On the evening of April 10, six weeks after the conclusion of the Vatican’s summit on the sex-abuse crisis, the “pope emeritus,” Benedict XVI, made known his thoughts on the genesis of that crisis in a five-thousand-plus-word essay sent to a periodical for Bavarian priests, quickly translated into English, and then diffused online by Catholic websites known for their hostility to Pope Francis.
The essay is divided into two parts. The second, theological part is a reflection on the spiritual nature of the church, and mirrors Pope Francis’s own approach to the sex-abuse crisis: the pope and pope emeritus agree that the crisis cannot be resolved with only bureaucratic and juridical reforms. Both believe that the crisis involves a spiritual evil that must be confronted in spiritual terms. Benedict writes: “Indeed, the Church today is widely regarded 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. 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.” All this is in keeping with what Francis has said and written on the subject.
The rest of Benedict’s essay, however, departs not only from the current pope’s analysis of the sex-abuse crisis, but also from that of almost everyone else who has studied it. Ratzinger’s core argument starts from an historical-theological analysis of the post-conciliar period—from 1968 onward—and focuses on the negative effects of the Sexual Revolution on the church. In his view, these effects were twofold: a moral decay in behaviors and the rise of relativism in moral theology.
This is a problematic analysis to say the least. It puts the Second Vatican Council at the origin of moral decadence in the church. This contrasts starkly with the way Francis has always spoken about the Council. Even worse, Benedict’s claim that the phenomenon of sexual abuse was mainly a product of the 1960s is contradicted by all the available studies on the topic, as is his suggestion of a connection between sexual abuse and homosexuality (more on this later).
There is no question that the Catholic Church was hit hard by the Sexual Revolution—not only lay people, but also the clergy and the seminaries. But the history of sexual abuse in the church begins well before the turmoil of the ’60s: one can find evidence of it in the writings of the Fathers of the Church, who coined terms for it that are not found in classical Greek (cf. this study by John Martens). There is a vast literature on the phenomenon and on the tools developed by the church, between the Middle Ages and the twentieth century, to combat it.
Benedict’s portrait of the post–Vatican II period is a caricature. In fact, this was an extremely complex and contradictory time. There were no doubt errors and excesses, but there was also ingenuity on the part of Catholics who were attempting to imagine a church more open to the world. Benedict’s use of the terms “conciliar” and “conciliarity” in this essay is invariably derogatory, and this is not consistent with his own ecclesiology and biography—at least at the time of Vatican II. He was, after all, one of the most important theologians of both the Second Vatican Council and of post-conciliar Catholicism. Particularly surprising is Benedict’s description of the 1960s and ’70s as a period characterized chiefly by the growing acceptance of pornography. His characterization of the past fifty years echoes accounts of the period of “pornocracy,” the saeculum obscurum of Rome in the tenth century. This peculiar “Ratzinger thesis” is not offered here for the first time: you can find traces of it in his earlier writings and interviews—for example, in the Ratzinger Report (1985) and in the letter he sent as pope to the church in Ireland of March 2010. In the past few decades, many Catholics have developed a new awareness of the complexity of sexual abuse, but this awareness is nowhere to be found in Ratzinger’s writings.
Benedict’s essay evinces no awareness that the Catholic sex-abuse crisis is a global crisis, involving non-Western countries that were largely unaffected the Sexual Revolution in Europe and America. The pope emeritus offers hasty and superficial judgment on the responsibilities of the institutional church and of the Vatican during his own pontificate and that of his predecessor, John Paul II. He takes no responsibility for the Vatican’s failures and tragic delays during the time when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or when he was pope. These include the case of cardinal Bernard Law, who took refuge in Rome to escape prosecution in the United States, and the case of Marcial Maciel, the corrupt and predatory founder of the Legionaries of Christ. Nor does he take or assign responsibility for the appointment of a generation of conservative bishops whose rigorism often led to double lives in some seminaries, religious orders, and ecclesial movements. In this regard, hypocrisy has been at least as damaging as moral relativism.
Benedict’s essay is all the more regrettable because it obscures the fact that the Vatican started to take systematic action on this issue only during his own pontificate. He deserves credit for that. But in the essay, one sees only the shortsightedness of Joseph Ratzinger, the most important policy-maker of the Vatican for more than thirty years. There is very little attention paid to the victims of sexual abuse; they are mentioned only once in this long text. This oversight is exacerbated by an unseemly expression of self-pity. “Perhaps it is worth mentioning,” he writes, “that in not a few seminaries, students caught reading my books were considered unsuitable for the priesthood. My books were hidden away, like bad literature, and only read under the desk.” He once again rehearses his grievance with the “Cologne Declaration” of 1989. Less than a third of this essay directly addresses the question at hand, and much of the rest of it reads like an effort to change the subject.
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