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.
The problem is not between Bergoglio and Ratzinger personally, but between their two offices. This incident shows that it is not enough to improve Vatican’s system of communications.
There is a second problem underlying the publication of this essay. Benedict XVI claims to have prepared these remarks for the February summit on sexual abuse, but, for whatever reason, they were not published at that time. He writes that Pope Francis and the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, gave him permission to have the article published in a German-language magazine for the Bavarian clergy. But on the afternoon of April 10 the long text was made available—and in a good English translation—to a select few Catholic and non-Catholic media outlets in the United States that have made it their business to undermine Pope Francis. Who sent it to these outlets? And why to only these and not to others? Were those in charge of communication for the Holy See informed that the article would be publicized and promoted in this way?
The people who can answer all these questions belong not to the Vatican’s official media, which seems to have been surprised by the initiative, but to the parallel papal court that has formed around the pope emeritus. To release Benedict’s article without informing the Vatican press office and other institutional communication channels represents a serious breach of protocol. The Osservatore Romano and Vatican News limited themselves to publishing a short summary of Benedict’s article. But overseas, and especially in the United States, Benedict’s essay has been quickly and predictably weaponized by those who have been trying discredit Francis since the start of his pontificate.
In the United States there are conservative and traditionalist Catholics who are now flirting with schism—or using the threat of schism as a negotiating device. The narrative of the sex-abuse crisis as a product of the Second Vatican Council is an integral part of their strategy. Some would have us believe that aggiornamento naturally leads to every imaginable kind of sexual depravity. Benedict XVI may not be aware of how his own intervention fits into this strategy, but those who organized this press launch know it well. The choice to privilege certain media outlets that have been attacking the current pope from 2013 onward is meant to signal that Benedict XVI is their ally. It strongly suggests that the pope emeritus is being manipulated by Francis’s opponents.
Until now Joseph Ratzinger has been, like all the men who were in the highest positions at the Vatican during the previous two pontificates—including Cardinals Angelo Sodano and Tarcisio Bertone—remarkably silent about the cases still open, and especially about the case of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was excluded from the college of cardinals by Pope Francis in the summer of 2018 and stripped of his clerical status two months ago after a canonical trial at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The silence of a pope emeritus can be justified as part of the immunity enjoyed by the former sovereign of the Vatican state and/or as an attempt not to interfere with the government of the reigning pope. But now that Benedict XVI has written and released a long text precisely on the fraught topic of clerical sex abuse, people might wonder why he is not required to answer questions about how these issues were handled under his pontificate and that of his predecessor.
That brings us to a third problem, this one of an ecclesial nature. The Ratzinger thesis on sexual abuse in the church constitutes a counter-narrative that directly feeds opposition to Pope Francis and creates confusion about what to do at this dramatic moment. This counter-narrative leans heavily on the claim that sexual abuse is the result of homosexuality, a claim that has been contradicted by researchers who have studied the evidence. But Benedict XVI is content to repeat the old canard in this essay, which is one reason it has been welcomed so enthusiastically by Francis’s critics. They reject the alternative theory endorsed by Pope Francis, which is that the sex-abuse crisis is fundamentally about clericalism and the abuse of power. It cannot all be blamed on the Sexual Revolution and the proliferation of pornography.
Since March 2013 there have been too many intrigues and confusions with respect to the office of the pope emeritus. The problem is not between Bergoglio and Ratzinger personally, but between their two offices. This incident shows that it is not enough to improve Vatican’s system of communications if a shadow court surrounding the pope emeritus continues to give the impression that there is a second pope still in service, caring for those unhappy with the only governing pope.
By resigning voluntarily six years ago, Benedict XVI changed the modern papacy. There are likely to be more such resignations in the future. That means the church needs to think carefully about the office of a pope emeritus rather than allowing it to be treated as a one-off improvisation. There need to be some rules, written and unwritten. When a pope resigns, his secretary or secretaries should resign together with him and be reassigned. The office of “prefect of the pontifical household” must be abolished. The pope emeritus should cease to wear white, and his relations with the media should not be left to the discretion of his personal secretaries, who may have every interest in extending his influence beyond its proper bounds. The communications of the pope emeritus should be handled by official Vatican media.
The publication of Benedict’s essay has already damaged his reputation and sown confusion. It will probably prove to be no more than a minor nuisance to Pope Francis, but it does underscore the need for a new generation of church leaders to deal with the sex-abuse crisis on its own terms rather than simply recycling the clichés, excuses, and evasions that have hindered the Vatican until now.
Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. His most recent book is Catholicism and Citizenship: Political Cultures of the Church in the Twenty-First Century (Liturgical Press, 2017). He is a contributing writer for Commonweal.
This article first appeared in Commonweal, April 12, 2019.