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Benedict XVI blames moral theology, sexual revolution and God’s absence for abuse crisis

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has released a 6,000-word essay reflecting on the sex abuse crisis that plagues the Catholic Church. He blames the crisis on theological developments since Vatican II, the sexual revolution and God’s absence in the modern world. Günther Simmermacher praises Benedict’s theological reflection, and also shows why he is a poor social scientist. After all, he writes, Benedict was very much part of the problem because he was part of the system he seemingly tries to absolve.

In his new 6,000-word essay on the sex abuse crisis, published in the German publication Klerusblatt and translated by the Catholic News Agency (I’ve read the original German version), Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI shows that he is a superb theologian and a fine scholar of scripture and ecclesiology. And, he also shows that he is not a good social scientist. It becomes clear that for all the good he writes, alas, even in retirement he is still part of the problem. 

There is much in his essay that is admirable and worth prayerfully reflecting on, especially much of the Christology which ends this essay. 

Benedict XVI is self-evidently correct in observing that abuse happens when God is absent, though he locates that absence of God, more in society than in the Church — the place where the abuse he is writing about took place. In that way, the retired pope is pointing fingers for the clerical abuse crisis at a society which, he seems to insinuate, poisoned the inherent goodness of priests. 

Benedict’s notion that abuse became a problem only in the second part of the 1980s is, charitably put, naïve. Surely, he understands that it was only at that point that lay people started to feel empowered to report their abuse, and even then doing so only tentatively. It was also a time when experts started to study the phenomenon of clergy abuse, with Americans such as Richard Sipe and Fr Donald Cozzens leading the way (and attracting mighty opposition from the hierarchy for doing so). 

The incrementally growing freedom to speak about clerical abuse — culminating in the Boston Globe’s 2002 revelations of massive cover-ups of paedophilia and the sexual abuses by clerics — is owed in great part to the sexual education of young people after the 1960s, a process which Benedict fingers somehow as a culprit. 

To be sure, there are myriad problems with the manifestations and effects of the rapidly changing sexual mores in western society, and the Catholic church has identified many of those.

But clerical sexual abuse precedes the advent of relativistic sexual morality entering the mainstream of society. The German Church’s comprehensive study on abuse, for example, cites concrete cases going back to the 1940s, the earliest accessible records in their study. 

But what is also important in Benedict’s essay is what he doesn’t say: that the moral rot resided right at the heart of the Roman Curia, which he was part of and later presided over for more than three decades.

He blames the sexual revolution and aspects of Vatican II for the abuse scandals; yet it was some leading cardinals and priests who preached the loudest against sexual sins and undermined the Vatican II conciliarism. And, who were responsible for some of the worst cover-ups (never mind industrial-scale hypocrisy). 

Ratzinger knew them. He sparred with them in the corridors of the Vatican and in the offices of John Paul II — and he was defeated by them; by such guardians of morality and decidedly un-conciliar men as Cardinals Sodano and Castrillon and Lopez Trujillo. They were among the people who protected monsters like Marcial Maciel and Fernando Karadima, in defiance of Ratzinger’s attempts to address the problem of abusive clergy, because these influential priests and their ilk served a traditionalist and right-wing agenda.

In context of the curial world of bella figura and piously smiling backstabbers, one can understand why Cardinal Ratzinger did not publicly resist these abusers and their curial protectors at the time. One might even see why Benedict XVI acted only selectively and (except for Maciel) quietly against them. But it is difficult to understand why in an essay that professes to be an honest analysis of the abuse scandal, the pope emeritus is silent about how the rot reached the top, and how the rot seeped down more than it crept up the hierarchy.

God was excluded not only in secularising societies but also in places all around Joseph Ratzinger. He knows that very well but still won’t admit that. Why is that?

The deeply-woven conspiracy of silence and the culture of fear, the latter of which he as Cardinal Ratzinger and as Benedict XVI very much helped cultivate, are at the centre of the cover-ups which enabled the abuse of minors. That, more than the bad 1960s or poor formation, is the key to understanding the abuse crisis. Benedict XVI doesn’t even start to acknowledge that. And that, I’m afraid, makes him part of the problem.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Günther Simmermacher
Günther Simmermacher is the editor of The Southern Cross, South Africa’s national Catholic weekly (www.scross.co.za). He is writing here in his personal capacity.

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