The Ratzinger Diagnosis  

Have any of the progressive critics engaged Ratzinger’s argument? No.

Paul VI makes Joseph Ratzinger (future Pope Benedict XVI) a cardinal in 1977. [Wikipedia]

Published a week short of his 92nd birthday, Joseph Ratzinger’s essay on the epidemiology of the clergy sex-abuse crisis vividly illustrated his still-unparalleled capacity to incinerate the brain-circuits of various Catholic progressives.  The origins of the text written by the Pope Emeritus remain unclear: Did he initially write it to assist the bishops who met in Rome this past February to address the abuse crisis? But whatever its history, the Ratzingerian diagnosis is well worth considering.  

In Benedict XVI’s view, the Catholic crisis of clerical sexual abuse was, in the main, an ecclesiastical by-product of the “sexual revolution:” a tsunami of cultural deconstruction that hit the Church in a moment of doctrinal and moral confusion, lax clerical discipline, poor seminary formation, and weak episcopal oversight, all of which combined to produce many of the scandals with which we’re painfully familiar today.  

This diagnosis does not explain everything about the abuse crisis, of course. It does not explain psychopaths like Marcial Maciel and Theodore McCarrick. It does not explain the abusive behavior by clergy and religious in pre-conciliar Ireland and Quebec. It does not explain the challenges the Church faces from clerical concubinage (and worse) in Africa today. But Ratzinger’s epidemiology does address, pointedly, the sharp spike in clerical sexual abuse that began in the late 1960s and peaked in the 1980s, before the reforms of the priesthood and seminaries initiated by Pope John Paul II began to take hold. 

As it happens, I have been making virtually the same argument since the publication of The Courage To Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church in 2002. There, I suggested that the clerical self-deception and duplicity that accompanied widespread dissent from Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on family planning, Humanae Vitae, created an environment in which abusive sexual behavior intensified. Men who persuaded themselves that they need not believe or teach what the Church professed to be true (especially about the ethics of human love) were especially vulnerable to the tidal wave of the sexual revolution; and in short order intellectual duplicity led to behavioral duplicity — and abuse. That seminaries were in intellectual and disciplinary meltdown in this same period compounded the crisis. So did Rome’s failure to promote ecclesiastical discipline in the face of blatant dissent.  

It was, in brief, a perfect storm, one in which the dark forces that are always trying to destroy the Church and impede its evangelical mission could wreak terrible damage. 

For this analysis, I was duly bludgeoned by a portside Catholic commentariat that seemed locked into denial in 2002. Judging from the immediate, volatile, and sometime vicious responses to Ratzinger’s memorandum from the same quarters two weeks ago, too many on the Catholic Left remain in denial about the link between doctrinal and moral dissent and clerical wickedness. Thus, the Pope Emeritus was deemed senile by some, imprudent by others, and disloyal to his successor by the critics. One of these frothing pundits (many of whom are progressive ultramontanists for whom Pope Francis’s infallibility is virtually boundless) even went so far as to charge Benedict with being, in effect, a schismatic.  

But did any of these critics engage Ratzinger’s argument? No. Did any of the critics offer a different, more plausible explanation for the spike in clerical sexual abuse that followed the penetration of the Church by the sexual revolution, the Humanae Vitae controversy, the breakdown of discipline in seminary formation, and the evolution of moral theologies that deconstructed the notion that some acts are always and everywhere wrong? No. As in 2002, there was lots of vitriol; but no serious alternative diagnosis was offered. 

And as I’ve noted before, “clericalism” is not a serious explanation for the sin and crime of clerical sexual abuse. Clericalism facilitates abuse, in that abusers prey on those who rightly hold the priesthood in esteem. But “clericalism” does not explain sexual predation, which has other, deeper causes and is in fact a global plague.   

The Pope Emeritus did the Church a service by offering a diagnosis of the abuse crisis that should be taken seriously by anyone serious about healing the wounds inflicted on the Body of Christ by the abuse of Holy Orders for wicked, self-indulgent purposes. Those who cannot or will not discuss the Ratzinger diagnosis with the seriousness it deserves thereby brand themselves as unserious about resolving the abuse crisis.  


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About George Weigel 233 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (Ignatius Press, 2018). His new book The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform will be published by Basic Books on September 17.

18 Comments

  1. Where is any data to support the “theory” that sexual abuse by clerics did not begin until the 60s? A culture of denial and untruth and repression regarding sexuality existed for centuries. The only reason we have more data about abuse in latter years is because many of the prior victims are now dead and unable to testify to their experiences. Across both the secular world and the Church world hung a veil of disbelief that abuse of minors was not a matter of “stranger danger”- but, sadly, perpetrated usually by trusted figures.

    • Jacob and Beth O
      If the argument is that from the 60’s onward with “Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll” as its theme is not at the core of our cultural failure and the basis for the dismissal then and since of Humanae Vitae, by both clergy and laity in great numbers, then I think perhaps you have struck your thumbs and not the nail with the hammer.
      In my opinion the statement by Mr Weigel; “the sharp spike in clerical sexual abuse that began in the late 1960s and peaked in the 1980s” does not mean clerical sexual abuse did not exist prior, but that it is apparent where the immense increase in trouble today was fueled.

      Respectfully
      Bill A

  2. In addition to “clericalism” and the deeper causation of active homosexuality, another factor confusing Weigel’s critics is their willful functional illiteracy…

    The 2004 John Jay Report into clerical sex abuse in the U.S. found that four out of five of the offenses involved young teenagers and young men. Still, there are those, surely including Weigel’s critics, who dismiss this picture by pointing to the later 2011 Jay College Report (“The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors, 1950-2010”)—-to say that homosexual priests are no more likely than others to abuse minors.

    The devil is in the details. The curiously truncated 2011 Executive Summary says one thing, but the more complete findings of the full Report say quite another.

    First, this from the 2011 SUMMARY: “After analyzing pre-seminary and in-seminary same-sex sexual behavior separately, only in-seminary (not pre-seminary) same-sex sexual behavior was significantly related to post-ordination sexual behavior. Priests with in-seminary same-sex sexual behavior were more likely to have sexual experiences with adults than minors, and they were NOT (caps added) significantly more likely to sexually abuse minors than priests with no same-sex sexual behavior in-seminary.”

    But READ ON. There is this, embedded (so to speak) in CHAPTER 2: “However, after considering pre-seminary and in-seminary sexual behavior separately, only in-seminary (not pre-seminary) same-sex sexual behavior was SIGNIFICANTLY RELATED (caps added) to the increased likelihood of a male child victim.”

    Straight or celibate incoming seminarians were groomed in the seminaries. And it is these late victims of active homosexual seminarians who then have gone on to victimize male children. The corrupted novices are shown to prey later on younger “targets of opportunity,” while their seminary-infiltrating mentors continue with their advancing age cohort (“consenting adults”)—-possibly given a pass by the curious “boundary” language (age boundary?) found in the Dallas Charter.

    In both the 2004 and 2011 Jay Reports, the active homosexual connection is proved rather than disproved.

    • Thank you, Peter D. Beaulieu! Once again your comments are correct and insightful. We readers can always expect a truthful and valid evaluation of the article being considered. I am glad you almost always respond!

      • Thank you Peter D. Beaulieu for you analysis of the John Jay Report done in 2002 and 2011, which rings true with the revelations of the former Cardinal McCarrick scandal today. I had not seen this kind of analysis before. For those of us who were not “awoke” until this summer, we were deluded into thinking the scandal involved only children and possibly a few minors. I for one become enraged to discover the real scandal was the grooming by Bishops/Cardinals of young seminarians, of whom McCarrick was but one. No one could advance to the priesthood and ultimately to the higher positions in the church such as Bishop and Cardinal without having sex with one’s superiors, which is what McCarrick did to his subordinates. The scandal has been classified as clericalism, which seem a code word for something more sinister. McCarrick was not alone in this behavior.

        We presently have a priest shortage, parishes are closing, Catholics are getting a bad reputation in the media, among the young; all because the priesthood, Bishops, and Cardinals were chosen from the homosexually compromised beginning in the seminaries. Celibates, and heterosexuals were eliminated from the priesthood by those who were advocating for same sex behaviors such as McCarrick. Or were compromised into silence because they forced to watch fellow seminarians sexually abused and said nothing, knowing there was not one in power to refer this behavior to. Other moral corruptions were easy to obtain by the corrupted clergy such as abortion and population control by corrupt politicians. It makes me want to weep that for decades hard-working Catholics threw money in the coffers of the church to finance the education of seminarians in response to the shortage of priests, only to discover this “filth” was driving away the healthy and true vocations to the church.

        However, I do not believe all priests engaged in this behavior, but the seminaries are in need to some serious review. I do believe that saints as well as devils walk among us within the clergy. But too few saints have bravely spoken out. The silence I do not understand.

        I think Pope Benedict is looking back saying the problem of homosexual clergy existed as long as he can remember, from the days of his own seminary experience. Yet even when he was given the power of the position of the Grand Inquisitor of the Church and later the Papacy, he was unable to do enough to stop the take over of the Church from within. Perhaps he waited too long to speak out. In hindsight, he may have been one of the few voices to say anything at all. His own resignation from the Papacy remains a mystery.

  3. I am reminded of the passage in Dante describing the clergy in Hell. All shiny on the outside but rotting putrefaction on the inside. I have to wonder if their very ordinations were even valid.

  4. That the 1960’s were a turning point in civilization and the Church cannot be denied. There are all kinds of statistics to back this up. What is often ignored is that this is precisely when the third secret of Fatima (revealed in 2000 by the Pope) was opened and read by John XXIII (in 1960). With hindsight, we see that it painted in vivid scriptural terms how the Church (the city of God) was foreseen as half in ruins and trembling on the verge of collapse. With hindsight, Pope John Paul II (after almost being killed) decided it would be a good idea to go ahead with the consecration that had been asked for in 1929. Thus, a consecration was made in 1984; in 5 years,the Berlin wall came down on the feast of the Cathedral of Rome (in a totally unexpected manner). What if the consecration had been made, as Mary asked, before Hitler and the Great Depression in 1929? But that is not all; Mary said that God wanted a devotion to her Immaculate Heart to be established in the world. Has that been done? Compare what John Paul II did for the Divine Mercy. This request of heaven has obviously been denied; are we are reaping the consequences of our disobedience? I think it is obvious.

    • In response to Jacob’s reply of 4/24: You mention Mary’s wanting a devotion to her Immaculate Heart to be established in the world. Are you aware of ‘The Flame of Love of the Immaculate Heart of Mary’ movement? This started as a result of the spiritual diary of Elizabeth Kindelmann (1913-1985) Budapest, Hungary. Her diary began in 1961 after she was asked by Mary and Jesus to record their messages to her. In 2009 it received the Imprimatur from Cdl. Peter Erdo, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest and Primate of Hungary. Pope Francis has imparted his Apostolic Blessing to this movement. On 03/27/63 Our Lord told Elizabeth that the Flame of Love is the greatest grace God has given the world since the Word became Flesh. Its purpose is to blind Satan so he loses control over souls. United States contact: http://www.flameoflove.us

  5. It’s clear emeritus Benedict XVI accounts for a specific period of rapid moral decline, post Vat II in context of changing culture and Church moral perspectives the latter a shift toward situation ethics. Sandro Magister cites a relevant exceptionally blunt exchange on this issue between noted Am theologian Fr Robert Imbelli [NY Archdiocese] and two members of the German Assoc of Moral Theology Profs Breitsameter, Goertz: “The statement of the eminent professors, officers of an Association of Moral Theologians, contains no reference to God or to his Christ. There is absolutely no hint of normative commitment to a Eucharistic vision and practice founded in the real Presence of Jesus Christ. Though they have the effrontery to accuse Joseph Ratzinger of pursuing an ‘escapist approach to theology,’ they themselves fail to manifest any sense of theology as an ecclesial disciple governed by ‘the rule of faith.’ Rather, the impression conveyed is that contemporary culture provides the standards of authentic living to which the Church must submit. This is not the approach of true ‘aggiornamento,’ but of rank capitulation” (Fr Imbelli). Fr Imbelli has it right and his response will hopefully muster similar courage among our hierarchy to affirm what Benedict wrote.

  6. Sexual abuse is a legal matter, not ecclesiastical. If police had been called and criminal reports filed immediately, this scandal would have ended long ago.

    • I have had that thought many times. Are clergy exempt from the law? I have wondered and still do why those responsible for the sexual abuse of minors arrested and prosecuted along with lay pedophiles? The homosexual activity between adults, while a moral matter, is one that the Church must address. It is bewildering to think that these men were permitted to continue in active ministry.

  7. The most of the comments not all but most there seems to be a lack of forgiveness which is what the church is all about forgiveness which is what the Our father is about forgiveness. To what degree the sexual abuse was done it’s still not clear cases from slapping on the back to the Deep intimacy again forgiveness how about teens solid teens 15 and 16 who actually know what they’re doing and wanted to explore. The church looking at those cases I could understand that they try to work it out and have a sense of forgiveness although the priests should have been seriously looked at and somehow either contained or moved or action should have been taken. What is happening now is other chaos it’s just the total Destruction of the church to go into its documents and just destroy the church. I agree with the Pope Emeritus Benedict it started in the late 50’s then the sexual education classes. Go research them and see how bad they were they were encouraging the young children 3rd 4th 2nd grade 5th grade to masturbate and explore. Homosexuality was considered a norm and where were the parents while all this abuse was going on no parents were ever involved parents were watching the children they are totally free of all these issues if there’s a neglectful parents are also neglectful parents signed off on these sex ed classes do they ever read the actual educational materials in these classes. You cannot take a family life class in a Catholic school without signing off on your child being in that class think about it if you need if you need to sign off on a class there must be a problem in that class or controversy Pope Benedict hopefully will be a saint someday he definitely hit the nail on the head

    • I attended Catholic Schools from 1950 to 1962 and participated in Newman Club in college. I was never encouraged “to masturbate and explore” or that “homosexuality was considered a norm.” Vatican II provided me an opportunity to deepen my understanding of my Roman Catholic Faith. There was no “specific period of rapid moral decline, post Vat II.” Priests need to accept responsibility for their own individual actions, not pass the blame.

      • Read Randy engles sex education the final plague and look up the old mother watch articles fantastic. You may have just missed the real sex ed impact but it was out there and it was damaging. That is why they came out with the truth and meaning of human sexuality parents were supposed to be the teachers and get involved many parents were neglectful.

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