This Thursday, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI published an article in a German newspaper about the sexual abuse crisis. In it, the Pope Emeritus takes some hard stances against the decline in sexual morality that took place following the 1960s in general, and the Second Vatican Council in particular.
Francis’ detractors, unsurprisingly, have read it as a vindication of their claims that the root cause of the abuse crisis is the Church’s sexual decay. They see sexual abuse as the sour fruits of a “gay lobby” trying to overturn traditional sexual doctrine. By publishing this article, they see Benedict as implicitly criticizing Pope Francis’ approach to the crisis, which is more focused on addressing clericalism as an abuse of power than on addressing collapsing sexual mores.
On the other hand, liberal Catholics who have frequently taken up the task of defending Francis from incessant conservative attacks in the past bought into the “this is an attack on Francis” narrative. They have pushed back against Benedict, sometimes with nasty and undignified rhetoric that perfectly mirrors Francis’ accusers. They have thus shown their allegiance to the Pope to be merely circumstantial, and have fed into the ideological sectarianism in the Church that Francis has been fighting against.
But is there any truth to this interpretation of the events?
On Benedict’s intentions in releasing the letter
Did Benedict intend to interfere with Church governance?
Pope Benedict had promised not to interfere with Church affairs in order not to undermine Francis. So, some have argued that this letter is an intolerable overstep of Francis’ authority, and a breaking of Benedict’s promise.
There is no proof that this is the case. Of course, as Pope Emeritus, and as someone who once had great responsibilities on this matter (both as pontiff and as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [CDF]), his opinions are an invaluable resource in dealing with this crisis. Benedict himself says: “I had to ask myself (…) what I could contribute to a new beginning (…) I compiled some notes by which I might contribute one or two remarks to assist in this difficult hour“.
He is merely providing his input. Biased papal critics are the ones trying to interfere with the way Francis has led the Church, and they will cling to anything that can fuel their stance. This was proven just a week or so ago, when the papal ring kissing kerfuffle overshadowed Francis reaffirming traditional marriage doctrine and his celebration of Mass ad orientem. Anything will be used to attack Francis. And one of their usual modus operandi is precisely to try to use Benedict for their ends: something they have tried several times, unsuccessfully.
One may ask whether Benedict was prudent in exposing himself to be used this way, but one cannot say that Benedict’s intention was to interfere with the current Church’s reforms. The words he uses are “contribute” and “assist.” What he provided was “some notes.” Whether the Holy Father accepts this input or not is up to him, just like it was his decision whether to accept the input from the specialists and heads of the bishops’ conferences he consulted last February. Francis remains sovereign. The Pope Emeritus makes no suggestion that he wants to force Francis to act in a certain way, or that he is again taking up the reins of the Church.
Did Benedict criticize Pope Francis?
It has been claimed that the essay is an attack by Benedict against Francis. Some are claiming that Benedict is validating the anti-Francis Viganoist narrative and taking a stance against Francis’ approach to the abuse crisis.
However, the document does not feature any direct criticism against Francis at all. People are connecting the dots based on their own notions, imprinted on them by the discussions of the last six years.
If we are to read any subtext into the essay, we should read it according to the reality of Benedict’s relationship with Francis. As I have said in my “Was Benedict forced to resign?” series and “Blurred lines – too much ado about nothing” article, Benedict has nothing but respect for the Holy Father. This fact has been proven so many times that it should be indisputable by now. If papal critics insist that the publication of this text is an attack on Francis, how can they maintain one of the core justifications for their conspiracy theories: that Benedict has been gagged and silenced? If Benedict has been gagged and silenced, and if this essay is an attack on Francis, then the essay would have been censored as well. The release of this essay is proof that Benedict is free to express himself as he wishes. Consequentially, we should believe him when he says he was not forced to resign and that he respects the Holy Father.
In the essay, Benedict explicitly says that prior to releasing it, he “contacted the Secretary of State, Cardinal [Pietro] Parolin and the Holy Father [Pope Francis] himself.” So, Francis either agreed with its contents, or at the very least consented to its publication. If the former is true, then Benedict did not attack Francis. If it’s simply the latter, then Francis is not the “Dictator Pope” critics make him out to be. This is consistent with Francis’ character: he allows legitimate criticism and contradictory input. Francis simply does not allow dishonest manipulation under the guise of respectful critiques, or veiled attacks against his legitimate mandate. In this sense, even if Benedict disagreed with Francis (and, as we shall see later, he did not), it could not be construed as papal criticism, as some suggest.
Finally, and most importantly, Benedict cannot possibly be criticizing Francis himself, since he finished his letter thus:
“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!”
In other words, there is no direct criticism of Francis in the document, and it concludes with praise for Francis. A very strange way to convey criticism, if that really was his intention.
Does Benedict disapprove of Pope Francis’ reforms?
We have no proof of that in the document. See above.
In fact, at one point Benedict talks approvingly of Francis’ reforms: “because delays arose which had to be prevented owing to the nature of the matter, Pope Francis has undertaken further reforms.“
Furthermore, we must understand the scope and style of the article. It is not a programmatic essay or a manifesto. It is, and I quote: “some notes by which I might contribute one or two remarks to assist in this difficult hour.” This counters the suggestion that Benedict is trying to undermine Francis’ reforms and policies, since the text is not policy-minded. There is no mention of specific policies in the document, except discussion of past reforms with the intent of giving an historical background.
Can Benedict’s essay be used to criticize Pope Francis’ teachings on morality?
I believe this contradicts the clear purpose of the essay. I would like to point out this excerpt, where Benedict explores one of the roots (in his opinion) of the moral decay within Church ranks:
“The hypothesis that the Magisterium of the Church should have final competence [infallibility] only in matters concerning the faith itself gained widespread acceptance; (in this view) questions concerning morality should not fall within the scope of infallible decisions of the Magisterium of the Church. There is probably something right about this hypothesis that warrants further discussion. But there is a minimum set of morals which is indissolubly linked to the foundational principle of faith and which must be defended if faith is not to be reduced to a theory but rather to be recognized in its claim to concrete life.
All this makes apparent just how fundamentally the authority of the Church in matters of morality is called into question. Those who deny the Church a final teaching competence in this area force her to remain silent precisely where the boundary between truth and lies is at stake.”
This passage effectively refutes all cop-outs and excuses to dissent from the Magisterial teaching of Pope Francis on matters of morality. It also has some Francis-like overtones, namely where it says that faith should be concrete and not reduced to mere theory.
On sexual immorality as the cause of the abuse crisis
What should we make of Benedict’s statements on sexual immorality within the Church in the 1960s?
Papal critics have been, understandably, focused on Benedict’s criticism of the sexual immorality sprouting out of the May ’68 spirit and the abuses of the post-Vatican II era. After all, this is their main concern, and one of the reasons why they condemn Francis.
But there is more to this essay than that. As I said previously, Benedict’s article is not policy-minded. Nevertheless, if some part of the letter proposes practical solutions (even if they do not come in the form of specific policies), it is part III. Benedict has divided the essay in 3 parts, and only in part III do we see suggestions on how the Church should act.
However, Benedict’s comments on sexual immorality in the Church do not appear in part III, but in part I, whose purpose is to “present briefly the wider social context of the question, without which the problem cannot be understood. “
In other words, it’s a contextualization. It explains what happened, but it does not say what we should do about it. I will come back to this point at the end, to see what Benedict actually says about what we should do.
Doesn’t saying the abuse crisis stems from sexual immorality undermine Francis’ anti-clericalist approach?
It is indeed true that Benedict pins the abuse crisis on sexual decay following up on May ’68 and the “loss of God” in Western societies. That much can’t be denied. However, does this mean he is contradicting Francis? He could only be doing so if: a) he criticized Francis’ reforms; or b) his diagnosis somehow contradicted Francis’.
We have already dealt with the former objection in the previous section. As for the latter objection, saying that moral decay is at the root of the abuse crisis does not contradict the argument that clericalism is at the root of the abuse crisis. We are dealing with a complex issue, for which there are no straightforward and simple answers. The abuse crisis is multifactorial and multidimensional and several different factors contributed to it.
Contrary to the assertions both by liberals and Francis’ detractors, our Holy Father did not change Church teaching on sexual matters. Amoris Laetitia states very clearly that the new pastoral paradigm is not to be applied at the expense of doctrinal and unchangeable truths. It is unreasonable to suggest Francis does not decry sexual immorality as much as Benedict.
Rather than disagreeing with Benedict, Francis has decided to emphasize a different aspect/root of the same problem and act upon it. In this sense, Benedict and Francis’ diagnoses should not be seen as contradictory, but as complementary.
Didn’t the Church have sexual abuse before the 1960s?
This is correct, but if we read the text thoroughly, we will see that Benedict is not writing a dissertation where he sets out to prove a thesis. The wording of the article shows that Benedict is telling his experience. His life story. He is writing about things that he experienced and witnessed first-hand. He learned about these situations with more detail when he gained prominence as a peritus in the Second Vatican Council (he experienced its fallout in person, as we read in his book-interviews with Peter Seewald) and, later on, he acquired an eagle-eye view as bishop, head of the CDF and pope.
Furthermore, just because there was sexual abuse before the 1960s, that does not mean that sexual liberalism did not further aggravate the problem. Some apologists have set out to confirm the stories that Benedict has told in his essay (at least in the European setting, which is what the Pope Emeritus focuses on). If they are true, then they most certainly contributed to exacerbate the problem, even if it already existed.
What about homosexuality?
It is also noteworthy that Benedict criticizes a wide array of sexual immorality, not just homosexuality. Benedict mentions homosexuality only once in his essay, and he does so within a list of other sexual sins existing in seminaries. The reference to “homosexual cliques” constitutes 2 words in a 6,000 word text, and he quickly moves on. This is hardly a validation of the typical Viganoist obsession with the “lavender mafia“.
On clericalism as the cause of the abuse crisis
Does Benedict rule out clericalism as a cause of the abuse crisis?
No. Benedict also shows that the abuse crisis has been tightly linked to organizational structures of sin within the Church. We can see the institutional resistance to the implementation of reforms in this sentence: “The Visitation that now took place brought no new insights, apparently because various powers had joined forces to conceal the true situation. A second Visitation was ordered and brought considerably more insights, but on the whole failed to achieve any outcomes.”
Additionally, Pope Benedict coined a new term, “guarantorism.” Guarantorism means demanding an almost impossible burden of proof to bring about a condemnation against an abusing cleric. This too is a subtype of clericalism and I’m astounded that people have just glossed over this. It is a very important insight that has not been much talked about, even in secular cases: how to balance the need for the rule of law and presumption of innocence with the need to protect the victims and believe in them and not to allow impossible odds to stop the meting out of justice.
Is Benedict trying to shrug off responsibilities for the way he handled this crisis?
I admit that some responsibility-taking would have been appropriate, but I also think that it is important to hear the context from the other side. In fact, in their eagerness to bring down Francis, some have pushed Benedict under the bus too, so I think he should also have the right to defend himself.
Again, Benedict is telling his story, his experience. And by hearing him, we can grasp the reasons behind some of the regrettable happenings that we might otherwise construe as cruelty and deceitfulness by the institutional Church. Some claim that the Church is just a power-hungry institution that cares for nothing more than prestige and money.
Benedict paints a different scenario. We had a global institution that was forced to deal with a crisis influenced by very rapid cultural changes and quickly found itself unable to respond. “In order to impose the maximum penalty lawfully, a genuine criminal process is required. But both the dioceses and the Holy See were overwhelmed by such a requirement.“
Of course, the structures that allowed sin and crime to be abetted and perpetuated took advantage of the Church’s sluggishness and bewilderment. In this and in the last excerpt I quoted, we see an admission that there was a need for structural changes. Francis is, therefore, correct in implementing them. However, the slowness with which the Church might have addressed the problem may not have been the result of bad and corrupt intentions. We should take this into account before pointing fingers at the Church, whether against Francis or Benedict.
Benedict, though not perfect, was a pioneer (both as head of the CDF and pope) in implementing reforms in the Church that significantly curbed this problem. It is not wrong to hear him out about the obstacles he met along the way. Doing so may actually help the Church become more effective in addressing the crisis.
On Benedict’s proposals
Are Benedict’s proposals on how to handle this issue any different than Pope Francis’ approach?
As I said, if there are proposals on how the Church should handle this crisis, Benedicts lays them over not on section I (where he deals with sexual immorality), but on section III. And here, in this most ignored (though most crucial) part of the text, is where the thoughts of both pontiffs converge more strongly.
Benedict does not place his trust in pure action, but on a spiritual and inner renewal of the Church. I am reminded of Francis’ Letter to the People of God, where he asked for prayer and penance from the universal Church. I remember hearing the criticism: prayers were not enough, we needed action.
And yet, many who were criticizing Francis for focusing too much on prayers and not in action, are now hailing Benedict for issuing a letter that says: “Why did pedophilia reach such proportions? Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God. We Christians and priests also prefer not to talk about God, because this speech does not seem to be practical.“
However, when Francis’ detractors were demanding action, they were demanding the Church to be transformed according to their own preconceived notions. Nevertheless, Benedict disparages this approach very strongly and clearly:
“What must be done? Perhaps we should create another Church for things to work out? Well, that experiment has already been undertaken and has already failed (…) The crisis, caused by the many cases of clerical abuse, urges us to regard the Church as something almost unacceptable, which we must now take into our own hands and redesign. But a self-made Church cannot constitute hope”
In this sense, Benedict’s approach contrasts vigorously with those who want to take this matter into their own hands and transform the Church according to their own design.
Many of those who try to remake the Church in their own image do it out of ideological motivation and along ideological lines. It is outrageous how this tragic crisis that is scarring so many people has been weaponized for the sake of ideological gain, both on the left and right. Benedict devotes a long portion of section III precisely on taking down this posture of regarding the Church as “just some kind of political apparatus. One speaks of it almost exclusively in political categories, and this applies even to bishops, who formulate their conception of the church of tomorrow almost exclusively in political terms.” This is astoundingly similar to Francis’ warnings about turning the Church into an ideology. This concept is consistent with Ratzingerian thought.
I also found it interesting that Benedict would echo the often-disparaged Francis idea of the Devil taking advantage of the abuse crisis to serve as a “Great Accuser.” Benedict, in fact, makes an excellent exegesis on Satan’s role in the book of Job, as the “the accuser who accuses our brothers before God day and night.“
The Pope Emeritus goes on to say:
“Today, the accusation against God is, above all, about characterizing His Church as entirely bad, and thus dissuading us from it. The idea of a better Church, created by ourselves, is in fact a proposal of the devil, with which he wants to lead us away from the living God, through a deceitful logic by which we are too easily duped.”
Benedict’s theological reflections on the Devil also counter the apocalyptic attitude of many detractors who view the Church today as nothing more than a den of corruption, whose purification they need to take upon themselves. This is the Viganoist perspective and also the view of those who take a distorted vision of some private revelations.
“It is very important to oppose the lies and half-truths of the devil with the whole truth: Yes, there is sin in the Church and evil. But even today there is the Holy Church, which is indestructible “
The optimism that Benedict exudes in the last point is made especially manifest in his last words towards Pope Francis, who “show[s] us, again and again, the light of God, which has not disappeared, even today.“
In other words, if you only see darkness within the Church, look up to Pope Francis, for he is the proof that the light of God has not disappeared in the Church. It’s a solid and clear endorsement of Francis’ pontificate. This is the conclusion of his essay, so it would be incoherent to use the essay to attack the Holy Father.
In the end, Benedict’s proposals seem as if they were taken from a sermon that some would ascribe to the “Church of Nice”:
“Only obedience and love for our Lord Jesus Christ can point the way. So let us first try to understand anew and from within [ourselves] what the Lord wants, and has wanted with us.
The counterforce against evil, which threatens us and the whole world, can ultimately only consist in our entering into this love. It is the real counterforce against evil. The power of evil arises from our refusal to love God. He who entrusts himself to the love of God is redeemed. Our being not redeemed is a consequence of our inability to love God. Learning to love God is therefore the path of human redemption.. “
Is the insufferable ideological weaponizing of the abuse crisis an act of love? Has the the constant vitriol being leveled against the Holy Father these past few years been an act of love? Were the insults against the Pope Emeritus these past few days an act of love? Is reading a text from a Pope (any pope, be it Benedict or Francis) in search of ammunition for debates in social media an act of love? Is trying to find ways to pit Francis and Benedict against one another an act of love? Is desperately trying to score points at the expense of the pontiffs — and, even more horribly, at the expense of the victims of this tragedy — an act of love? Is this love?
Let us read this letter as it is: as invaluable input from someone who has been at the center of this fight for years and who accomplished so much (even if he could not do it all, or do it perfectly every single time.) And let us read this prayerfully, slowly: with attention, without knee-jerk reactions, without ulterior motives, without fear or schadenfreude. I’m sure this is how Francis is reading it. And I’m sure this is how Benedict wanted it to be read.
As a Church, we owe it to all the people who have suffered because of this crisis. It’s time to stop the bickering among ourselves and start seeing the Church not as something that validates us, but as something that needs to transform us into something better than what we have become in these last decades. Using this tragedy to win a Culture War is wrong and contemptible. It is beneath us as Catholics, and it shows how we risk losing our humanity if we continue spiraling down this path.
It’s time to stop. It’s time to change. It’s time for a new beginning. And we can start precisely by reading Benedict’s essay with this fresh perspective and renewed attitude. And then reading Francis’ pontificate under the same light.
I would just like to conclude by congratulating Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on his 92 springs. In the name of Where Peter Is, I wish Papa Benny a happy birthday!
[Photo credit: adamcatholicblog]