Pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s release of his letter on “The Church and the Crisis of Sexual Abuse” took most of the world—including Rome, by all accounts—quite by surprise. In the English-speaking world, the Catholic News Agency led the way with the full text, in a well-prepared—even elegant—translation from the original German. The New York Post anticipated the letter’s release in English, with an editorial take that described Benedict’s foray into the public debate over the great matter as, “a post-retirement encyclical.”
Reaction in the press was swift and hot.
The portion of the commentariat usually well-disposed to Francis was quick to decry the intervention of the Pope emeritus as temerarious. Writing for Commonweal, Massimo Faggioli of Villanova University opined, “The publication of Benedict’s essay has already damaged his reputation and sown confusion.”
Michael Sean Winters of the National Catholic Reporter said the letter seemed a “caricature of both Joseph Ratzinger’s once powerful intellect and of conservative explanations for the sex abuse crisis.”
Winters lamented—sincerely, it seemed—the damage the fallout from the release would cause Benedict’s reputation, and asked, “Was there no one who loves him enough to save him from the embarrassment that this will cause?”
Faggioli made some insightful observations about the ill-considered institution of the “Pope emeritus” and the embarrassment it must continue to cause, quite apart from the culture war and internecine ideological strife. His rush to reduce the mode of the letter’s appearance and the commentary surrounding it to mere political machinations in the service of an anti-Francis faction, however, failed to account for the letter’s very mixed reception in what he supposes is the opposing camp.
The main criticism of Benedict’s essay is that it was at once reductive and deflective, promising a treatment of the crisis in the Church and offering instead a panoramic reminiscence of cultural decadence, which thus created the appearance—at least—of attributing the cause of the ecclesial catastrophe to the decadent culture in which sexual perversion is in vogue.
At least in part, the reason for Benedict’s silence on specifics—and Francis’s too, but that is another matter—is clericalism: under the form of a misplaced deference to ecclesiastical characters. The whole Roman theatre of the crisis—not only the Roman theatre, but especially that theatre—is further tainted by the perverse sense of Romanitas that Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta has characterized as omertà—the code of silence by which the initiates of la cosa nostra live and die.
At issue here is not what Benedict or Francis or frankly any other Churchman thinks of the sexual revolution or its consequences in the Church or in society. The faithful are rightly angry with the Church’s hierarchical leaders because they failed—they still fail—to govern. The problem with Benedict’s essay is not in what it said, but in what it did not say. Right or wrong, Benedict told us very little—practically nothing—we did not already know.
The Catholic writer and speaker, Leticia Ochoa Adams, who is also a survivor of sexual abuse she suffered from a close family member, remarked, “I don’t think any of these men get that we do not care anymore about how sexual perversion was popular at some point in history.” She went on to say, “What I want is someone, anyone, to say, ‘this is how I failed, I’m sorry, how can I be part of the solution? What information do you need from me?’ And none of them seem willing to do that.”
Also, if the cultural decadence that inaugurated the tumult of the 1960s contributed to the climate of laxity and perversion, and thus exacerbated the crisis, the broad culture is now calling Church leaders to account for their failures and miscarriages, as well as those of their predecessors. Prosecutors, Grand Juries, Parliaments, and Royal Commissions are succeeding in their efforts to pry answers from Churchmen, while the admonitions and laments of the Christian faithful have not moved those leaders to act decisively, or even responsibly.
It is daily more difficult to avoid the surmise that their fear of Caesar is greater than their love of Christ’s holy flock.
A few bishops have commented on the text, but only a few—with none offering a net negative critical take. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia said Benedict’s text was replete with “moments of insight and genius that fall like rain in a desert.” Archbishop Chaput also called the text “brief,” which at nearly 6 thousand words, is a stretch.
The most thorough and measured take I have seen happens to be by the hand of CWR’s editor-in-chief, Carl E. Olson, who judged it, “Sometimes uneven in approach, often insightful, and occasionally lacking the sort of specific analysis or criticisms that many might want to read.”
Though people on every side have claimed Benedict was not writing out of a place of hostility or opposition to Francis, the exact nature of Benedict’s discussion with the reigning Pontiff and the Roman Curia is not clear. People on both sides have said that Benedict had Pope Francis’s permission, but it is not certain he did have it, or even sought it. Benedict says, “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].”
If Benedict did seek, and obtain, permission to publish his reflections, the Vatican has not said so. Only the prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, is on record as describing Benedict as having sought “permission” from Francis. “I do not know whether Pope Francis read the text,” Cardinal Becciu told the Italian edition of the Huffington Post, “but Benedict himself has written that he asked the Pope’s permission, and from this intervention we see his love for the Church.” That Benedict XVI loves the Church is beside the point. He did not write to the effect Cardinal Becciu attributes.
It is possible Benedict had permission—or assent—to publish in the Klerusblatt, and that the anticipated release of the letter through several different outlets (Corriere della sera had it in Italian) was something of a rogue operation. That is mere speculation. At this point, we do not know.
In the history books, Benedict’s essay is likely to warrant no more than a footnote. The episode, however, is a perfect storm, and a microcosm of everything that is wrong in the Church today: factionalism, whataboutery, binary thinking, reductivism—all present in the commentariat and at work within a governing apparatus that is dysfunctional at every level and captained in the main by men who—when they are not wicked—are cowardly incompetents.
(The opinions expressed in this essay are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the CWR editors or of any Ignatius Press staff.)
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