There have been a wide variety of responses to Pope Benedict’s essay on the sex-abuse crisis, most somewhat critical for not giving a full analysis of the sources of the crisis, the nature of crisis and his possible role in the crisis. These responses, though, seem to mistake the genre of the piece.
It is not meant to be any kind of full response to the crisis; rather, it is a letter of a father attentive to the distress of his children. The loving concern behind Pope Benedict’s essay on the sex-abuse scandal is touching and comforting.
He is no longer acting pope, but he remains a holy father, a father who is himself experiencing intense pain and who is worried about the intense pain that his children are experiencing — the pain of wondering how we can remain in the Church we so love but which we have found corrupt to the point of being criminal.
In the final portion of his essay, “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse,” Benedict speaks of the hope expressed almost 100 years ago by Romano Guardini, that “the Church is awakening in souls,” but admits that now he fears the reverse is true — that “The Church is dying in souls.”
Benedict does not sugarcoat anything. He knows; he has been red-pilled; he understands the profound disappointment we have with our leaders and does not in the least dismiss the magnitude of our distress.
He writes to acknowledge the truth beyond our concerns, to try to give us some understanding of how it happened, and to give us reason to hold on to our faith, precious beyond measure.
For decades I have found persuasive the argument that Benedict makes in the first section, that the appearance of “the pill,” the resultant sexual revolution of the ’60s, the dissent from Humanae Vitae and subsequently from all teachings of the Church on sexual morality, and indeed any teaching not amenable to the culture, were causes of the sex-abuse crisis.
During the ’80s at the University of Notre Dame I watched as dissenting theologians virtually “took over.” Dissent from dissent was not tolerated and was either rather brutally suppressed or simply met with a dismissive sneer. The possibility of a schism that would separate the “American” Catholic Church from the “Roman” Catholic Church was considered with starry eyes by many a ND theologian. When the Catechism and Veritatis Splendor were promulgated others of us slept a whole lot better.
For some time, I have thought the Church had turned a corner and the damage done by the dissent after Vatican II had waned. The scales have painfully fallen from my eyes.
I am far from optimistic now and have come to see that the rot in the Church is not just on the plane of dissent but began long before the ’60s and has permeated the Church like mold that is sucking the life out of the Church through the shocking dissolute lives of so many priests and bishops, lives marked by homosexual activity, luxuriousness, mendacity and narcissistic wielding of power, the cause of which has yet to have been satisfactorily explained.
One important feature of Benedict’s essay is that he understands that the sexual-abuse crisis is not one that is confined to the abuse of minors — rather, it is a pervasive problem of priests who have sex with males, one fostered a great deal by the scandalous condition of the seminaries in the ’60s and beyond.
In his essay Benedict boldly notes that there were “homosexual cliques” in seminaries and tells of specific egregious violations of sane formation, such as the showing of pornography in seminaries. He mentions that various visitations of seminaries were done, but to no avail, and wryly (?) observes “apparently because various powers had joined forces to conceal the true situation.”
I was a part of the visitations in the early 2000s and have come to realize that many of those in charge were themselves men who have sex with males.
The reform of seminaries I thought happened is not all that widespread. Some are still “pink palaces,” where active homosexuality is on full display and strong heterosexual males are persecuted.
Recently, a seminarian from a seminary on the East Coast told me that 60%-70% of the seminarians there have sex with males. I was depressed for days (and, actually, still am) not only at this information but even more so by the realization that even were there irrefutable proof of such, it is likely impossible to find anyone who could use that information to make a difference. Think of that.
In the final section, Papa Benedict speaks tenderly and frankly to his hurting children, some of whom are pondering the possibility of a schism. He asks: “What must be done?”
The rhetorical question he offers in response is wincingly poignant: “Perhaps we should create another Church for things to work out?” That query seems to reflect a wish that we could start all over, but as he notes with almost amusing understatement: “Well, that experiment has already been undertaken and has already failed.”
He then gives us a catechesis on why we can’t live without the Church, the Church that a loving, all-powerful God gave us, the one of his making, not ours, the Church that gives us Christ in the Eucharist, no matter how deviant are some of those who consecrate it.
He hits many notes; he uses the story of Job to fortify our faith: With the touch of a gentle father, he reminds us that we need to manifest our reverence for the Sacrament by our dress and posture. And he shares his heartfelt pain when he tells us of the woman abused by a priest who blasphemously spoke the words “This is my body which will be given up for you” as he abused her.
Nonetheless, while acknowledging the horror, he lays out why we must cling to this Church to receive the Body of Christ: There is no other place that the Eucharist as Christ instituted it is to be found.
As Benedict insists, “If we look around and listen with an attentive heart, we can find witnesses everywhere today, especially among ordinary people, but also in the high ranks of the Church, who stand up for God with their life and suffering.”
We must be those who stand up for God and his Church and let no one drive us away from that without which we cannot live and breathe. Thank you, Holy Father!
Janet Smith is a moral theologian and the
Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics
at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Major Seminary.