Pope Benedict’s letter on sex abuse is not an attack on Francis (or Vatican II)
Our church’s divisions can make it hard, sometimes, to hear popes unfiltered—even when they are retired. Benedict XVI’s three-part reflection on clerical sex abuse has been variously greeted as a shot across the bow of Pope Francis’ anti-abuse strategy, as a vindication of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s attack on Francis last summer and as a ham-fisted intervention that will feed the nostalgia for the church before the Second Vatican Council.
The optics of the release reinforced these ideas: Why is that only media outlets which have been highly critical of Pope Francis had the translated text before anyone else, each claiming it as an exclusive?
Why is it that only media outlets which have been highly critical of Pope Francis had the translated text before anyone else?
But I think the intention and nature of his text is what Benedict XVI says it is: a helpful contribution. The recent summit called by Pope Francis in Rome to tackle clerical sexual abuse got him thinking about how he could assist “in this difficult hour,” he writes.
“I had to ask myself—even though, as emeritus, I am no longer directly responsible—what I could contribute to a new beginning,” he writes in the article. So he came up with some thoughts, asked Pope Francis if he could publish them and sent the 6,000 words to a Bavarian clergy periodical.
The reflections are mostly unsurprising to anyone familiar with Benedict’s thinking, but there are some intriguing nuggets along with some crude generalizations, and in his third part I see significant backing for Francis’ approach.
The first part, seeking the origins of the abuse crisis, restates Benedict’s well-known horror at the cultural and sexual “revolutions” in the West in the 1960s and their effects on the church. In linking this outbreak of permissiveness to sex abuse, he is on firm ground: The John Jay College of Criminal Justice reports of 2004 and 2011, commissioned by the U.S. bishops, locate the greatest frequency of abuse in the 1970s, coming down gradually in the 1980s. Virtually every other major study since shows the same.
What is the connection? Benedict blames a collapse in Catholic moral theology that left the church “defenseless” against these changes in wider society. This is not an attack on the theology of the Vatican II. Benedict notes approvingly that the Council had sought to root moral theology in Scripture rather than natural law, but he says that theologians never quite succeeded (at least at the time) in expressing a “systematic” morality capable of replacing the old natural-law edifice, and so the church ended up in a halfway house of morality needing to be determined by “the purposes of human action.”
Benedict blames a collapse in Catholic moral theology that left the church “defenseless” against changes in wider society. But this is not an attack on Vatican II.
That account is arguable, but again it sits well with the the John Jay study’s claim that pre-conciliar formation left clergy ill-prepared to deal with the sudden and open eroticization of relationships around them. Part of that eroticization was, as Benedict says, to destigmatize pedophilia. Again, he is right: It is quite astonishing to look back at 1970s television programs to find candid discussions about the legalization of sex with minors.
It is clear that Benedict believes passionately in the mission to root morality in the Gospel rather than any code of law because he concludes that first section by arguing that “the image of God and morality belong together and thus result in the particular change of the Christian attitude towards the world and human life.”
The way out of sex abuse, in other words, is not a restorationist return to natural-law moral codes but a deep-seated relationship with God. This is a point Benedict returns to in the third part of his article, when he speaks of the risk of theologians being “masters of faith” rather than “renewed by faith”—that is, considering God as an abstract idea rather than “presenting” God, or inviting people to know God.
The way out of sex abuse is not a restorationist return to natural-law moral codes but a deep-seated relationship with God.
The second part of the article, on the church’s evolving legal response to abuse, is also interesting. Rather than blame the lack of willingness to make use of canon law in the post-conciliar period, as he has often done in the past, he criticizes an imbalance in the law itself that he calls “guarantorism.” He argues that guarantorism caused canon law to guarantee the rights of the accused to such an extent that canonical convictions were practically impossible (which may be one reason few bishops had much faith in it).
In explaining why he persuaded St. John Paul II to allow his Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to take over the handling of sexual abuse cases, he argues that canon law must not only protect the rights of the accused but also “protect the Faith, which is also an important legal asset.” In other words, the rights of the accused are not the only “good” being weighed in a case; there is also the faith of the church that is imperiled by abuse. He expresses frustration that people (canonists? bishops? he does not say) do not readily grasp this point.
Yet clearly this was part of the jurisprudential thinking that went into the motu proprio “Sacramentorum sanctitatis tutela,” (2001), which established the reforms to canon law the then-Cardinal Ratzinger created under the Vatican’s chief prosecutor, Archbishop Charles Scicluna; this led to many hundreds of priests being tried and punished over the following decade. Benedict sees the same regime still in place today, and he salutes Francis’ reforms to bolster the process with more staff and swifter procedures.
Benedict warns against a ‘self-made church’
Benedict’s third part contains to me his most important—and helpful—suggestions. Noting how the crisis has led some to see the church “as something almost unacceptable, which we must now take into our own hands and redesign,” he warns that “a self-made Church cannot constitute hope.”
It seems obvious that this is a riposte to many of the right-wing responses to institutional failure that treat the church as a kind of renegade corporation needing a purge of bad employees under new management. This was the kind of thing called for last October by the Napa Institute and the “Red Hat Report,” inspired by the attack on Francis by Archbishop Viganò.
Benedict does not use the word, but Francis did recently on his return from Morocco, when he warned of “the church’s danger today of becoming Donatist, making human regulations that are necessary, but limiting ourselves to this and forgetting the other spiritual dimensions, prayer, penitence and self-accusation.” Francis similarly warned the U.S. bishops on the eve of their New Year’s retreat that “many actions can be helpful, good and necessary, and may even seem correct, but not all of them have the ‘flavor’ of the Gospel.”
Both the pope and the pope emeritus are at one in defending the freedom of the church to be redeemed by God’s mercy, and in opposing any attempt at neo-Donatist reform.
Is this not Benedict’s point, when he follows his master St. Augustine—who battled the Donatists of his day—in calling up Jesus’ descriptions of the church as a fishing net containing both good and bad, or a field in which both wheat and darnel grow?
It is essentially a Donatist temptation—one to which many followers of Archbishop Viganò succumb—to want to create a church of the pure, to see the church as irredeemably bad and needing to be replaced by “a better Church, created by ourselves,” in Benedict’s words. He describes this idea as “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.”
Rather, he writes, “the Church of God also exists today, and today it is the very instrument through which God saves us.” It persists in the “many people who humbly, believe, suffer and love, in whom the real God, the loving God, shows Himself to us.”
When I read this I could not help but think of Francis’ long speech to the clergy of Rome at the start of Lent, when he told them not to be discouraged by the scandals, how “the Lord is purifying his bride and is converting us all to himself…. He is saving us from hypocrisy, from the spirituality of appearances. He is blowing his Spirit to restore beauty to his bride caught in flagrant adultery.”
Surprise, surprise. Both the pope and the pope emeritus are at one in defending the freedom of the church to be redeemed by God’s mercy, and in opposing any attempt at neo-Donatist reform.
They are very different men, and very different popes. But on the fundamentals, there seems to be little distance between them. That is why it is not just courtesy for Benedict to sign off by thanking Francis “for everything he does to show us, again and again, the light of God, which has not disappeared, even today.”