Editor’s note: The following address was given by H.E. Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, in Rome at the Centre Saint-Louis (Institut Français), May 14, 2019, on the occasion of the presentation of the French edition of The Day Is Now Far Spent. The address was translated by Zachary Thomas for CWR. Nicolas Diat’s address at the presentation can be read here.
Permit me first of all to thank you for this invitation to the prestigious venue of the French Institute, the Centre Saint-Louis, on the occasion of the publication in French of my book The Day Is Now Far Spent. This book analyses the crisis of the faith, the crisis of the priesthood, the crisis of the Church, the crisis of Christian anthropology, the spiritual collapse and moral decadence of the West and all of its consequences. I am very honored to be able thus, in my own humble way, to join the ranks of theologians and Catholic thinkers of the French language who have contributed to Roman intellectual life.
But this evening, I do not wish to speak about this book. The most fundamental ideas that I develop there were dealt with, illustrated, and argued with great vigor last April by Pope Benedict XVI, in the notes he published in the context of the meeting of the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences on sexual abuse, convoked in Rome by Pope Francis February 21-24 last. The Pope Emeritus published these notes in a Bavarian review with the agreement of the Holy Father and the Cardinal Secretary of State.
His reflection has become a true source of light in the night of faith that overshadows the entire Church. Some of the reactions it has provoked brim with intellectual hysteria. I was personally struck by the foolishness and poverty of some of the commentary. Once more, Ratzinger the theologian has clearly perceived the nuclear meltdown that is the crisis of the Church, revealing once more his stature as a true “Father and Doctor of the Church.”
Therefore, this evening I propose that we permit his luminous and demanding thought to be our guide. How might we summarize Benedict XVI’s thesis? Allow me simply to cite the man himself: “Why did pedophilia reach such proportions? Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God” (III, 1).1 This is the overarching principle of the Pope Emeritus’ whole reflection, and the conclusion of his long argumentation. It is the place where all inquiry into the scandal of sexual abuse committed by priests must commence if an effective solution is to be found.
The crisis of pedophelia in the Church and the scandalous flurry of abuse has one, and only one ultimate cause: the absence of God. Benedict XVI says as much in another clear phrase. I quote: “Only where faith no longer determines the actions of man are such offenses possible” (II, 2).
Here the theological genius of Joseph Ratzinger draws on not only his experience as a pastor of souls, as a bishop and father of his priests, but also his personal spiritual and mystical experience.
He perceives the fundamental cause. He points out the only way out of the staggering and humiliating scandal of pedophilia. The crisis of sexual abuse is a symptom of a deeper crisis: the crisis of faith, the crisis of knowledge of God.
Some commentators, through malice or ineptitude, have represented Benedict XVI as having claimed that only clerics who are doctrinally deviant become abusers of children. But it is clear that he had more in mind than such a simplistic solution. What Pope Ratzinger wants to argue is much more profound and radical: namely that a climate of atheism and absence of God creates the moral, spiritual, and human conditions for the proliferation of sexual abuse.
Psychological explanations have a certain persuasiveness, but psychology merely allows us to locate fragile subjects who are at risk of committing the act. Only the absence of God can explain the current situation, wherein abuse has proliferated to such a staggering extent.
We are coming to Pope Benedict’s argument. But first, we should deal with the trifling and superficial commentators who have tried to disqualify his theological reflection by accusing him of confusing homosexual behavior and the abuse of minors. Benedict XVI in no way claims that homosexuality is the cause of abuse. Obviously the vast majority of homosexual persons are not suspected of wanting to abuse anyone. But we cannot avoid that fact that inquiries into the abuse of minors have demonstrated the tragic scope of homosexual practices and other unchaste behaviour among the clergy. As we shall see, this phenomenon is itself a saddening manifestation of the absence of God and loss of faith.
Others, either obtuse or hasty readers – I don’t know which – have taxed Benedict XVI with ignorance of history, on the pretext that he begins his argument by evoking the crisis of 1968. Abuses began before that year. Fine. Benedict XVI knows and acknowledges this. What he wants to show is that the moral crisis of 1968 was already itself a manifestation and symptom of the crisis of faith, and not the ultimate cause. Of the crisis of 1968 too, he could have said: “Only where faith no longer determines the actions of man are such offenses possible.”
Now let us follow the argument in the first part of his text step by step. He wishes first to show the wider context of the process at work here, a process he claims was “long-prepared” and “on-going.” He locates one source of the present crisis in the evolution of moral theology, pointing out three stages.
The first was the complete abandonment of natural law as the foundation of morality, with the (otherwise laudable) intention of basing moral theology on Scripture. This attempt was ultimately unsuccessful, as illustrated by the case of the German moralist Bruno Schüller.
This led inevitably to the second stage, where the idea prevailed that “morality was to be exclusively determined by the purposes of human action” (I, 2). Here we can recognize the teleological tendency of which consequentialism was the most extreme result.2 This tendency, which ignores the notion of moral objectivity, claimed (in Pope Benedict’s words) that “nothing is fundamentally evil,” that “there no longer was the absolute good, but only the relatively better, contingent on the moment and on circumstances” (I, 2).
Finally, the third stage consisted in the claim that the magisterium of the Church was not competent in the moral sphere. The Church could teach infallibly only on questions of faith. However, as Benedict XVI says, “there is a minimum set of morals which is indissolubly linked to the foundational principle of faith.” Refusing to listen to the Church’s magisterium on moral issues removes any link between faith and concrete life. In the end, it is faith that finds itself devoid of meaning and reality.
I wish to point out how the absence of God is at work from the very beginning of this process. From the first stage, the rejection of natural law reveals a forgetting of God. Nature is God’s first gift. It is, in a sense, the first revelation of the Creator. To reject the natural law as a foundation of morality and to oppose it to the Bible shows a particular intellectual and spiritual process already at work in people’s minds: man’s refusal to receive his being and the laws of his being, which manifest his coherence, from God.
Nature, says Benedict XVI, “is a wondrous work of the Creator containing a ‘grammar’ which sets forth ends and criteria.”3 “Man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will. Man is not merely self-creating freedom. Man does not create himself. He is intellect and will, but he is also nature, and his will is rightly ordered if he respects his nature, listens to it and accepts himself for who he is, as one who did not create himself.”4 To discover nature as wisdom, order, and law, leads to an encounter with the author of this order. Moreover, Benedict XVI asked: “Is it really pointless to wonder whether the objective reason that manifests itself in nature does not presuppose a creative reason, a Creator Spiritus?”5
I believe with Joseph Ratzinger that the rejection of God as Creator has long been rampant in the hearts of Western people. This rejection of God has been at work since long before the crisis of 1968. We will follow its successive manifestations as traced by Pope Benedict. Rejection of nature as a divine gift leaves the human subject in desperate solitude. In this condition, nothing matters save his own subjective intentions and his own conscience. Morality is reduced to discovering and understanding the motivations and intentions of such subjects. It no longer guides man toward happiness in an objective natural order that permits him to discover the good and avoid evil. Rejection of natural law leads inevitably to rejection of the notion of moral objectivity. Therefore there are no acts that are objectively and intrinsically evil in every instance and no matter what the circumstances.
Faced with these ideas, St. John Paul II insisted in Veritatis Splendor on the objectivity of the good. Benedict XVI does not tell us what sort of collaboration he had personally with Pope John Paul on this pivotal encyclical, nor the role played by a large number of collaborators that could not be reduced to a particular school of theology. Veritatis Splendor forcefully affirmed that there are acts that are “‘intrinsically evil’ (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances” (n° 80) because these acts “radically contradict the good of the person.”
I would like to emphasize with Benedict XVI that this claim is nothing more than a consequence of the objectivity of the faith and ultimately of the objectively of the existence of God. If God exists, if he is not a creation of my subjectivity, then in the words of the Pope Emeritus, there are “values which must never be abandoned” (II, 2). In a relativist morality, everything becomes a question of circumstances. It is never necessary to sacrifice one’s life for God’s truth and so the martyr is no longer of use. To the contrary, Benedict XVI affirms that “martyrdom is a basic category of Christian existence. The fact that martyrdom is no longer morally necessary in this theory shows that the very essence of Christianity is at stake here” (II, 2). In a word: if there is no value that is objective to the point that one must die for it, then God himself is no longer an objective reality who is worth the suffering of martyrdom.
Amidst this crisis of moral theology, there is thus a refusal of the divine absolute, of the irruption of God into our lives that surpasses everything, that governs everything, that governs our whole manner of living.6 Pope Benedict’s argument is clear and definitive. It could be summarized in the words of Dostoevsky: “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted!” If the objectivity of the divine absolute is challenged, then even the most unnatural transgressions are possible, even sexual abuse of a minor. In any case, the ideology of 1968 has sometimes advocated for the legitimation of pedophilia. The writings of these champions of libertinism, who boast about their transgressive relationships with minors, are still available for all to read. If every moral act becomes relative to the intentions of the subject and to circumstances, then nothing is definitively impossible and radically contrary to human dignity. It is the moral atmosphere caused by the rejection of God, the spiritual climate of rejection of the divine objectivity that renders possible the proliferation of abuse of minors and the banalisation of acts contrary to chastity among the clergy.
In the words of Benedict XVI: “A world without God can only be a world without meaning. For where, then, does everything that is come from? (…) It is somehow simply there and has neither any goal nor any sense. Then there are no standards of good or evil. Then only what is stronger than the other can assert itself. Power is then the only principle. Truth does not count, it actually does not exist” (II, 1). If God is not the principle, if the truth does not exist, then only power counts. At this point what stops the abuse of this power by an adult with a minor? Pope Benedict’s argument is clear. In the final analysis, “the reason [for abuse] is the absence of God”; “Only where faith no longer determines the actions of man are such offenses possible.”
After posing this principle, the Pope Emeritus draws out its consequences. I was personally very touched by the fact that for him the first consequence is the “question of priestly life” (II, 1) and the formation of seminarians. On this point he confirms one of the central intuitions of my latest book.
Benedict XVI writes: “In the context of the meeting of the presidents of the Episcopal Conferences from all over the world with Pope Francis, the question of priestly life, as well as that of seminaries, is of particular interest.” Thus he points out that the direct consequence of forgetting God is a crisis of the priesthood. Indeed we can say that priests have been the first ones touched by the crisis of faith, and have implicated the Christian people with them. The crisis of sexual abuse is the particularly visible and revolting sign of a profound crisis of the priesthood.
What is at stake here? Again, in the words of the Pope Emeritus, we have witnessed for a long time now the spread of a “priestly life” that is no longer “determined by the faith.” Now if there is any life that must be entirely and absolutely determined by the faith, it is the priestly life. It is and must be a consecrated life, i.e. a life given, reserved, and offered to God alone and totally buried with God. Too often we have seen priests live as if God did not exist.
Benedict XVI cites here the words of the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar: “Do not presuppose the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but present them” (III, 1)! He means to say: do not make an abstract notion out of God. On the contrary, in the words of Pope Benedict: “Above all, we ourselves must learn again to recognize God as the foundation of our life instead of leaving him aside as a somehow ineffective phrase” (III, 1).
“The theme of God seems so unreal, so far removed from the things that concern us.” With these words Benedict XVI is describing a style of priestly life that is secularized and profane, a life in which God passes into the background. Pope Benedict gives several examples. The first concern of bishops became no longer God himself but a “radically open relationship with the world” (II, 1). Seminaries were transformed into secularized places in which, Pope Benedict says, the climate “could not provide support for preparation to the priestly vocation.” The life of prayer and adoration was neglected, and the understanding of priestly life as consecration to God was all but forgotten. The Pope Emeritus points out several symptoms of this forgetfulness: an unhealthy mixing with the lay world, which introduced noise and denied the fact that every priest is by his priesthood a man separate from the world, set aside for God (II, 1). He also points out that homosexual cliques became established in seminaries. This is not so much a cause as a sign of the forgetfulness of God that was already reigning. Seminarians who live in open contradiction of natural and revealed morality show that they were not living for God, that they do not belong to God, that they are not seeking God. Perhaps they have found a career, perhaps they like the social aspects of the ministry. But they have forgotten the essential: a priest is a man of God, a man for God.
What is most grave in this situation is that their formators said nothing or voluntarily promoted this horizontal and mundane conception of the priesthood. It was as if the bishops and formators in seminaries had themselves renounced God’s centrality. It was as if they too had made the faith a matter of secondary concern, making it ineffective; as if they too had replaced the primacy of life for God and after God by the dogma of openness to the world, of relativism and subjectivism. It is shocking to see how the objective reality of God has been eclipsed by a form of religion worshipping human subjectivity. Pope Francis has aptly spoken of it as auto-referentiality. I think that the worst form of auto-referentiality is one that denies our relation to God and his objectivity and retains only the relation of man to himself in his subjectivity.
In the current climate, how is one to live an authentic priestly life? How are we to limit the temptation to regard ourselves as omnipotent? A person who has only himself as a reference point, who does not live for God but for himself, not according to God but according to his own desires, will end up falling into the logic of the abuse of power and that of sexual abuse. Who will rein in his desires, even the most perverse of them, if his subjectivity is all that matters? Forgetting God opens the door to every form of abuse. We can already observe this in our society. But this forgetfulness of God has entered even into the Church, into her priests and bishops. Inevitably, abuses of power and sexual abuse have spread among priests. Sadly, there are priests who practically do not believe any more, who no longer pray or only very little, who no longer live the sacraments as a vital dimension of their priesthood. They have become lukewarm and practical atheists.
Practical atheism facilitates an abusive psychology. The Church has allowed herself for a long time now to be invaded by this all-pervasive atheism. It should not surprise us to discover perverts and abusers in her ranks. If God does not exist, then all things are permitted! If God does not exist concretely, then all is possible!
In this regard, I would like to point out Pope Benedict XVI’s beautiful reflection on canon law in general and penal law in particular.
Canon law is a structure that aims fundamentally to protect the objectivity of our relation with God. As Benedict XVI points out, law should “protect the faith, which is also an important legal asset” (II, 2). The faith is our primary common good. Through it we become sons of the Church. It is an objective good, and the primary duty of authority is to defend it. As the Pope Emeritus observes, “the faith no longer appears to have the rank of a good requiring protection. This is an alarming situation which must be considered and taken seriously by the pastors of the Church” (II, 2). Bishops have the obligation to defend the deposit of Catholic faith, doctrine, and moral teaching that the Church as always faithfully taught.
This is a crucial point. The crisis of sexual abuse has revealed a crisis of the objectivity of the faith, which is also manifested on the level of Church authority. In fact, just as pastors refuse to punish clergy who teach doctrines contrary to the objectivity of faith, in the same way they refuse to punish clergy guilty of practices contrary to chastity or even sexual abuse. It is the same logic. It is a false expression of “guarantorism,” which according to Pope Benedict means “that above all the rights of the accused had to be guaranteed, to an extent that factually excluded any conviction at all” (II, 2).
Here we find the same ideology again. The subject, his desires, his subjective intentions, and the circumstances of his actions have become the only reality. The objective character of faith and morals is secondary. This idolatry of the subject excludes all punishment, for heretical theologians as much as for abusing clergy. By refusing to consider the objectivity of moral acts, we have abandoned the “little ones,” the weak and vulnerable, to their executioners’ deliriums of omnipotence. Indeed, out of so-called mercy, we have abandoned the faith of the weak and vulnerable. We have left them in the hands of intellectuals who play at deconstructing the faith with their dubious theories which we have refused to condemn. In the same way, we have abandoned the victims of abuse. We have failed to condemn the abusers, the murderers of our children’s innocence and purity, and sometimes of our seminarians and religious sisters. All of this has come about under the pretext of ‘understanding’ subjectivity, of a refusal of the objectivity of faith and morals. I believe that to condemn and inflict punishment, in the orders of both faith and morals, is a proof of sincere mercy on the part of authority
As Benedict XIV points out, sexual abuses are objectively a “delict against the faith.” This description is not “a trick to be able to impose the maximum penalty, but is a consequence of the importance of the faith for the Church” (II, 2).
I hold that those who play with either the faith or the moral life of the faithful with impunity are the ones truly guilty of clericalism. Yes, clericalism is the attitude that refuses to punish offenses against faith and morals. Clericalism is a cleric’s refusal to acknowledge the objectivity of faith and morals. The clericalism that Pope Francis is calling us to eradicate is ultimately this impenitent subjectivism of the clergy!
I want to address one last consequence of this forgetfulness of God and of the objectivity of faith. If the faith no longer governs our behavior, then the Church is for us not a divine reality received as a gift but a reality to construct according to our own ideas and our own program. I was profoundly shocked and wounded by the reception that Benedict XVI’s text was given by certain people. They have said that “this is not what needs to be said,” it is not what the Church needs to be credible once more.
The Church does not stand in need of communications experts. She is not an NGO in crisis that has to reinvent itself to become popular again. Her legitimacy is not found in surveys, but in God!
As Benedict XVI says, “The crisis, caused by the many cases of clerical abuse, urges us to regard the Church as something almost unacceptable, which we must now take into our own hands and redesign. But a self-made Church cannot constitute hope.” As the Pope Emeritus points out, it is precisely because we have ceded to the temptation to make a church in our own image that we have put God aside, and that we see the multiplication of abuse cases today. Let us not fall into the same snare! These abuses uncover a church that men have tried to take into their own hands! I am thus profoundly saddened when I read a theologian writing that the Church is guilty of a “collective sin.” The same Dominican sister calls us to question the Catholic Church’s “conception of truth.” The Church in her view must renounce “every pretension of expertise or excellence in the domain of sanctity, truth, and morals.”7
Such an approach leads only to an even more extreme form of subjectivism. It leads us right back into the very thing that has caused the crisis. For if the Church no longer teaches truth and morality, then who could claim that there are things we must never do? Once more, if God does not exist objectively, if truth does not make claims upon us, then everything is permitted!
What, then, is the way forward that Benedict XVI proposes? It is simple. If the cause of the crisis is our forgetfulness of God, then we must place God back in the center! In the Church and in our liturgies, we must once more recognize the primacy of God, the presence of God, his objective and real presence. As Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, I was touched by a remark of Benedict XVI. He claims that “In conversations with victims of pedophilia, I have been made acutely aware of the need for a renewal of the faith in the Reality of Jesus Christ given to us in the Blessed Sacrament” (III, 2).
I must insist: we are not dealing here with the conclusion of a theological expert but the wise words of a pastor who has allowed himself to be deeply touched by the stories of the victims of pedophilia. Benedict XVI has understood with his profound sensitivity that respect toward the Eucharistic body of Our Lord conditions our respect toward the pure and innocent bodies of children.
“The Eucharist has been devalued,” he argues. Today we witness a manner of treating the Blessed Sacrament that “destroys the greatness of the Mystery.” With the Pope Emeritus I am profoundly convinced that if we do not adore the Eucharistic Body of Our Lord, if we do not treat him with a fear at once joyful and full of reverence, then the temptation to profane the bodies of children will arise in our midst.
I want to highlight Benedict’s conclusion: “When thinking about what action is required first and foremost, it is rather obvious that we do not need another Church of our own design. Rather, what is required first and foremost is the renewal of the faith in the Reality of Jesus Christ given to us in the Blessed Sacrament” (III, 2).
In conclusion I repeat with Pope Benedict: yes, the Church is full of sinners. But the Church is not in crisis. We are. The devil wants us to doubt. He wants us to think that God is abandoning his Church. No, She is always God’s field, where not only bad, but also good, grain grows. “To proclaim both with emphasis is not a false form of apologetics, but a necessary service to the Truth.” Benedict XVI himself proves this point in his own person. His presence praying and teaching in our midst, in the heart of the Church, in Rome, confirms it. Yes, among us there are truly beautiful divine grains.
Thank you, dear Pope Benedict, for being a co-worker of the Truth, a servant of truth, according to your motto. Your words comfort and reassure us. You are a “witness” and a “martyr” for the truth, and you have our gratitude.
2 See Saint Jean-Paul II, Encyclique Veritatis splendor, § 74 & 75.
3 Caritas in Veritate, 48.
4 Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI, Reichstag Building, Berlin, Thursday, 22 September 2011.
6 “The Christian faith is not the product of our own experiences; rather, it is an event that comes to us from without. Faith is based on our meeting something (or someone) for which our capacity for experiencing things is inadequate. (…) Certainly, what touches us there effects an experience in us, but experience as the result of an event, not of reaching deeper into ourselves. This is exactly what is meant by the concept of revelation: something not ours, not to be found in what we have, comes to me and takes me out of myself, above myself, creates something new (J. Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance, ch. “Is Christianity a European Religion?”), p. 87-88.
7 See V. MARGRON, Un moment de vérité, Paris, 2019, p. 65-69 & 149.
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