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The problem with Benedict’s essay

Right or wrong, Benedict told us very little—practically nothing—we did not already know.

Retired Pope Benedict XVI attends a consistory for the creation of new cardinals in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican in this Feb. 22, 2014, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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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About Christopher R. Altieri 198 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. It is important to note that both Commonweal and National Catholic Reporter, deny the fact that “it is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost. By denying Christ’s Teaching on The Sanctity of human life from the moment of conception, and The Sanctity of the marital act within The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, they set themselves apart from Christ and His One, Holy,
    Catholic, and Apostolic Church. The problem with Our Holy Father’s reflections, is they do not reflect knowledge of the fact that again and again, Francis has made statements that are in direct conflict with previous statements of The Magisterium, including statements Pope Benedict has made, regarding Faith and morals grounded in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. God’s atruth will not contradict God’s Truth.

    • Yes ND,
      You and the writer C. R. Altieri both agree, as do I, that this intervention by retired Pope Benedict XVI is deeply disappointing. More and more it seems that there is
      No One one out there with ‘ a new broom ‘
      We are stuck. Divine intervention maybe?

  2. It seems that Pope Benedict admits there was “Homosexual cliques” dating to the 1960 known by prior Popes who did nothing, known by himself, and now known by Pope Francis. What is missing is the admission that 50% of the clergy who were ordained left in the 1970’s and 1980’s to marry women – in a mere 20 year period of time. These established cliques could not have achieved such power except for this fact, that the married clergy were removed overnight by their local Bishops, but the entrenched sexually active homosexual clerics and pedophiles have taken decades to remove due to various excuses given of lack of a speedy process, etc. So the “homosexual cliques” most remain in the ranks today.

    What amazes me is the collective amnesia of anyone’s ability to remember the 50% of ordained priests who were removed from ministry because they married women. It is almost like living in Nazi Germany when 6 million Jews went missing, and no one remembered or could care less. What does this say about the entire Church, that half the priests could be removed from ministry in two decades and no one talks about it? Are we just suppose to forget they ever were ordained or were once the local parish priests? But their leaving left us with the “homosexual cliques” that have taken over the church. Isn’t this the history truths we are not allowed to remember?

    • What is the factual basis for these claim? On what basis are you asserting that half of the Catholic clergy in the 1970’s & 1980’s were secretly married and then removed from ministry due to that fact?

  3. Just as the thoughts in this article tell us practically nothing we haven’t already heard over the last two days.

    And if we’re going to call to attention Benedict’s omissions, then that’s a standard that should be applied to every pope covering any topic throughout history.

    Also, what’s with the speculation on whether or not he had permission? The Vatican never said he *didn’t have permission* either. What’s the point?

  4. I have a problem with your comment: “Right or wrong, Benedict told us very little—practically nothing—we did not already know.” There is a thesis or context that he states. He says that something went terribly wrong in the 1960’s and puts the sex crisis among the clergy in this general context of a very sick Catholic Church and a very sick society radiating from the West. For those who agree with him, it is true that there may be very little that is new, just a detailed analysis. However, from the reaction to his statement, there are clearly many who did not know and still do not want to admit that the clerical abuse scandal is just the tip of an enormous iceberg of a very sick society (e.g. the media, entertainment, and the daily news).They want to isolate this problem of the clergy because they themselves are in denial about what is really happening — the rejection of God and his will for humanity (and for themselves).

  5. His mention of the sexual attitude restructuring videos shown to seminarians is the first time a church leader has acknowledged such a key explanatory factor for the homosex priesthood. I would compare this to the way the slavers got around the 1808 slave import ban… they need them instead.

  6. I agree with Mr. Altieri, and in turn with the previous commentary by Carl Olson.

    Mr. Altieri’s note about factions also catches my attention.

    I find it laughable how immediately upon the election of Pope Francis men and women like Faggioli of Villanova and “Rev.” Rosica of Salt & Light asserted their insistence that everyone pay proper submission to papal authority. It must’ve been frustrating for them to suppress such sincere affection for the pontiff in those long decades between 1978 and 2013.

    It seems that in many places in our Catholic Church, especially since 2013, “factionalism” suddenly loves “authoritarianism.” Indeed, Rosica has proclaimed the gigantic personality cult of the man marketed by himself and Austin Ivereigh and the Cardinaliate of “the McCarrick establishment” as “humble Francis,” a remarkable achievement personified: a Pontiff who is a celebrity for “his humilty.”

    The “carnival” (in unintentionally prophetic words of the new ringmaster himself, Pope Francis) of what is now recognized as “the McCarrick Establishment” in the Catholic Church makes a mockery of Christianity.

    The criticism by Letecia Ochoa Adams is met with stony silence, just like the Dubia, signifying just how dysfunctional and abusive and useless and cowardly and corrupt has become the cult of the Church hierarchy of Cardinals and Archbishops and Bishops (with their utterly disgusting National Conferences).

    Clearly, the pontiff of and by and for “the McCarrick Establishment” is content to live out the remainder of his reign in secrecy and silence. And the men he has elevated to Cardinal and Bishop are exactly like him, and have been promoted at 2-3 times the rate done before 2013, to ensure that they perpetuate the Apostacy of Silence.

    Which means the threat of a very, very prolonged state of civil war in the Catholic Church.

    Meanwhile, the liars and abusers and coverup artists and embezzlers all live without accountability, and die in their ecclesiastical mansions and penthouses, while the faithful few Cardinals, Bishops, priests, sisters and brothers and laity remain abandoned on the battlefield, fighting the spiritual war against the enemies who fine with the Bishops and Cardinals, while the Parolins drink espresso with visiting delegations paying tribute to “the mediocracy” in Rome and other capitals around the world.

    But Jesus remains The Way, and The Truth, and The Life. No matter how useless the so-called hierarchy are. And their are good shepherds, worthy of The Good Shepherd, and worthy to be followed.

    Let Faggioli keep his king. I teach my children to keep another King.

  7. “He said “If you love me keep my commandments and my Father and I will come and abide with you” This is why I came into the church (in the nick of time, 1960) and I believed Him. Eye hath not seen nor ear heard the GRACE for those who hear His voice. I feel so sorry for those who think our enlightened mind and endless talk etc will change that. The thing is the hierarchy and men and women began to think we know better than God, and I believe it started with artificial birth control which made toys more important than GOD and His family around our table. Instead of NFP to learn to handle ourselves we found ways around it and quickly lost our way with married clergy and homosexual answers. What’s next animals? Few have said the short simple answer “return to God and His Manuel, BIBLE, and keep it simple.” All this talk seems to me to miss that point. Sin is what continues to be wrong. Wake up, He has so much he wants to give us if we LET HIM. Return to GOD. The zeal for thy house has eaten me up!!! Doesn’t take many words at all.

    • That occurred to me, too. Or, too little too late.

      In any event, nothing, apparently, escapes The Test.

      And if this is how it is for the Church, how much more will it be for the world.

  8. The essay by his Holiness Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is a watershed, explaining the link between the sex abuse crisis and moral corruption, refuting the now discredited :clericalism” argument. It, along with the recent essays and commentaries by Cardinals Sarah and Muller, as well as Bishop Schneider, go to the heart of exactly what is wrong with the Church and how we can chart a course our of this mess.

  9. Altieri is a gifted alalyst and writer. But he gets this moment dead wrong. Benedict’s was precisely the voice we needed to hear at this moment.
    He takes us back to the root of what many like to call “The Crisis”. It simply will not do to dwell on bogeys like “clericalism” or the desire of many, in both “factions” to “reform” the Church by getting more of the laity involved in Church governance and oversight. As Benedict says that’s been tried before and it failed.
    What we must come to grips with is the failure of all of us — clergy and laity–to recognize and take ownership of the collapse of modern culture that coincided with the Second Vatican Council and inundated the Church. The Council was addressing a modernity that already was disappearing into postmodernity. No matter what the Council intended, it became the Trojan horse of abuses (liturgical, theological, moral, sexual).
    Perhaps, Benedict would not go this far with me. But what he says in his essay certainly suggests it. I think this essay announces an epochal moment: the brilliant light of the age of “continuity” warns us that “rupture” did not disappear, but has morphed into “The Crisis” — and “The Crisis” is a lot bigger than clerical sex abuse.
    Thank God for Ratzinger and for this monumental essay. Shame on all of you of the trad/conservative “faction” for your snarky reactions.

    • “As Benedict says that’s been tried before and it failed.”

      Where, in this recent letter/text, does Benedict say that “clericalism” is a bogey, or that more lay involvement has been tried before and failed?

      And how, exactly, is this bit of analysis snarky? Personally, I’d prefer that folks not read into Benedict XVI what does not appear, by any reasonable measure, to actually be there.

  10. For perhaps a more informative assessment of the impact of Benedict’s controversial letter not cited by commentaries here or sufficiently by author Altieri [Altieri briefly cites Faggioli’s allegation of political machinations in the service of an anti-Francis faction] I submit an excerpt from Massimo Faggioli’s Commonweal commentary: “The narrative of the sex-abuse crisis as a product of the Second Vatican Council is an integral part of their [conservatives] strategy. Some would have us believe that aggiornamento naturally leads to every imaginable kind of sexual depravity. Benedict XVI may not be aware of how his own intervention fits into this strategy, but those who organized this press launch know it well. The choice to privilege certain media outlets, which have been attacking the current pope from 2013 onward, is meant to signal that Benedict XVI is their ally. It strongly suggests that the pope emeritus is being manipulated by the Francis’s opponents. That brings us to a third problem, this one of an ecclesial nature. The Ratzinger thesis on sexual abuse in the church constitutes a counter-narrative that directly feeds opposition to Pope Francis and creates confusion about what to do at this dramatic moment. This counter-narrative leans heavily on the claim that sexual abuse is the result of homosexuality, a claim that has been contradicted by researchers who have studied the evidence. But Benedict XVI is content to repeat the old canard in this essay, which is one reason it has been welcomed so enthusiastically by Francis’s critics. They reject the alternative theory endorsed by Pope Francis, which is that the sex-abuse crisis is fundamentally about clericalism and the abuse of power. It cannot all be blamed on the Sexual Revolution and the proliferation of pornography” (Faggioli).

    • The rather humorous (granted, grimly humorous) irony of Faggioli’s self-serving and facile analysis is that it misses exactly the sort of clericalism that Francis has facilitated: the notion that priests and priest/theologians (Fuchs, Häring, etc) who have tried to do away with moral absolutes in the name of “consequentialism” or “proportionalism” (cf. VS, 75), are worthy and exemplar guides to the Church’s moral teachings, even as they posit (and promote) a counter-Magisterium! Of course, Francis apparently thinks in terms of a certain crude and overt clericalism, which certainly exists, but that is not the deeper and more significant form of clericalism, which not only actively seeks to undermine and overthrow moral truths and natural law but actively lends itself to sexual sins, sloth, pride, corruption, and many forms of cover-up and deflection.

      • Editor Olson your reference to Josef Fuchs SJ [noted former lecturer Greg Pont U] in the “deeper” form of clericalism damaging the Church, is as you allude relevant to understanding the Pontiff’s thought. Fuchs in Natural Law 1965 taught a dual concept of Christ: the Creator Word and natural law v the “soteriological love of the Redeemer” (Fuchs Natural Law Sheed & Ward 65 p 167). The latter a “law of love” in Man’s heart transcends the natural order. I’m confidant Jesuit A Spadaro is well versed in Fuchs and is likely why he would propose theologically 2+2=5. It’s consistent with the Pontiff’s anomalies and a theology of sentiment v reason. What may have some limited value if assumed as paradigmatic “undermines moral truths” and the inviolable revelation of the Redeemer. It’s worth noting Faggioli and others perceive Benedict’s letter a “counter-narrative” to this Pontificate and that Benedict attributes clerical abuse to homosexuality. Whereas a theology of sentiment would have a softer stand toward the homosexual. The error occurs when deviate behavior is purposely obscured. I for one as well as others would benefit from your offering further commentary in a follow up article on “clericalism that Francis has facilitated: the notion that priests and priest/theologians (Fuchs, Häring, etc) who have tried to do away with moral absolutes in the name of ‘consequentialism’ or ‘proportionalism'”.

    • The fact that the homosexual cliques not only existed but flourishes at all levels of the Church in the 60’s was widely known (and accepted) by both the Clergy and the Laity-“Notre Flame” was the nick name of one seminary of note—the influence of these cliques at the highest level were directly responsible during Vatican ll for the destructive attitude toward Cannon Law and the Sacred traditions that held it all together—-Yet with very few exceptions we all stood by and watched it happen—I have no problem married priest but that is not the answer, we all know too many Gay Married men—–The answer is in scripture, our failure to follow the word has put us on this evil and destructive road—-HOMOSEXUALITY IS AN ABOMINATION IN THE EYES OF THE LORD—–yet as Catholics,Christians,Jew and a Nation we have ignored his will and with open arms have accepted this evil—–Look no further—-One glorious hope still remains that all traditionalist Catholics cling to. “Thou art Peter and upon this Rock I will build my Church,and THE GATES OF HELL SHALL NOT PREVAIL AGAINST IT”
      Pax Christi

  11. 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.”

    Wait, didn’t Francis say exactly that?

  12. Renewed reverence for the Eucharist is the renedy. Bring back 24 hour adoration, altar rails and communion on the tongue. Nothing less.

    • I am no fan of the Novus Ordo, but the (current) homosexual-preditor monstrosity started before Vatican II, when the Tridentine Mass was the Roman Rite. Seminaries and Convents were full. Mass was reverent, people went to Confession, plenty of altar boys with patens, kneeling. Adoration.

  13. The following are my two cents on BXVI’s essay: More than an in-depth reflection on the mostly homosexual abuse scandal and it cover-up, BXVI reflects on the state of Western culture and the Church. And I agree that to those familiar with these issues, there is not much new in his reflection. There are many Catholics, however, that are not familiar with these issues. The West lives as if God does not exist. Vatican II opened the Church windows to the Western world, but rather than christianizing this world, this world secularized large segments of the Church. And large segments of the Church became more interested in bringing the kingdom of man than in expanding the Kingdom of God. Thus, in many of those large Church segments, the clergy, the religious and the laity became worldly and corrupt. I find nothing particularly wrong with the Vatican II documents, but I believe there was great naivete in the Council Fathers thinking that by opening the Church windows to the West, the West would accept the teachings of Christ. Christ made it clear that his kingdom is not of this world. To conclude, although I find nothing new in what BXVI said, his reflection is by far way more truthful to any other reflection that has originated in the grounds of the Vatican since that very sad year for the Church of 2013.

  14. Just as in the particular judgment, each individual, each ONE, has chosen to follow what he knows to be God’s will for us, or some fleeting lie often of pleasure or power, no matter what was being studied or written or whatever by whomever at the time. We know what the truth is, Jesus is, and think we can have God and Mammon. Oh please, it is individual choices to follow the lie that brought us to this place and individual choices to serve, adore and praise God and His Kingdom that will bring us out. Count me in. The Psalms are full of what happens to those who come against one who stands in God. They dig a pit for themselves. Stand up. I appreciate BXVI and his fine intellect lest any think I’m not saying that. The power of one with GOD cannot be overestimated.

  15. When it comes to the issue of pediphile priests, instead of guessing what motivated them, theorizing why they joined the priesthood, how many more are there, etc., why not why not interview them? Ask them why this has become a rampant problem- that will illuminate a solution.

  16. As a Church, we need to rediscover Jesus in the Eucharist. When only 2/3 of the parents who have children enrolled in Catholic Schools are attending the Sunday mass and only about the same percentage still believe in the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist it’s a telling sign that our focus is off as Church. Again, Jesus has been trying to reach us through saints like Margaret Mary, Faustina and certainly His very own Mother in hopes that our tepid hearts might warm again to the Merciful Savior.

    We need less talk and more silence in the presence of Jesus so that His Holy Spirit can direct us at this important hour.

    The world and the spirit of ‘worldliness’ that pervades our Church today will never reconcile with the sublime power of God in His real presence which contains all of the grace and gifts we need to journey forward in hearts set ablaze. When we fail to give God what is due to Him, our reverence, we are incapable of loving ourselves and others in a way found pleasing to Him. Only at our judgement will this be very clear. Until, then may more souls begin to Adore Him Daily for the RENEWAL of our priests, the RESTORATION of our families and to ATONE for the sins of our nation. Jesus, I Trust In You!

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