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Benedict’s letter: what people are saying

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in 2015 (Getty)

A round-up of reaction to the Pope Emeritus's statement on abuse

Benedict XVI’s newly-published letter, which links the abuse crisis to the social upheavals of the 1960s and the Church’s retreat from its moral teaching, has already provoked a significant amount of comment.

For Fr John Zuhlsdorf, the letter was a “cri de coeur”. Benedict issued “a deserved scolding” of some theological schools. Against “today’s prominent papalotrous antinomian and theological vandals”, Benedict defended John Paul’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor – which reaffirms Church teaching that some acts are always, intrinsically, evil. That encyclical, Fr Zuhlsdorf remarked, has been “undermined during this pontificate”. But it was a “necessary response to a challenge from Germany that would have had disastrous results. Yes, the former Pope affirms, just as popes of yore have always been willing to affirm, there are some things that are intrinsically evil. 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 toward 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.” Some academics, meanwhile, described the letter as “embarrassing” and “a caricature”.

One parish priest, who did not wish to be named, focused on Benedict’s remarks about the corruption of seminaries and the undermining of priestly identity. The priest commented: “Our Catholic culture, particularly as we have known it at parish level and experienced it in the seminary system, became an incubator for an abusive dynamic in adult/minor relationships which involved cruelty, inappropriate sexual relations (grooming, voyeurism, tactile sexual contact, ‘friendships’ with a controlling disparity between adults and minors) and a ‘spiritualisation’ of unhealthy power-relationships. This produced infantilism among the clergy – both within religious orders and in the ranks of the secular clergy, especially the bishop/priest dynamic.”

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 writes, 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 fulfillment 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, said Reno, we all “need to take the full measure of the twentieth century”.