Pope emeritus Benedict XVI: “The Church and the Scandal of Sex Abuse”: A Protestant response (1)
One week ago, a letter written by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI was released in English translation by a number of sources. The letter concerned the Roman Catholic Church’s ongoing sodomitic abuse and rape crisis which had led Pope Francis to call a Vatican conference of the world’s bishops from February 21 to 24, 2019. Benedict’s letter was written as a response to this meeting, as he explains below.
Benedict’s letter has three sections and I will be commenting on each of the sections in separate posts. This is the first post dealing with the first section of Francis’s letter.
I’ve always had much respect for Joseph Ratzinger starting long before his election to the Papal Throne. Much he says here is noteworthy. My thoughts are in italics. -TB
The Church and the Scandal of Sex Abuse
by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI
(Translation released April 10, 2019 by “Catholic News Agency”)
On February 21 to 24, at the invitation of Pope Francis, the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences gathered at the Vatican to discuss the current crisis of the faith and of the Church; a crisis experienced throughout the world after shocking revelations of clerical abuse perpetrated against minors.
The extent and gravity of the reported incidents has deeply distressed priests as well as laity, and has caused more than a few to call into question the very Faith of the Church. It was necessary to send out a strong message, and seek out a new beginning, so to make the Church again truly credible as a light among peoples and as a force in service against the powers of destruction.
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.
Thus, after the meeting of the presidents of the bishops’ conferences was announced, I compiled some notes by which I might contribute one or two remarks to assist in this difficult hour.
Having contacted the Secretary of State, Cardinal [Pietro] Parolin and the Holy Father [Pope Francis] himself, it seemed appropriate to publish this text in the Klerusblatt [ a monthly periodical for clergy in mostly Bavarian dioceses].
My work is divided into three parts.
In the first part, I aim to present briefly the wider social context of the question, without which the problem cannot be understood. I try to show that 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 that has by now been the subject of laborious attempts at disruption.
In the second part, I aim to point out the effects of this situation on the formation of priests and on the lives of priests.
Finally, in the third part, I would like to develop some perspectives for a proper response on the part of the Church.
(1) The matter begins with the state-prescribed and supported introduction of children and youths into the nature of sexuality. In Germany, the then-Minister of Health, Ms. (Käte) Strobel, had a film made in which everything that had previously not been allowed to be shown publicly, including sexual intercourse, was now shown for the purpose of education. What at first was only intended for the sexual education of young people consequently was widely accepted as a feasible option.
TB: Benedict seems to imply it may be acceptable to show such pornography to youth.
Similar effects were achieved by the “Sexkoffer” published by the Austrian government [A controversial ‘suitcase’ of sex education materials used in Austrian schools in the late 1980s]. Sexual and pornographic movies then became a common occurrence, to the point that they were screened at newsreel theaters [Bahnhofskinos]. I still remember seeing, as I was walking through the city of Regensburg one day, crowds of people lining up in front of a large cinema, something we had previously only seen in times of war, when some special allocation was to be hoped for. I also remember arriving in the city on Good Friday in the year 1970 and seeing all the billboards plastered up with a large poster of two completely naked people in a close embrace.
Among the freedoms that the Revolution of 1968 sought to fight for was this all-out sexual freedom, one which no longer conceded any norms.
The mental collapse was also linked to a propensity for violence. That is why sex films were no longer allowed on airplanes because violence would break out among the small community of passengers. And since the clothing of that time equally provoked aggression, school principals also made attempts at introducing school uniforms with a view to facilitating a climate of learning.
TB: Fear of violence had nothing to do with the reason naked flesh wasn’t show on airplanes.
Part of the physiognomy of the Revolution of ‘68 was that pedophilia was then also diagnosed as allowed and appropriate.
TB: No, pedophilia wasn’t part of that revolution. Roman Catholic priests can’t blame their sodomitic rapes of altar boys on cultural forces advocating sodomitic rape of young boys.
For the young people in the Church, but not only for them, this was in many ways a very difficult time. I have always wondered how young people in this situation could approach the priesthood and accept it, with all its ramifications. The extensive collapse of the next generation of priests in those years and the very high number of laicizations were a consequence of all these developments.
TB: Sure, these things are connected, but it’s not good for Benedict to lead off his essay with a lengthy section seeming to blame cultural forces for the sins of his Roman Catholic Church.
(2) At the same time, independently of this development, Catholic moral theology suffered a collapse that rendered the Church defenseless against these changes in society. I will try to outline briefly the trajectory of this development.
TB: Poor church, being “rendered defenseless” and all that. Poor Roman “Catholic moral theology suffering(ing) a collapse.” Such tender treatment of wolves in shepherds’ clothing. Such tender treatment of his church.
Until the Second Vatican Council, Catholic moral theology was largely founded on natural law, while Sacred Scripture was only cited for background or substantiation. In the Council’s struggle for a new understanding of Revelation, the natural law option was largely abandoned, and a moral theology based entirely on the Bible was demanded.
TB: So after culture, the next blame is placed on theologians seeking to ground sexual ethics not simply in the book of nature, but also in the Word of God. Culture and seeking the restoration of Scripture’s authority in the church’s teaching on sexuality are his two culprits so far. You see that, dear Protestant? And you thought sola Scriptura was a Latin phrase with no particular usefulness today.
I still remember how the Jesuit faculty in Frankfurt trained a highly gifted young Father (Bruno Schüller) with the purpose of developing a morality based entirely on Scripture. Father Schüller’s beautiful dissertation shows a first step towards building a morality based on Scripture. Father Schüller was then sent to America for further studies and came back with the realization that from the Bible alone morality could not be expressed systematically. He then attempted a more pragmatic moral theology, without being able to provide an answer to the crisis of morality.
TB: Yes, you’re reading it correctly. Benedict is placing significant blame for his church’s epidemic of sodomitic abuse and rape of young boys on moral theologians trying to develop “a morality based entirely on Scripture.” He claims “from the Bible alone morality (can) not be expressed systematically.” Think of all the passages of Scripture teaching sexuality by both command and prohibition, asking yourself what is lacking for a systematic declaration of sexual morality? Of course nothing is lacking—nothing at all.
In the end, it was chiefly the hypothesis that morality was to be exclusively determined by the purposes of human action that prevailed. While the old phrase “the end justifies the means” was not confirmed in this crude form, its way of thinking had become definitive. Consequently, 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.
TB: His transition from the previous paragraph to this one just above conveys the impression that seeking to ground sexual morality in Scripture left the church and/or culture holding that sexual morality is only “to be exclusively determined by the purposes of human action,” that “the end justifies the means,” and that there’s neither absolute good nor absolute evil.” Then he continues the theme in the next paragraph…
The crisis of the justification and presentation of Catholic morality reached dramatic proportions in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. On January 5, 1989, the “Cologne Declaration”, signed by 15 Catholic professors of theology, was published. It focused on various crisis points in the relationship between the episcopal magisterium and the task of theology. (Reactions to) this text, which at first did not extend beyond the usual level of protests, very rapidly grew into an outcry against the Magisterium of the Church and mustered, audibly and visibly, the global protest potential against the expected doctrinal texts of John Paul II (cf. D. Mieth, Kölner Erklärung, LThK, VI3, p. 196) [LTHK is the Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, a German-language “Lexicon of Theology and the Church”, whose editors included Karl Rahner and Cardinal Walter Kasper.]
TB: “The crisis of the justification and presentation of Catholic morality.” Blame is again placed on moving from natural theology to Scripture, and now Benedict adds the move away from “episcopal” (church) authority to “professors of theology” (academic) authority. As the next paragraphs clarify, from papal to professorial authority.
Pope John Paul II, who knew very well the situation of moral theology and followed it closely, commissioned work on an encyclical that would set these things right again. It was published under the title Veritatis splendor on August 6, 1993, and it triggered vehement backlashes on the part of moral theologians. Before it, the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” already had persuasively presented, in a systematic fashion, morality as proclaimed by the Church.
TB: “Moral theologians” or scholars versus ecclesiastical or papal authorities.
I shall never forget how then-leading German moral theologian Franz Böckle, who, having returned to his native Switzerland after his retirement, announced in view of the possible decisions of the encyclical Veritatis splendor that if the encyclical should determine that there were actions which were always and under all circumstances to be classified as evil, he would challenge it with all the resources at his disposal.
It was God, the Merciful, that spared him from having to put his resolution into practice; Böckle died on July 8, 1991. The encyclical was published on August 6, 1993 and did indeed include the determination that there were actions that can never become good.
TB: God “spared him” by killing him. Benedict may be quite right, but where else does he proclaim this sort of Biblical (which is to say reformed) reasoning? With the burning of Notre Dame, for instance? Was God doing something there; and if so, what?
The pope was fully aware of the importance of this decision at that moment and for this part of his text, he had once again consulted leading specialists who did not take part in the editing of the encyclical. He knew that he must leave no doubt about the fact that the moral calculus involved in balancing goods must respect a final limit. There are goods that are never subject to trade-offs.
TB: I suspect Ratzinger/Benedict here is saying he and others were consulted but had no authority over the final text. John Paul was no one’s surrogate.
There are values which must never be abandoned for a greater value and even surpass the preservation of physical life. There is martyrdom. God is (about) more than mere physical survival. A life that would be bought by the denial of God, a life that is based on a final lie, is a non-life.
TB: Excellent. It’s hard to imagine such a forthright declaration of the splendor of truth and faithfulness coming from a Reformed ecclesiastic today.
Martyrdom is a basic category of Christian existence. The fact that martyrdom is no longer morally necessary in the theory advocated by Böckle and many others shows that the very essence of Christianity is at stake here.
TB: Excellent though it would be helpful to point not simply to “martyrdom,” but also persecution.
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.
TB: “Probably something right?” Smile. He thinks maybe the walls of papacy’s Divine claims deserve to crumble just a wee bit. Then notice the adversative “but” as if moral absolutes depend upon papal infallibility, even if only somewhat.
All this makes apparent just how fundamentally the authority of the Church in matters of morality is called into question. Those who deny the Church a final teaching competence in this area force her to remain silent precisely where the boundary between truth and lies is at stake.
TB: No one is forcing the church “to remain silent.” Jeremiah kept preaching. So did John the Baptist and Jesus and the Apostles. So did Stephen, as he died.
Too, why is Benedict defending his church’s authority rather than the authority of God and His Word? Is he really not concerned about the wholesale rebellion of Christendom against God the Father and the words inspired by His Holy Spirit?
Independently of this question, in many circles of moral theology the hypothesis was expounded that the Church does not and cannot have her own morality. The argument being that all moral hypotheses would also know parallels in other religions and therefore a Christian property of morality could not exist. But the question of the unique nature of a biblical morality is not answered by the fact that for every single sentence somewhere, a parallel can also be found in other religions. Rather, it is about the whole of biblical morality, which as such is new and different from its individual parts.
TB: Yet now he switches back from his own church’s authority to “biblical morality.” So in some sense, Benedict can’t help but ground his magisterium’s authority in the authority of God’s Word written. Unless, that is, he’s simply subsuming “biblical morality” under his church’s “magisterium.” A subordinate standard to the magisterium.
The moral doctrine of Holy Scripture has its uniqueness ultimately predicated in its cleaving to the image of God, in faith in the one God who showed himself in Jesus Christ and who lived as a human being. The Decalogue is an application of the biblical faith in God to human life. The image of God and morality belong together and thus result in the particular change of the Christian attitude towards the world and human life. Moreover, Christianity has been described from the beginning with the word hodós [Greek for a road, in the New Testament often used in the sense of a path of progress].
TB: It’s not reassuring for Benedict to speak of either the uniqueness of Scripture or its moral doctrine being predicated upon its own “cleaving” or “faith.” The uniqueness and authority of Scripture itself and Scripture’s moral doctrine flow from all Scripture being inspired by God. They flow from God Himself.
Again, God’s Moral Law is not a manifestation of the Roman Catholic Church’s faith in God and application of that faith to human life, but God Himself applying his perfections to human life and writing them down on stone and in His Word Written. It is almost impossible for any orthodox Roman Catholic steeped in the magisterium to fail to state or imply that the authority of Scripture comes not so much from God as from the Roman Catholic Church. Which is to say Benedict is hedging his words, but still makes clear it is his Roman Catholic Church’s authority that matters most to him and to the restoration of truth and sexual morality.
Faith is a journey and a way of life. In the old Church, the catechumenate was created as a habitat against an increasingly demoralized culture, in which the distinctive and fresh aspects of the Christian way of life were practiced and at the same time protected from the common way of life. I think that even today something like catechumenal communities are necessary so that Christian life can assert itself in its own way.
TB: Yes, and that community Scripture calls the pillar and foundation of truth, the household of faith, the Church of the Living God. We are the “called-out ones.” We need no Benedict catechumenate option. We need the Church reformed and reforming.
Translated by Anian Christoph Wimmer.
Quotes from Scripture use Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (RSVCE).