Pope Benedict XVI letter, provides a way forward.
In his most significant pronouncement since he resigned the papacy in 2013, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has written a lengthy essay on clerical sex abuse in which he explains what he sees as the roots of the crisis, the effects it has had on the priesthood, and how the Church should best respond.
Running at just over 6,000 words and to be published April 11 in Klerusblatt, a small-circulation Bavarian monthly, Benedict XVI places the blame mainly on the sexual revolution and a collapse of Catholic moral theology since the Second Vatican Council. This resulted, he argues, in a “breakdown” in the seminary formation that had preceded the Council.
Benedict criticizes canon law for initially being insufficient in dealing with the scourge, explains the reforms he introduced to deal with abuse cases, and asserts that “only obedience and love for our Lord Jesus Christ” can lead the Church out of the crisis.
The pope emeritus begins his essay, entitled “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse,” by noting that the “extent and gravity” of the abuse crisis has “deeply distressed” priests and laity and “driven more than a few to call into question the very faith of the Church.”
Recalling the Vatican’s Feb. 21-24 summit on the protection of minors in the Church, he says it was “necessary” to send out a “strong message” and seek a “new beginning” so the Church could again become “truly credible.”
Benedict writes that he compiled notes from the documents and reports from that meeting that culminated in this text, which he says he has shown to Pope Francis and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state.
The essay is divided into three parts. The first is an examination of the “wider societal context” of the crisis, in which he says he tries to show that an “egregious event” occurred in the 1960s “on a scale unprecedented in history.”
A second section deals with the effects of this on the “formation of priests and on the lives of priests.”
And in a third part he develops “some perspectives for a proper response on the part of the Church.”
To give an idea of the wider societal context, the Pope Emeritus recalls the “all-out sexual freedom” that followed the “1968 Revolution.” From 1960 to 1980, he says “standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely,” resulting in a “normlessness” that, despite “laborious attempts,” has not been halted.
Drawing primarily on examples from German-speaking Europe, he remembers state-sponsored graphic sex education, lascivious advertising and “sex and pornographic movies” that became a “common occurrence” after 1968. This, in turn, led to violence and aggression, he says, and pedophilia was “diagnosed as allowed and appropriate.”
He wondered at the time how young people would approach the priesthood in this environment and says the collapse in vocations and “very high number of laicizations” were a “consequence of all these processes.”
At the same time, Catholic moral theology also “suffered a collapse,” he says, rendering the Church “defenseless against these changes in society.”
He explains that, until the Second Vatican Council, moral theology was largely founded on natural law, but in the “struggle for a new understanding of Revelation,” the “natural law was largely abandoned, and a moral theology based entirely on the Bible was demanded.”
In consequence, Benedict says, no longer could anything be “constituted an absolute good,” but only the “relative” could be “better, contingent on the moment and on circumstances.”
This relativistic perspective reached “dramatic proportions” in the late 1980s and 1990s, when documents emerged such as the 1989 “Cologne Declaration,” which dissented from Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching, prompting an “outcry against the Magisterium of the Church.” He recalls how John Paul II tried to stem the crisis in moral theology through his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor and creating the Catechism.
But dissenting theologians started applying infallibility only to matters of faith and not to morals, even though, Benedict writes, the Church’s moral teaching is deeply linked to the faith. Those who deny this, he continues, force the Church to remain silent “precisely where the boundary between truth and lies is at stake.”