The crisis is about more than a disintegration of moral theology

Pope Benedict XVI after announcing that he would step down in 2013 (Getty)

The lust for power is the key

When Pope Benedict XVI renounced the Petrine office, he promised to retreat into a secluded – essentially monastic – life of prayer. He has, with rare exceptions, kept to that promise. His public interventions have been few, and have mostly regarded theological questions. With the publication of his essay on “The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse”, the Pope Emeritus has made another exception.

Benedict offers his impressions, as an observer, on the tumult in 1960s society. As a diagnostic exercise, however, his essay is inadequate.

After all, the phenomenon of clerical abuse is recurrent, if not perennial: even in Apostolic times, St Paul had to deal with gross immorality among those appointed to lead the flocks he founded and in those flocks themselves. Other examples abound, from Pope St Gregory the Great, to Sts Peter Damian and Charles Borromeo, inter alia.

The current chapter of the crisis was already open in the 1940s, when Fr Gerald Fitzgerald began what would become an extensive correspondence on the subject with bishops and religious superiors in the United States. By 1962, the Holy Office had asked for, and received a report from Fr Fitzgerald. A year later, on August 26 1963, Fr Fitzgerald would brief the recently elected Paul VI on the situation in the United States.

The National Catholic Reporter told Fr Fitzgerald’s story in 2009. The New York Times has made some of Fr Fitzgerald’s unsealed correspondence available. has a larger cache of Fr Fitzgerald’s papers. The Catholic Herald offered a rehearsal of some of this history last August, in analysis that attempted to get at the root of the crisis. The upshot of all this, is that the US bishops knew they had a serious problem well before the tumult of the 1960s. Rome knew. Everybody in a place to do something knew – or at least had no excuse for not knowing – decades before the crisis became a major public scandal. Even the report of the German Church regarding clerical abuse cites cases going back to the 1940s.

Nor is the crisis merely one of a disintegration in moral science where matters of sexual morality are concerned. The libido coeundi (sex drive) is subject to perversion, but the principal driver of clerical culture at present is the libido dominandi (lust for power), which is intrinsically perverse. The latter will make use of the former. Indeed, the perversion of the libido coeundi is often the result of the libido dominandi’s pernicious work in the soul. Nevertheless, persons addicted to sexual perversion only gain power and place by way of their prior addiction to – and direction by – the libido dominandi. Power – the lust for it, which murders souls – is the great key to this crisis.

The theological knowledge and expertise Benedict XVI displays in his letter are interesting, but there is a larger issue: he himself was called to govern the Church in a time of crisis, a task he did not see through. The best one can say of his observations, coming at this stage, is that they appear too late, and offer too little.

Benedict’s record of leadership is spotty, at best. He expelled hundreds of abusive priests from the clerical state, and introduced major reforms to the Church’s procedural law. However, he gave up the work of reform before it was finished, and was too soft on men who did bad things – Cardinal Danneels and Ted McCarrick come to mind — but happened to be in very high places. If Benedict XVI had given us some explanation of his governance – or, more specifically, of his failures – we might make some grateful allowance for his departure from the course he set for himself and promised to keep when he put down the office.

Why did he not strip Cardinal Danneels of his office, rank, titles, and honours? Why did he let Ted McCarrick retire with honour, and why did he leave him largely alone after that, making only a half-hearted effort to rein him in? Why did he not investigate the entire US hierarchy? Why did he not suppress the Legion, with extreme prejudice – including an official damnatio memoriae – to that society and its criminal founder?

Those and others are questions directly pertinent to our circumstances, and ones to which the faithful deserve, and rightly demand answers. If Benedict XVI is unwilling to answer them, or if Francis is unwilling to let him answer them, then prayerful silence is the only proper attitude.