Retired Pope Benedict XVI has caused a major uproar in the Catholic Church, publishing a 6,600-word document outlining what he believes to be the root causes of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal, and giving advice to his successor, Pope Francis, on how to completely reform the Church to cut down on abuse allegations.
The document was not published by the Vatican, but rather by a German magazine for priests and on the website of the Catholic News Agency, which has been an instrumental outlet in covering recent sexual abuse allegations against high-profile Church leaders, like former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
In the letter, Pope Emeritus Benedict blames the Church’s troubles on liberalism and the relaxing of sexual ethics that took place in the 1960s, both in the Church and in the world. Benedict claims that proponents of sexual liberation flooded seminaries after the publication of the Vatican II Church reformation document and used Vatican II’s charge of being more “wordly” to heart in the wrong way.
“Today, the 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,” Benedict writes.
“No, even today the Church is not just made up of bad fish and weeds,” he continues, noting that “in the 1960s an egregious event occurred … the previously normative standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely, and a new normalcy arose.”
“This was in many ways a very difficult time,” Benedict concludes. “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.”
The “collapse” and “difficult time” Benedict refers to is, he explains, a crisis of “moral theology,” that bends the study of spirituality away from the concept of objective good and evil. Left adrift in a world where morals are relative and moral boundaries are always shifting, the edicts of the Church become lost.
In order to reclaim its moral authority, the Church, Benedict theorizes, must make some big changes, including a return to a strict moral code: “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.”
When he was Pope, Benedict put enforcement of Church sexual mores under the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Church’s most important theological body, rather than the Congregation of the Clergy, which typically handles behavioral matters that arise within the Church’s priestly population. That’s because, Benedict says, the proliferation of sexual abuse was a theological and moral matter that affected all facets of the Church.
He also took to task the culture that took root after the Second Vatican Council, which produced Vatican II, accusing some within the Church of taking the concept of being more “worldy” to heart in a way that wasn’t consistent with the Council’s recommendations. Instead of making the Church more available and understandable, some activists used Vatican II to justify conforming the Church to the modern world instead of to Christ.
Benedict points specifically to declining participation at Mass and a “clergy crisis” in some parts of the world.
“The Second Vatican Council was rightly focused on returning this sacrament of the Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ … to the center of Christian life and the very existence of the Church. In part, this really has come about, and we should be most grateful to the Lord for it,” Benedict writes. “What predominates is not a new reverence for the presence of Christ’s death and resurrection, but a way of dealing with Him that destroys the greatness of the Mystery.”
Benedict’s letter, of course, drew fierce criticism from more liberal Catholics, and particularly leftist clergy, who have long denied that the practice of homosexuality in some seminaries is the root of the Church’s sexual abuse, both of minors and of young priests and seminarians. High-profile Catholic leaders like McCarrick took advantage of their position to prey on young men who trusted them in their spiritual formation.
This is the first time that Pope Emeritus Benedict has waded into Church affairs so publicly. Since retiring several years ago, he has largely faded from the public eye. Now 92, he lives in a monastery apart from the Vatican and far from Pope Francis.