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Beyond The Headlines: Thoughts on Benedict’s Essay on the Abuse Crisis

You have probably heard by now that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI just published a long essay on the clerical abuse crisis facing the Catholic Church. You can read the complete English translation of the original German text here: The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse. (Update 4/12/19: Click here to view my second post about this topic: Four Things Missing From Benedict's Essay on the Abuse Crisis.)


This morning, as my Facebook feed blew up with articles about this development, I noticed a huge variation in headlines:

  • "Retired Pope Blames Child Abuse Scandal on the 1960s Sexual Revolution"

  • "Benedict says Vatican Legal System Protected Accused Clergy"

  • "The Former Pope Speaks, Candidly and Acidly, On Abuse"

  • "Benedict Blames Scandals on ’68, says Church Law Can’t Just Protect Accused"

  • "Ex-Pope Benedict Contradicts Pope Francis in Unusual Intervention on Sexual Abuse"

  • "Benedict XVI Breaks His Silence on the Catholic Church’s Sex-Abuse Crisis"

As I started to read the various news reports and opinion pieces, it became clear to me that many people (perhaps committed Catholics most of all) can only see this document through the lens of their previous opinions about Benedict XVI. If you loved Pope Benedict (and maybe even wish he was still in charge), your analysis looks something like this: Our beloved former pope has finally entered into the conversation, offering much-needed clarity and courage in speaking about the true causes of the abuse crisis. On the other hand, if you did not like Benedict’s leadership as pope, your reaction might be more along these lines: Ex-pope Benedict is undermining Pope Francis’ leadership on the abuse crisis and blaming pedophilia on the sexual revolution and the secularization of culture.


Honestly, I am a little reluctant to write anything about this, because I’m committed to uniting Catholics from many perspectives, and unfortunately, it has become far too common in Catholic culture today to immediately dismiss someone as soon as you can label them as “conservative” or “liberal.”


But what if we looked at Benedict’s essay as it is - without all that previous baggage? What if we recognized what is beautiful and helpful and criticized what is muddled and problematic?


Could we at least try?


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OK, now that I’ve got that out of the way, on to the document. First, a few introductory notes:

  • Benedict begins with a reference to the February Vatican Summit, saying “It was necessary to send out a strong message, and seek out a new beginning, so to make the Church again truly credible as a light among peoples and as a force in service against the powers of destruction.”

  • He then explains why he has chosen to write this essay: “Since I myself had served in a position of responsibility as shepherd of the Church at the time of the public outbreak of the crisis, and during the run-up to it, I had to ask myself - even though, as emeritus, I am no longer directly responsible - what I could contribute to a new beginning.”

  • Benedict also mentions that he contacted the Vatican Secretary of State, as well as Pope Francis, before publishing. (There has been no statement from the Vatican, but we do have confirmation from Benedict’s secretary that this essay is authentic.)

  • Benedict explains the basic structure of his text: “In the first part, I aim to present briefly the wider social context of the question, without which the problem cannot be understood… In the second part, I aim to point out the effects of this situation on the formation of priests and on the lives of priests. Finally, in the third part, I would like to develop some perspectives for a proper response on the part of the Church.”

Part One: Social Context


The first section of this reflection is, unfortunately, the most problematic. Right off the bat, Benedict asserts that “the matter begins with the state-prescribed and supported introduction of children and youths into the nature of sexuality, ” as if the problem of childhood sexual abuse somehow began with sex education. He then goes on to describe what he sees as the negative consequences of the sexual revolution, particularly in Germany in the 1960s. (In one bizarre moment, he mentions that this social change led to a propensity for violence and that eventually “sex films were no longer allowed on airplanes, because violence would break out.” No commentator I have read can figure out what he could possibly be referring to with this statement.) In this opening passage, it’s hard to recognize the voice of Pope Benedict, who was always a keen intellect and a very organized and clear writer.


In the later part of the section, Benedict reflects on what he sees as a decline in moral theology during this same time period, leading to a loss of the sense of any objective right and wrong. He is very specific about particular events and theologians in Germany ( the “Cologne Declaration” of 1989, moral theologian Franz Böckle, etc), but it is difficult to see why they would feature so prominently in an essay about the abuse scandal. A reader gets the impression that perhaps this long section was an opportunity for this illustrious theologian to air some of his objections to certain trends in theology. Benedict wraps up with his concern that, through this problematic theology, “the authority of the Church in matters of morality (was) called into question.”


Part Two: Seminary Formation and Canon Law


Benedict begins the second section with his assertion that the “dissolution of the Christian concept of morality” led to problems with seminarian formation, including “homosexual cliques” which “significantly changed the climate in the seminaries.” Whatever you think about the significance of homosexual activity in the seminary (I will leave that one for another day), pointing out this change in seminary formation in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a central cause of the abuse crisis just doesn’t match with the data. According to the John Jay report (see Table 3.3.2 here), the percentage of priests accused of abuse was nearly as high among those ordained in the 1950s as among those ordained in the 1960s. Those ordained in the 1970s had significantly lower rates of abuse.


The next sentence strikes me as particularly troubling: “In one seminary in southern Germany, candidates for the priesthood and candidates for the lay ministry of the pastoral specialist lived together. At the common meals, seminarians and pastoral specialists ate together, the married among the laymen sometimes accompanied by their wives and children… The climate in this seminary could not provide support for preparation to the priestly vocation.” Obviously, Benedict’s approach to the abuse crisis does not give much weight to the issue of clericalism, but I was still surprised to read such a strong objection to the mingling of seminarians with lay people and families.


After stating that the situation in seminaries has greatly improved since the 1970s, Benedict goes on to describe his objections to the way bishops began to be chosen, with what he saw as too much emphasis on a “critical or negative attitude towards the hitherto existing tradition.” Again, it feels like this essay is being used as a catch-all for Benedict’s objections to various changes in the Church, without drawing any kind of clear connection to the abuse of minors. This feels very unlike his previous writing, which was always so systematic and tightly constructed.


Lest you worry that I have nothing positive to say about this essay, the second half of this section is actually really interesting as a reflection on the failures of the ecclesial system in the early days of the abuse crisis. Benedict makes no attempt to defend the handling of abuse cases. He admits that, beginning in the 1980s, it was clear that current canon law was not sufficient for handling this problem. (Props to him for identifying the timeline more accurately than most bishops today, who often mention 2002 as the start of this issue. The Church definitely knew about the problem in 1985 - and even before.) Benedict outlines a “fundamental problem” in the procedures of the time, which placed an undue emphasis on the rights of the accused, “to an extent that factually excluded any conviction at all.”


Benedict explains that, because this “guarantorism” dominated the Congregation of the Clergy, he (as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) agreed with Pope John Paul II to move the handling of these offenses to the CDF, which also had the ability to “impose the maximum penalty, i.e. expulsion from the clergy.” However, Benedict says that the dioceses and even the Holy See were “overwhelmed” by the requirements for these cases. In a matter of fact way, he ends by explaining, “Because all of this actually went beyond the capacities of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and because delays arose which had to be prevented owing to the nature of the matter, Pope Francis has undertaken further reforms.”


Part Three: The Church’s Response


While Benedict had previously explained the need for concrete changes in procedures for prosecuting cases of clerical abuse, his section on the appropriate response to this crisis takes a very different turn. This is where we see a bit of the old Benedict, offering a deep theological exploration of both the problem and the solution. He begins by asking, “What must be done?” then launches into a theological reflection on the nature of a society that becomes separated from God.


In my opinion, the best line of the whole essay is from this section, when Benedict sums up the Christian faith in this way: “the Lord has initiated a narrative of love with us and wants to subsume all creation in it.” He goes on to describe the consequences to our society when we remove God from the picture; he brings us back to the abuse crisis with this line: “Why did pedophilia reach such proportions? Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God.” This line of reasoning is unlikely to resonate with secular audiences, but as a priest of the Catholic Church, Benedict is naturally going to invoke a spiritual dimension to this problem.


Benedict wraps up his essay with a reflection on the nature of the Church that was actually quite helpful to me, as a Catholic struggling to make sense of the great evil present in this body. He makes no attempt to minimize the problem, but he also calls readers to a recognition of all that is still good in the Catholic Church.


I’ll leave you with the closing words of the essay, a much-needed note of hope at the end of this rather dour reflection:


“Yes, there is sin in the Church and evil. But even today there is the Holy Church, which is indestructible. Today there are many people who humbly believe, suffer and love, in whom the real God, the loving God, shows Himself to us. Today God also has His witnesses in the world. We just have to be vigilant in order to see and hear them...


Today's Church is more than ever a "Church of the Martyrs" and thus a witness to the living God. If we look around and listen with an attentive heart, we can find witnesses everywhere today, especially among ordinary people, but also in the high ranks of the Church, who stand up for God with their life and suffering...


I live in a house, in a small community of people who discover such witnesses of the living God again and again in everyday life and who joyfully point this out to me as well. To see and find the living Church is a wonderful task which strengthens us and makes us joyful in our Faith time and again.


At the end of my reflections I would like to thank Pope Francis for everything he does to show us, again and again, the light of God, which has not disappeared, even today. Thank you, Holy Father!”


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I have some further reflections to share on Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s essay (and the important things that are missing from his reflection), but this is long enough for one blog post, so I will save those notes for next time.


I am guessing that some of my readers are going to be dismayed by this critical look at the words of a former pope, while others might be upset that I had anything positive to say at all. In the end, I hope we can all continue to read carefully, think critically, and seek truth. Of course, I still encourage you to read the document yourself. I'd love to know what you think!


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St. Peter, pray for us.

St. Benedict, pray for us.

St. Francis, pray for us.

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©2020 by Sara Larson