At the Ecclesial Epicenter: Benedict’s Response to Scandal

Benedict’s recent letter was indeed an earthshakingly responsible intervention.

Benedict XVI in 2013
Benedict XVI in 2013 (photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

Chapter 41 of The Life of St. Neilos of Rossano, an Italo-Greek ascetic of the late 10th and early 11th centuries, describes a cataclysmic event (around 973 or 975) happening in the city of Rossano, Calabria, Neilos’ birthplace: after a torrential rain lasting many days and nights, a great earthquake struck the city. In the resulting landslide, the upper part of the city, along with the houses and chapels, collapsed and fell on the lower part, covering houses and churches in the rubble. Nothing was spared, except for the cathedral and the church of Saint Irene.

This event caused amazement and awe in those who witnessed it, as everything was displaced and transformed in appearance. The saint, who at that time was living in seclusion, leading a life of prayer and penance, decided to enter the town and observe what had happened to his people firsthand and teach them what they, in their sin, had forgotten. When reflecting on a current situation in the Church, I thought of this historic, devastating earthquake which transfigured the city by literally bringing the high part of the city into the low.

The 10th-century cataclysm in Rossano is very similar to the situation of a Church in catastrophe and a society that—as Pope Emeritus Benedict identified in his April 10, 2019, letter—is devoid of faith and devoid of God. For Benedict only where faith no longer determines the actions of man are such catastrophic offenses possible. When God is absent, he explained, evil replaces the good and the moral in society. In a society devoid of God, evil makes a presence—and it is evil that destroys men.

Benedict points the finger to the dilution of moral doctrine of the Church, or Catholicism becoming Catholicism-lite with a similar diluted and politicized theology or moral teaching – if this is theology at all – that has caused the catastrophe. The formation of young priests in Catholic-theology-lite moral doctrine starting in 1968 caused the downslide and the transformation, and sexual abuse and pedophilia are among the symptoms. Benedict’s lucid theological discernment comes through very clearly in this timely piece of writing, in which he not only detects problems but offers solutions.

This is a theological treatise, not a political or politically-motivated piece, and far less orchestrated by people who are behind Benedict. Benedict is calling for unity in the basics: the Church’s moral teaching. The essay comes from an elderly bishop who loves the Church—who, although in advanced age, as a “grandfather of all grandfathers” as Francis referred to Benedict on Sept. 28, 2014, is sharing his wisdom and faith, which is the most precious legacy. Francis, as he himself has said, considers having Benedict in the Church to be like having a wise grandfather at home.

Why Benedict, and why is he now coming to the rescue?

Benedict’s work of finding and expiating the “filth” in the Church began well before his pontificate. On Good Friday 2005, in meditations and prayers, before his election to the See of St. Peter, in the text of the Via Crucis at the Colosseum (Ninth Station), then-Cardinal Ratzinger meditated on a Church “like a boat [which] was about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side. In your field we see more weeds than wheat. The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion.” Who was to blame? No one but us: “it is we ourselves who have soiled the garments of the Church. We are to be blamed.

Obviously, the cardinal was making a sharp reference to the abuses that had occurred in the Church. On April 17, 2008, during his visit to the United States, Pope Benedict met personally with the victims of the pedophile priests. The pope prayed and spoke with each of them, after he had read their panful stories of abuse. “It was a moving experience… It was very positive and very prayerful,” Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, who organized and attended the meeting, reported to the media.

He gave a face and an official response to clergy abuses: in 2008 during his visit in Australia he celebrated Mass with a group of victims of sexual abuse. On Sunday, April 18, 2010, in the Apostolic Nunciature in Malta, Benedict met a small group of people who were sexually abused by members of the clergy. “The Father was deeply moved by their stories and expressed his shame and sorrow over what victims and their families have suffered,” according to the Vatican statement on the occasion.

The most fundamental letter against pedophilia which encapsulates Benedict’s determination against pedophilia is The Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland. He shared the sense of betrayal and dismay that so many people in Ireland had experienced in learning about the abuse and the criminal acts, as he defines clergy abuse cases. Article 6 of the changes in the Normae de Gravioribus Delictis, introduced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith and approved by Benedict in 2010, takes a strong stance against the abuse of minors by clerics where the procedures are simplified, indicating that in the most serious cases, a cleric can request that the Pope remove him from the clerical state (Article 21/2).

It was Benedict who prepared the Circular Letter to help the Episcopal Conferences to prepare the Guidelines for Treating Sex Abuse of minors on the part of the clergy (issued on May 3, 2011) and many more such guidelines. How many abuse priests did Benedict laicize? “The Vatican confirms that 260 priests were defrocked by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011 and another 124 in 2012, but the actual number of priests dismissed from the ministry could be higher.”

Benedict’s April 10, 2019, writing is an essay that calls for Catholic unity among Bergoglians and anti-Bergoglians; he is trying to prevent a schism. Benedict does this with finesse and maturity. He asks the question: “What must be done? Perhaps we should create another Church for things to work out? Well, that experiment has already been undertaken and has already failed. Only obedience and love for our Lord Jesus Christ can point the way.” For the Bergoglian party, who want to see Benedict leave the scene, he has a fine answer: bear with me—as long as I am alive, my heart and mind will think and work for the Church – Pazienza.

Similar to St. Neilos in the 10th century, Benedict is responding to a catastrophic situation in the Church – with old wisdom and sound theology. In fact, his was indeed an earthshakingly responsible intervention.