigations, for the lay reader), were thwarted in their attempt to get to the truth, or in their recommendations for reform.

“What must be done?” The former pontiff asks, before mordantly writing: “Perhaps we should create another Church for things to work out? Well, that experiment has already been undertaken and has already failed.” Benedict says that the demand for “collegial” bishops after the Second Vatican Council exacerbated the problem of rooting out abuse because it deprived bishops of their authority and responsibility to govern effectively.

In this way, Benedict has weighed in decisively and clearly in a roiling debate that is often murky. Progressive-minded Catholics tend to view the abuse crisis as a problem of “clericalism.” That is, they think the problem is the separation of the clergy from lay people, and their conception of authority that has made them high-handed. Conservatives tend to view the crisis as the abandonment of authority in the face of obvious laxity of practice and immoral cronyism, in which networks of sexually compromised priests protect each other or fail to confront one another.

By the end of his letter, Benedict reaches for another level. He begins to connect the moral anarchy within the Church to a spirit of blasphemy. He critiques a certain casual or flippant attitude toward God within the Church. “We Christians and priests also prefer not to talk about God, because this speech does not seem to be practical,” he writes.

And later expands on this, in a passage worth quoting at length.

The Eucharist is devalued into a mere ceremonial gesture when it is taken for granted that courtesy requires Him to be offered at family celebrations or on occasions such as weddings and funerals to all those invited for family reasons. The way people often simply receive the Holy Sacrament in communion as a matter of course shows that many see communion as a purely ceremonial gesture. Therefore, when thinking about what action is required first and foremost, it is rather obvious that we do not need another Church of our own design. Rather, 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.

In conversations with victims of pedophilia, I have been made acutely aware of this first and foremost requirement. A young woman who was a [former] altar server told me that the chaplain, her superior as an altar server, always introduced the sexual abuse he was committing with her with the words: “This is my body which will be given up for you”. It is obvious that this woman can no longer hear the very words of consecration without experiencing again all the horrific distress of her abuse. Yes, we must urgently implore the Lord for forgiveness, and first and foremost we must swear by Him and ask Him to teach us all anew to understand the greatness of His suffering, His sacrifice. And we must do all we can to protect the gift of the Holy Eucharist from abuse.

Benedict’s intervention in this debate is powerful and a sad one. The very fact of this letter — its lucidity and depth of thoughts — can’t help but inspire a question from Catholics. Why did this man resign from the office of the papacy? The stated fears were ones of incapacity, but in this letter, he demonstrates an acute view of the Church. For many Catholics who disagree with Benedict’s diagnosis of the problem, it will occasion the question about Benedict’s supposed commitment to retiring into silence. What does it mean to have a former pope who is so loquacious and opinionated?

And yet, reading this occasionally acerbic and aggrieved letter, this writer felt gratitude for Benedict’s papacy and for a God who, in this time of exile, preserves one righteous man as a living promise of many more saints to come.

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