This past April, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI returned to the public eye in a spectacular fashion. In response to the February meeting of the world’s bishops at the Vatican to discuss the clergy sex-abuse crisis, the former pope “compiled some notes by which I might contribute one or two remarks to assist in this difficult hour.” Those notes took the form of a 6,000-word essay, in which the pope emeritus offered his take on the current crisis plaguing the Church and what factors may have caused it. Among those factors, he believes, were the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the effects it had on priestly formation, the changes brought on by Vatican II, and an overall collapse of moral authority.
The letter presents a lot of speculation and theological issues, but it contains very little that will bring any sense of comfort or understanding to those who have been harmed.
Placing the Blame
Regarding the sexual revolution, he says: “In the 1960s, an egregious event occurred, on a scale unprecedented in history. It could be said that in the 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the previously normative standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely, and a new normalcy arose.”
He goes on to insinuate that the clothing of the time contributed to this revolution as well as his belief that “part of the physiognomy of the Revolution of ’68 was that pedophilia was then also diagnosed as allowed and appropriate.” “Allowed and appropriate”? What does that even mean?
According to the 2011 study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, “The majority of priests with allegations of abuse were ordained between 1950 and 1979 (68 percent). Priests ordained prior to 1950 accounted for 21.3 percent of the allegations, and priests ordained after 1979 accounted for 10.7 percent of allegations.”
The former pope says a collapse of moral theology that occurred at the same time—perhaps a reference to Vatican II—“rendered the Church defenseless against these changes in society.”
He also makes reference to the issue of homosexuality, which often comes up in relation to the crisis. “In various seminaries, homosexual cliques were established, which acted more or less openly and significantly changed the climate in the seminaries,” he wrote. If he is trying to draw a parallel between the two, the John Jay study again debunks the corollary.
The study found “that there is no causative relationship between either celibacy or homosexuality and the sexual victimization of children in the Church. So, blaming the clergy abuse crisis in the Catholic Church on gay men or celibacy is unfounded.”
Loss of Focus
At one point in his letter, Pope Benedict recalls meeting with a young woman who was abused when she was an altar server. This woman, he says, “told me that the chaplain, her superior as an altar server, always introduced the sexual abuse he was committing against her with the words: ‘This is my body, which will be given up for you.’”
A survivor’s story would have been a perfect opportunity to express righteous anger and sadness over what has taken place in the Church. While he did acknowledge “the horrific distress of her abuse,” the retired pope failed to take it any further. His apparent takeaway from the encounter: “We must do all we can to protect the gift of the Holy Eucharist from abuse.”
Go back and read that last line again—“We must do all we can to protect the gift of the Holy Eucharist from abuse.” What about the young woman? Shouldn’t the Church be worrying about protecting her from abuse?
Throughout the course of the lengthy letter, Pope Benedict certainly offers a wide range of what he believes are the causes for the situation the Church is facing. What he does not offer, however, is remorse. Not once does the word apologize appear among the 6,000 words of the letter. The word wrong appears only once, and not in any sense of the Church’s culpability for its role in the crisis.
Given the fact that the crisis took place partly under his watch, I would expect a more conciliatory tone to his letter. Unfortunately, the letter seems to do what the Church has done repeatedly during this crisis, and that is to shift blame and find ways to explain away the evil that took place.
In giving his reasoning for publishing the letter, Pope Benedict noted that, “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.”
This letter was not the contribution the Church needed. If we have made any progress, this letter is definitely a step backward.