Benedict’s Essay Broadens Conversation on Causes of Crisis

COMMENTARY: The pope emeritus’ essay invites examination of three particular causes of the sex-abuse problem that has plagued the Church.

(photo: Unsplash)

The recent essay of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse,” was an apt summary of a long life of ecclesial and theological service, as I commented previously. At the same time, it significantly advances the Church’s handling of the sexual-abuse crisis.

Since the first sexual-abuse cases emerged into public knowledge in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Church’s response has focused on dealing with allegations in a timely and effective manner and on implementing safe-environment protocols. Any deeper analysis of the ecclesial culture that gave rise to the crisis was largely avoided. That is beginning to change, and Benedict’s essay is a welcome contribution to that development.

The essay correctly identifies the increase in sexual-abuse cases as something that occurred in the late 1960s. Every serious study of priestly sexual abuse has confirmed that there was a remarkable spike in cases in the late 1960s, which peaked in the 1970s, and then dramatically declined. Obviously, there were some cases before and after, but there was a dramatic spike and decline. The decline came before any significant reform measures were taken.

So something happened. Benedict, who has long identified “1968” as a grave moment of cultural unraveling, argues that it was the stunning cultural collapse in sexual morality, in the face of which the Church proved unable to adequately resist. A tsunami of sin flooded the household of faith.

The identification of the sexual revolution as something other than an unalloyed good earned Benedict’s essay the ridicule of secular sophisticates. But the pope emeritus was not claiming that the sexual revolution was guilty and the Church was not; rather, he argued that the Church failed to resist cultural trends of great destructive potential in a comprehensive manner.

The Church, in fits and starts, is finally beginning to address the widespread failures that led to the scandal of sexual abuse and its cover-up.

The Vatican summit in February was adamant that there was only one cause — the corruption of clerical power, or “clericalism.” That was so obviously false that it needlessly compromised the credibility of the summit, even if it may have been practical to restrict the scope of discussion over the course of just a few days.

But there is not just one cause of so widespread a problem or such a complex phenomenon.

Jesuit Father Matt Malone, editor of America magazine, wrote that Benedict’s essay, in identifying “1968,” was not unlike Pope Francis, who identifies “clericalism” as the cause. Others still identify homosexuality in the priesthood or the lack of women’s leadership in the Church.

“There appears to be a kind of circular reasoning at work,” Father Malone writes. “Again, it does not follow that these conclusions are necessarily wrong. But if the cause of every major ecclesial scandal just happens to be that thing that you have railed against for years, then you should ask yourself whether your view may be biased.”

Ross Douthat of The New York Times made a similar point, prompted by Benedict’s essay and the response to it.

“I was writing … mostly a lament for what [Benedict’s essay’s] reception betokened,” Douthat wrote, “[a] general inability, Catholic and secular, to recognize that both the ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ accounts of the sex-abuse crisis are partially correct, that the spirits of liberation and clericalism each contributed their part, that the abuse problem dramatically worsened during the sexual revolution (a boring empirical fact if you spend any time with the data or the history) even as it also had roots in more traditional patterns of clerical chauvinism, hierarchical arrogance, institutional self-protection.”

It might be considered a classic Catholic “both/and” rather than “either/or,” except that here there are more than just two factors in play. Benedict’s essay, written with the authority of one who has dealt with the sexual-abuse crisis for longer and more comprehensively than anyone else, helps to widen the scope of what can be spoken about. In particular, Benedict’s essay invites examination of three particular causes.

First is the broader problem of sexual corruption in the clergy, particularly in seminaries where “homosexual cliques” came to dominate. The fact that this happened is not new; the first books detailing the problem appeared 20 years ago.

There has been, though, a great reluctance to confront the problem, partly due to the pressure from popular approval of homosexuality and partly due to the fear that rooting out sexual immorality in the clergy — adult homosexual and heterosexual relationships — would prove too difficult and traumatic.

That remains true, but Benedict’s essay gives support to those brave shepherds who wish to address it.

The sexual abuse of minors was not an inexplicable eruption of sin in an otherwise morally upright priesthood. It was the extension of grave immorality that had become so deeply rooted that in some seminaries and priestly circles it became dominant.

Benedict noted that previous attempts to get a grip on such problems in seminaries failed. It was a bridge too far. Today, it’s out in the open. For example, Crux asked the rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome about “homosexual cliques” or a “gay lobby.”

“There’s a lot of good men in this house and in seminaries, and if that were going on in a big way the men themselves wouldn’t tolerate it,” Father Peter Harman said.

“They would say, ‘This isn’t what we want.’ They’re pretty frank about things they notice that trouble them, so I just don’t see that people are letting this go undetected or unreported.”

Second, Benedict’s essay makes explicit the links between orthodox moral theology, Eucharistic and liturgical practice, and the sexual-abuse crisis. The argument is that laxity and duplicity in what the Church teaches and how she lives her sacramental life will produce other corruptions, including, in the extreme, sexual abuse of minors.

At first glance, that is a more difficult argument, as there are plenty of examples of orthodox priests of a conservative liturgical bent who were sexual abusers. Yet Benedict’s point is not so much about the perpetrators as the response. An ecclesial culture that does not correct doctrinal errors, or punish sacrilegious liturgical practices, is likely to be incapable of dealing effectively with sexual abuse.

Third, Benedict’s essay emphasizes the weaknesses of the Church’s legal culture. A culture of punishment according to law was largely abandoned by the 1960s, replaced with canon law being entirely set aside, unenforced as something inconsistent with a Church of mercy.

A deference toward accused priests — a kind of procedural clericalism — made it difficult for appropriate punishments to be administered even in those cases that resulted in canonical processes. The problem of the abandonment of law touched almost all aspects of the Church’s life, most notable to ordinary parishioners in liturgical abuses. Hence Benedict’s inclusion of the Eucharist in his reflections.

To date, the central piece of the Church’s response to sexual abuse has been the legislation of St. John Paul II in 2001, which brought all such cases under the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, where the most serious offenses against the sacraments are judged.

Those legal changes were strengthened by Benedict himself and added to by Pope Francis.

Indeed, sexual abuse is now one of the few areas of ecclesial life where canon law robustly functions. Benedict’s reflections on how weak the Church’s legal culture had become are the most conversation-expanding of his essay, as few other authorities speak of it. Benedict’s essay expresses and contributes toward a new moment in the life the Church, where it is possible to speak broadly and deeply about the sexual-abuse crisis.

For the Church, the urgency of reform came first; now it the time for a better understanding.

Father Raymond J. de Souza 

is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.