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Pope Benedict Breaks His “Silence” to Say Not Very Much at All

Yesterday, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI broke his post-pontificate “silence” yet again in a 6,000-word essay about the crisis of clerical sex abuse in the Church, and his perspective on its origins. The letter was, he says, written in response to the February summit in Rome in which the heads of the world’s episcopal conferences came together to discuss this troubling topic.

I had considered writing an in-depth summary of the text, but others have already done so, so rather than duplicate efforts, I’d like to move briefly through some key highlights and offer my own thoughts on the essay.

The former pope points the finger at the 1960s as a departure point for the problem of clerical abuse, citing both the sexual revolution and its impact on public mores — including a movement to de-stigmatize pedophilia — and the revolution in moral theology that came as a result of the Second Vatican Council’s focus on Divine Revelation, which he says led to an abandonment of a natural law approach to morality. In Benedict’s mind, a Bible-based moral theology was incapable of being presented systematically, and so, without falling back on the natural law, a pragmatic moral theology began to emerge. This led, in his view, to an emergent consequentialism in moral theology — the idea that the ends justify the means.

“Consequently,” he writes, “there could no longer be anything that constituted an absolute good, any more than anything fundamentally evil; (there could be) only relative value judgments. There no longer was the (absolute) good, but only the relatively better, contingent on the moment and on circumstances.”

He argues that this trend continued into the 1980s, culminating in the Cologne Declaration in 1989.

And what was the Cologne Declaration?

According to a 1999 editorial in the National Catholic Reporter — the kind of publication that would celebrate such an event — it was nothing less than a “shot across the bow of the Barque of Peter.” Signed by a group of “eminent European theologians,” the document “was a wake-up call for the church,” arguing that “certain church policies were frustrating the task of carrying the gospel to the world.”

According to the Reporter, these included things like the pope choosing bishops “without respecting the suggestions of local churches”; the Vatican’s “refusal to grant official license to theologians with whom it disagrees”; and “[t]he pope’s ‘overstepping and enforcing in an inadmissible way’ his proper doctrinal competence, insisting that every pronouncement of the magisterium be treated as ipso facto infallible.”

“The declaration,” the Reporter practically gasps, “called special attention to the ban on birth control.”

The Reporter also gleefully noted that the declaration laid out a defiant challenge: “If the pope undertakes things that are not part of his role, then he cannot demand obedience in the name of Catholicism. He must expect dissent.”

Benedict notes that Pope John Paul II issued Veritatis Splendor as a response to this revolution against objective truth and the growing rejection among theologians of the idea of intrinsic evil. He says the encyclical thus “triggered vehement backlashes on the part of moral theologians.”

He goes on to make a rather strange observation (emphasis added):

In moral theology, however, another question had meanwhile become pressing: 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.

I am uncertain what to make of his assertion that “there is probably something right about this hypothesis” — namely, that infallibility applies only to faith and not to morals. Though he finishes the paragraph with a caveat about a “minimum set of morals” that are “indissolubly linked to the foundational principle of faith,” it sounds dangerously like a quasi-rejection of the dogma of papal infallibility as laid out in Pastor Aeternus, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ from Vatican I, which defined that both faith and morals are protected by infallibility.

In any case, Benedict says the “dissolution of the moral teaching authority of the Church necessarily had to have an effect on the diverse areas of the Church.” He then pivots to the effects of these changes on seminary formation.

On the matter of homosexuality in the priesthood, strikingly little attention is paid. There is only one mention of this affliction in the entire document: “In various seminaries homosexual cliques were established, which acted more or less openly and significantly changed the climate in the seminaries.”

The issue is never explored any further.

The former pope focuses instead on the problem of pedophilia, despite the fact that research has long pointed to a preponderance of abuse taking place with adolescent boys. He says the issue of pedophilia “did not become acute until the second half of the 1980s,” and that Rome failed to grapple correctly with how to handle such cases, reaching an opinion that “the temporary suspension from priestly office had to be sufficient to bring about purification and clarification.”

In several instances throughout the text, he speaks about “conciliar” attitudes being part of the problem, though he makes an effort to distance these attitudes from the council itself through the use of scare quotes and other semantic devices, implying that they were misinterpretations and not true conciliarism.

There is a particularly interesting moment, about midway through the document, where Benedict says (emphasis added):

Allow me a brief excursus at this point. In light of the scale of pedophilic misconduct, a word of Jesus has again come to attention which says: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42).

The phrase “the little ones” in the language of Jesus means the common believers who can be confounded in their faith by the intellectual arrogance of those who think they are clever. So here Jesus protects the deposit of the faith with an emphatic threat of punishment to those who do it harm.

If anyone is looking for a veiled barb at Francis, this is the one possible instance I could find in the entire text. But it is far from certain that this is what he means, and context indicates he may in fact be addressing those who used the “conciliar” attitude of “so-called guarantorism” “to such an extent that convictions [for sexual crimes] were hardly possible.”

Benedict goes on to raise questions reminiscent to those in his Introduction to Christianity, asking what the world would be like without God. He says it would, of course, be meaningless, and that it is the very absence of God that has given rise to the crisis:

A world without God can only be a world without meaning. For where, then, does everything that is come from? In any case, it has no spiritual purpose. It is somehow simply there and has neither any goal nor any sense. Then there are no standards of good or evil. Then only what is stronger than the other can assert itself. Power is then the only principle.

He also asks:

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. 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.

I’m not sure what this means. Another Church? Already undertaken? I wish I understood what he is trying to say here, but to me, at least, it’s anything but clear.

He then touches on the need to regain respect for the Eucharist — noting that some abusers use Eucharistic language when perpetrating their crimes — and says that ultimately, the crisis has culminated in an “accusation against God”:

[T]he 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. No, even today the Church is not just made up of bad fish and weeds. The Church of God also exists today, and today it is the very instrument through which God saves us.

He concludes his essay with what I can only describe as a love note to Pope Francis:

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!

What are we to make of all this?

It’s difficult to identify exactly what the point of this document is. It tells us nothing new. It proposes no solutions. It is, as one friend put it, very much “the work of a German theology professor.” It looks backward, not forward. It seeks, in a sense, to set the record straight — except that it fails to do so.

Obviously, the sexual revolution played a role in the abuse crisis, as did the collapse of moral theology. But a number of abuse cases stem back to at least the 1950s, so there’s more to that story. And if someone wants to complain about 1960s radicals, Hans Urs von Balthasar is quoted favorably in this text. Also, remember these guys?

Karl Rahner & Joseph Ratzinger.

As I mentioned, homosexuality in the priesthood and in the seminaries is given only the briefest mention, setting aside one of the primary issues that requires further examination about how we arrived at the present moment. He mentions, at one point, that a bishop and former seminary rector showed pornographic films to seminarians, “allegedly with the intention of thus making them resistant to behavior contrary to the faith.” He does not specify if these were homosexual in nature or whether they were used to groom potential victims, as happened in the case of the late Fr. Donald McGuire.

There are also some pretty gratuitous moments in the text — such as when the former pope laments that his own books were not allowed to be read by seminarians, or when he says the dissenting Swiss-German moral theologian Franz Böckle was “spared” by “God, the Merciful” from his commitment to “challenge … with all the resources at his disposal” any assertion in the forthcoming Veritatis Splendor that intrinsic evil existed when he died in July of 1991 — two years before the encyclical was released. (At the time, Ratzinger was prefect of the CDF, so dealing with Böckle’s promised dissent would have fallen under his purview.) Also somewhat self-serving are Benedict’s attempts to disambiguate problems that resulted from “conciliarism” from his own pet project: the Second Vatican Council. He appears to labor even now to promote, if not in so many words, the fantastic notion of a “hermeneutic of continuity,’ even while granting that “in many parts of the Church, conciliar attitudes were understood to mean having a critical or negative attitude towards the hitherto existing tradition, which was now to be replaced by a new, radically open relationship with the world.”

In all, this text from Benedict offers only a few very basic and obvious observations about why we’re in such a Mess: the West has abandoned God, we are insufficiently respectful to the Eucharist, we’re way too enamored with sex, and radicals have been running the show for half a century. It comes across, in many respects, as little more than the musings of a 92-year-old man who is looking back on all that has transpired during his ecclesiastical career and trying to make some sense of it.

But I think the important takeaway from the document is what it doesn’t tackle.

First of all, it is becoming rather silly to describe statements from Benedict as “breaking silence.” There have now been so many interruptions of that alleged silence that they could almost be described as commonplace.

This is, however, the most lengthy and significant breaking of that “silence.” And yet, this was not the kind of bold statement the faithful have been waiting for from the pope emeritus. Rather than address the crisis that was left to us by his abdication — the crisis of faith that has unfolded because of the man who was chosen to succeed him, or even the confusion created by his retention of certain symbols and titles of office — Benedict has instead issued a superfluous and meandering retrospective on a crisis that was in play long before he was elected to the papacy. To pour salt in the wound, he caps it off with effusive praise for Pope Francis, reminding us once again that he’s very much on board with the new program.

Of course, by Benedict’s own admission, the document was issued with the consultation of Pope Francis and Cardinal Parolin, so its content had to be judged sufficiently innocuous for them to have given their blessing. And yet, irritatingly, that’s exactly what it was. If the old adage, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything,” still stands, wouldn’t silence have been preferable if Benedict was really concerned about what we’re facing?

Instead, this missive has stoked the fires of nostalgia in some of the leadership-starved conservatives pining to go back to the days of a Benedictine papacy. It has prompted those who believe he is still the pope to question whether he wrote the document at all. (Archbishop Gänswein insists that he did; Eduard Habsburg, Hungarian ambassador to the Holy See, tweeted this morning that he read the document in its original German and that “it is his style down to punctuation and even expressions from 30 years ago. So rest calm: it’s him.”) It has dredged up new feelings of confusion and loss in many who see in it, at the very least, a return to the greater clarity of insight and dedication to (even obvious) truth possessed by the most recent successor to St. Peter before our current chastisement of a pope.

At the Catholic Herald, the subheading on an article by Professor Chad Pecknold of Catholic University of America breathlessly claims, “After all the studies are done, after new protocols and safeguards are in place, Benedict’s answer will be the one which endures.”

Endures how? Endures why? What answer was even offered? Pecknold says this letter “is the voice of a father.” But if so, he is a father who abandoned his children, who sits idly by while they are abused by the new stepdad, and goes so far as to talk about anything and everything else, all while praising and thanking the cruel man who took his place.

Maybe that’s what some people want in a father, but you can count me out.

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