Benedict XVI’s decision to break his silence cannot have been made lightly. At the time of his resignation, the former pope announced his intention to withdraw and remain “hidden from the world”. His few public comments since then have carefully skirted current debates. Now he has done what it seems he intended never to do. His essay on sex abuse is a polemical intervention in today’s most heated Catholic controversy. It names names and lays blame. Benedict must have felt he was saying something absolutely necessary, something that was going unsaid.
Benedict links today’s crisis of sex abuse to the sexual revolution, liberal tendencies in Catholic theology, and the flowering of a homosexual subculture in Catholic seminaries. The overwhelmingly negative response to his claims makes clear why he thought they had to be made. The media figures most closely associated with Pope Francis have flatly rejected Benedict’s analysis. Fr James Martin, SJ, writes: “The idea that the sexual mores of the 1960s were to blame … neglects the fact that sex abuse happened in the church during the 1940s and 1950s, and far earlier.”
Fr Martin is right that sex abuse has long existed in the Church (as in every form of human association), but this is a bit like responding to a flood by saying there has always been water in the river.
Cases of sexual abuse rose dramatically around the time of the sexual revolution. As Fr Thomas Reese, SJ, then the editor of America, wrote in 2004, “The number of alleged abuses increased in the 1960s, peaked in the 70s, declined in the 80s and by the 90s had returned to the levels of the 1950s” – a trend dramatically shown in a chart from the John Jay Report:
This spate of incidents, along with its continuing minimisation and cover-up by the bishops, is properly described as a sex abuse “crisis”, distinct from the usual unhappy reality. A spike in a city’s homicide rate cannot be explained by pointing out that there has been murder since Abel and Cain. The historic rise in reports of sex abuse likewise demands a special explanation.
Benedict is right to note that this surge coincided with a change in mores and the rise of a homosexual subculture among Catholic priests. In 1973, Andrew Greeley published “The Sexual Revolution Among Catholic Clergy”, a study that concluded, “There is in the Roman Catholic clergy a definite change in sexual values away from the traditional Catholic teaching.” In 2000, the Kansas City Star reported that three of the seven priests who entered the Missouri Province of the Jesuits in 1967 and 1968 had died of Aids. Rev John Keenan, who operated a clinic in Chicago for priests, told reporters that he had treated one priest who had infected eight others. The Star suggested that priests in the US were dying of Aids at about twice the rate of other adult males.
Benedict’s account of sexual abuse is not comprehensive. He persuasively describes the role played by liberal theology and the libertine mores it justified, but he does not offer an equally thorough account of how and why conservatives such as Marcial Maciel were able to use orthodoxy to conceal depravity. Perhaps that is because the men around Francis have already offered an explanation of how cases such as Maciel’s arose. Under the name of “clericalism”, they rightly condemn the hypocritical abuse of an authoritarian priestly prestige. But it is doubtful that clericalism can be the cause of the sex abuse crisis, understood as the surge in abuse. Priestly rigidity was not exactly on the upswing in the 1960s. A liberal idea of the Church, accompanied by a thriving homosexual subculture, was.
It would not be so awkward to have two popes speaking about abuse if they did not seem to represent two different Catholic faiths. Of course, there is only one pope, Francis, just as there is only one Catholic faith. But this controversy is a reminder of the great distance between the two men in white.
There will be differences between every pope and his successor. John Paul II’s teaching – in style, emphasis, and prudential judgment – can be distinguished from that of Benedict. But between Benedict and Francis there is a starker separation, less a distinction than an opposition. Francis was elected by – and has advanced the aims of – the churchmen who most doggedly resisted the teaching of John Paul II and Benedict.
If Benedict had been followed by a conservative successor, as he seemed to expect when he resigned, there would be no awkwardness in his speaking out, no outrage from Catholic journalists and celebrity priests, no call to silence him and scatter the men around him. But Benedict still teaches a Catholic faith that certain men would rather replace with something more accommodating. That he still lives and speaks is a palpable reminder that the religion they would bury will never die.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things
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