April 19th, 2019
Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus) has spoken, and his voice is loud in the confusion that reigns in the Roman Catholic Church. His 5,000 word text, which is entitled “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse”, was released on April 11th, taking Vatican officials and the outside world by surprise. Although he writes that he had informed Pope Francis and the Secretary of the Vatican State beforehand, the procedure was totally unconventional, bypassing institutional channels and distributing the text through a minor German magazine (Klerusblatt). It soon appeared on websites that are often vocally critical of Pope Francis.
When Pope Francis was elected to office in March 2013, Benedict XVI, who had abruptly resigned from office, pledged to remain publicly silent for the rest of his life, dedicating his time to prayer and indicating a willingness not to interfere in the affairs of the Roman Church. With the publication of this long article, this silence is broken. The Pope Emeritus certainly prays, but he also speaks out and does so loudly. The topic of his article is hot in that it deals with the sexual abuses that are ruining the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church and causing internal debates in this “annus horribilis” (terrible year).
“A Post-Retirement Encyclical”?
Commenting on the text, the New York Times has labeled it “a post-retirement encyclical”, as if the Pope Emeritus had resumed his ordinary teaching in this turbulent time. Perhaps this is an overstatement. Content-wise, the article is more of a historical, theological, and autobiographical reflection on the present-day crisis. It is written in the style of a personal testimony coming from a life-long prominent theologian, influential Cardinal, and lately the retired Pontiff of the Roman Church.
Ratzinger traces the present-day sexual abuse scandal back to the sexual revolution of the Sixties (particularly the year 1968), the “collapse” of Catholic doctrine and morality between the 1960s and 1980s, the downfall of the distinction between good and evil and between truth and lies, the proliferation of tolerated “homosexual clubs” in Catholic seminaries, and the imposition of a “so-called due process” that rendered untouchable those who justified these novelties, including pedophilia itself. In the final analysis, Ratzinger points to the ultimate reason for the crisis being a departure from God in society as a whole and in the Church as well. He then calls his Church to recover the mystery of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist as the way to let God become central again.
In a sense there is nothing new under the sun in what Benedict writes now. These broad historical and theological assessments have already been presented in his 1985 Ratzinger Report, a book interview on the state of the world and the church published when he was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and in his “Letter to the Catholics in Ireland”, written in 2010 when he was Pope, which dealt with the abuses there. This new article breaks no fresh ground regarding Ratzinger’s views on the disastrous consequences of the sexual revolution on the world and how it has impacted the Roman Church at all levels.
The Unsettled Legacy of Vatican II
What is significant about the article is the difference in analysis and tone from what the reigning Pope has been saying about the abuses. Unlike Ratzinger, Francis has been quick to blame “clericalism” (i.e. the abuse of clerical power) as the root of the scandals. He has never touched on the relaxation of the Church’s moral standards on sexuality and the gradual acceptance of the presence of homosexuals amongst the clergy. For Francis, homosexuality seems to be a non-issue in the overall explanation of what has gone wrong, i.e. a topic that cannot be dealt with publicly and honestly. The other main difference is that, unlike Ratzinger, who severely criticizes the philosophical trajectory and moral results of Western relativism both within and outside of the Church, Francis speaks more of the political allures of careerism within the Church, which has resulted in unscrupulous people making prey of vulnerable subjects. The difference between the two is evident.
There is something deeper, though. The main thesis of the article is that the Sixties were the decade of the sexual revolution and the Roman Church was devastated by it. So far so good. But the Sixties were also the decade of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which updated Rome’s posture, gesture, and language to make it more friendly to the modern world. Indirectly, Ratzinger underlines the fact that in the Sixties (therefore after Vatican II), Roman Catholic moral theology ceased to argue from the objective basis of “natural law” and began to play with the idea that “morality was to be exclusively determined by the purposes of human action”, making therefore all judgements “relative”. The Pope Emeritus denounces a “new, modern Catholicity” that overturned the traditional moral fabric of Catholic theology and opened the door to the justification of homosexuality and other sexual promiscuities in seminaries and among the clergy. Without Ratzinger saying it explicitly, it was as if Vatican II lowered the bar and relaxed the standards of Roman Catholic theology and ethics to the point of eroding the moral consistency of the Church from within.
While Francis often uses Vatican II to bang conservatives on their heads, Ratzinger’s analysis of the effects of the Council is much more nuanced, if not critical. It is as if Francis stresses the genius of the “catholicity” of Vatican II (i.e. openness, renewal, inclusion, accommodation), whereas the old Ratzinger sees problematic outcomes that have plagued the Church. The tension between the “catholic” and the “roman” elements of the Roman Catholic Church is now embodied in the dialectic between the two Popes. Francis tends to the “catholic” Pope in line with the elasticity of Vatican II whereas Benedicit looks like more of the “roman” Pope calling his Church to its doctrinal identity shaped around its sacramental system. Beyond the different opinions on the current crisis of the Roman Catholic Church, the legacy of Vatican II is also a disputed matter between the two Popes!
One Pope, Two Popes?
There are other standing questions on the whole initiative by the Pope Emeritus. The paper wanted to be a contribution to the summit on the protection of minors that was held in the Vatican in February 2019, but instead it has been made public two months after. Why? Is it because Benedict was not happy with the rather poor and inconsequential results of the meeting? Why did he decide to break his vow of silent prayer now, and on this issue?
After six years of co-habitation between a reigning Pope and the Pope Emeritus (an unusual situation for the Roman Church!), what prompted the latter to speak out on this controversial issue? Why did he feel the need to regain a public voice, outside of institutional Vatican channels? Roman Catholic conservative circles – the same circles that have become very critical of Pope Francis – have always referred to Benedict XVI as the “real” and “true” Pope over and against the troublesome and confusing activity of today’s Pontiff. This article gives them evidence that their criticism has reached Ratzinger’s ears. The Pope Emeritus continues to pray, but is also willing to speak again. He is Emeritus, but he is still Pope.
The article may not be a “post-retirement encyclical”, but it is a stone thrown into Rome’s pond. Its waves will continue to question how is it possible for a pyramidical structure to have two Popes with very different opinions on what happened to a Church marred by horrific sexual scandals and on what needs to be done to recover from the damage caused by them.