News Analysis

The big story: Benedict XVI offers history lesson on abuse

(Getty)

What happened?

pope emeritus Benedict XVI has published a 6,000-word essay on the abuse crisis, tracing its historical roots and arguing that we “must learn again to recognise God as the foundation of our life instead of leaving Him aside”.

Most controversially, Benedict argued that the moral revolution of the 1960s had brought about a “mental collapse” in which paedophilia was “diagnosed as allowed and appropriate”. In the ’60s, Benedict wrote, “an egregious event occurred, on a scale unprecedented in history … the previously normative standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely.”

Moreover, wrote Benedict, the Church’s teaching on moral absolutes was widely opposed by theologians preaching relativism; seminaries and priestly culture were taken over by a “radically open relationship with the world” – and, in some places, “homosexual cliques” flourished.

Benedict also argued that canon law had leaned too much towards protecting the accused rather than protecting the faith.

What commentators said

for Fr John Zuhlsdorf, the letter was a “cri de coeur”. Benedict issued “a deserved scolding” of some theological schools. Benedict defended John Paul’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor – which reaffirms Church teaching that some acts are always intrinsically evil. This teaching, Fr Zuhlsdorf remarked, has been “undermined during this pontificate”. But “we jettison that truth at our existential peril, as a society and as a Church.”

Benedict sees the Church, Fr Zuhlsdorf wrote, “being tried like Job, stripped of everything as Our Lord was before the Cross”. We must return to “sacred liturgical worship”, and “creatively form places where the faith and love can ‘dwell’.”

National Review’s Michael Brendan Dougherty agreed that the letter was a “mournful” one. But it was also “acerbic” in its criticisms of the clerical culture. Benedict went beyond either the conservative reading of the abuse crisis – which blames moral laxity and “networks of sexually compromised priests” – or the liberal reading, which blames an authoritarian, “clericalist” idea of the priesthood. Benedict instead “begins to connect the moral anarchy within the Church to a spirit of blasphemy. He critiques a certain casual or flippant attitude towards God within the Church” – particularly in the abuse of the Eucharist.

Few bishops commented immediately. One exception was Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, who tweeted: “Let us heed his plain-spoken analysis of the evils that plague our world and our Church. Let us heed the call from sin to virtue.”

Not everyone agrees that Benedict got to the heart of the problem. On Twitter, the New York Times’s Ross Douthat said that the causes of the abuse crisis were broader than Benedict acknowledged: “Both ancient clericalism and Sixties chaos. Both ‘liberal’ faults and ‘conservative’ ones.”

For Sohrab Ahmari in the New York Post, the heart of the letter was its critique of “the moral laxity that swept the Church” in the 1960s. The young rebels of 1968, Benedict wrote, fought for “all-out sexual freedom, one which no longer conceded any norms”. Benedict “blames clerics and theologians who, in the aftermath of Vatican II, abandoned natural law – the notion that morality is written into ­human nature itself and can therefore be grasped by human reason – in favour of a more ‘pragmatic’ morality.” This new morality rejected moral absolutes in favour of relativism.

At First Things, RR Reno observed that “The Revolution of ’68 has always loomed large in Benedict’s accounts.” Rightly so: that revolution “shattered the prohibitions, inhibitions, and stable norms that are necessary to restrain man’s appetites, and thus contributed to the conditions in which clerical sexual malfeasance and abuse festered”.

One could go further, Reno wrote: the spirit of the ’60s “fused left and right into a neoliberal consensus that seeks maximal release for the sake of wealth creation (the economic de-regulatory right) and maximal release for the sake of personal fulfilment and self-acceptance (the cultural de-regulatory left)”.

This revolution has deeply changed the Church – and indeed, Vatican II was partly responsible for the revolution. Now, says Reno, we all “need to take the full measure of the 20th century”.