What is at the root of the crisis which strikes so powerfully at the credibility of the Faith? We are all waiting for an answer to this question. And then a rare letter appears on our doorstep from an elderly bishop who once sat in Peter’s chair. Somehow hidden from our view, his voice is unmistakable. It is the voice of a father. Benedict XVI has written to us about the question we are asking.
His most fundamental answer is disarmingly simple: Man has turned away from God.
Yet Benedict attends to precisely how man has turned away from God in moral, sexual, and cultural detail. He focuses mainly on the period where the abuse cases peaked, in “the 20 years from 1960 to 1980,” since it was also during that most intensive period of abuse that “the hitherto binding standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely, and a normlessness arose.”
The cultural revolution of 1968, unlike revolutions prior to it, ushered in a new sexual permissiveness that unhinged the world. Like some post-traumatic manic break from reality, the cultural collapse dovetailed with destructive innovations in moral theology, making seminaries even more ill-prepared to meet the challenge.
Moral theologians had been on a long, exploratory mission to unsettle the place of natural and divine law, and to “update” morality in ways which were more accommodating to the revolution. Benedict admits these theologians were sophisticated in their endeavors, but the aim was simple: the innovators taught that every moral act was justified if the agent has the best intentions. It was an early version of the “love is love” argument. In Benedict’s view, the central pushback came with Veritatis Splendor in 1993, which decisively refuted this sophisticated form of situation ethics sometimes called “proportionalism.” St. John Paul II intervened by authoritatively teaching moral realism, “that there were actions which were always and under all circumstances to be classified as evil.”
In what will surely be some of the most-quoted lines of Benedict’s letter, he attends to the way this moral and sexual revolution infected the seminaries: “In various seminaries homosexual clubs were established, which acted more or less openly and significantly changed the climate in the seminaries.”
He recalls how a bishop, a former seminary rector “arranged for the seminarians to be shown pornographic films, allegedly with the intention of thus making them resistant to behavior contrary to the Faith.” Visitations of seminaries would be arranged which produced nothing or very little, Benedict admits, because those who ran them were colluding in covering up the new permissive hierarchies of sexual release.
He notes how seminaries would actively recruit suitable men, and discourage those whose vocational understanding was insufficiently friendly to the clubs. In a humorous aside he notes “not a few students caught reading my books were considered unsuitable for the priesthood. My books were hidden away, like bad literature, and only read under the desk.” But by the late 1980s the homosexual hierarchies that ruled now were descending, with greater frequency, into pedophilia.
About this descent, Benedict says only a little. Except to unite the pain of the victims with Christ Himself on the Cross, and in the Eucharist, since the priests who sexually abused young people often used the sacramental words of institution in their most heinous acts, revealing the full breadth of their diabolical character. The abuse of children, he suggests, was part and parcel of an abuse of the liturgy, which was part and parcel of the clerical abuse of the Lord Himself.
Presumably thinking of those groups which have advocated abolishing age-of-consent laws since the 1970s, Benedict writes that pedophilia has been theorized as “quite legitimate” during a relatively short span of time in which society has also turned away from God. When God is lost, humanity loses itself too. “A society without God — a society that does not know Him and treats Him as non-existent — is a society that loses its measure.” This was the era which proclaimed the death of God, and yet we are only just beginning to realize that if we have turned away from God’s Presence, this will mean something terrible for the image of God, for our children, and for our families, societies, and yes, for our priests and bishops.
Benedict asks our question directly: “Why did pedophilia reach such proportions?” His answer is not political but theological: “Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God.”
Since we are no longer accustomed to speaking well about God in society, this answer is bound to meet with some indifference. But I suspect that after all the studies are done, after the review boards are formed, cases heard, after new protocols and safeguards are in place, Benedict’s answer will be the one which endures. What will be remembered as the seed of renewal, as the root of restoration, is precisely Benedict’s counsel that we turn our faces back to Christ who is the perfect image of the Father’s love.
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