On the Passing of Pope Benedict XVI and His Service to Truth

COMMENTARY: While his handling of clergy sexual abuse and his unprecedented resignation from the papacy give rise to legitimate criticisms, on balance he made a positive contribution in both cases.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger presides at the Easter vigil in St. Peter’s Basilica on March 26, 2005. During his meditation on the Ninth Station of the Way of the Cross the night before, the cardinal decried ‘how much filth there is in the Church.’
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger presides at the Easter vigil in St. Peter’s Basilica on March 26, 2005. During his meditation on the Ninth Station of the Way of the Cross the night before, the cardinal decried ‘how much filth there is in the Church.’ (photo: Paolo Cocco / AFP via Getty Images)

Two themes dominate the assessment of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI’s life and pontificate: first, his handling of clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church and, second, his resignation. As to the first point, I, too, wish he had done more to combat clergy sexual abuse inside the Catholic Church. However, I am hard-pressed to name anyone of his stature who has done more than he did. 

As to his resignation, far too many leaders grasp and abuse power, in all the major authority structures of society, literally left and right. Around the world, inside and outside the Church, people use the power of their offices to enrich themselves, promote their agendas and cover their crimes. In this worldwide cesspool of corruption, Benedict XVI walked away from the most powerful office on earth, the office of the Vicar of Christ.  As painful as his resignation has been, we can, if we will, see the hand of God at work. Benedict’s resignation set in motion a series of events whose end is not fully known. I believe we have reason to be hopeful that the ultimate result will be constructive.  

His work on clergy sexual abuse predates his election to the papacy. According to a New York Times report upon his accession to the papacy in 2005, Cardinal Ratzinger had made a weekly practice of reading through dossiers on accused priests, a practice he referred to as “our Friday penance.” An Associated Press review of Vatican records in 2014 dates Ratzinger’s procedural improvements to 2001, stating that they show a “remarkable evolution in the Holy See’s in-house procedures to discipline pedophiles.” The AP continued, “Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took action after determining that bishops around the world weren’t following church law to put accused clerics on trial in church tribunals.” Between 2011 and 2012 alone, Pope Benedict laicized nearly 400 priests. By one estimate, he was responsible for the laicization of more than 800 priests between 2004 and 2014, and he disciplined many more. Benedict was the person who finally sanctioned the heinous Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ.

During his many trips around the world, he met with numerous victims, one of whom was Faith Hakesley, who was raped by her parish priest as a teenager. Her meeting with Benedict was deeply meaningful for her and continues to bear spiritual fruit. She currently writes the “Ask a Survivor” column for the Ruth Institute. 

As is fitting for a man of his intellectual gifts and stature, the pope emeritus wrote an important essay in 2019 on the intellectual antecedents of the clergy sex-abuse crisis: the sexual revolution of the 1960s and its influence within Catholic seminary formation. Numerous Catholics sympathetic to the sexual revolution tried to deflect attention from the important and obvious points he was making. “Embarrassing,” they said. Clergy sex abuse predated the sexual revolution, they said. The John Jay Report says homosexuality has nothing to do with clergy sex abuse. And so on. The mainstream legacy media lost no time amplifying this subset of Catholic opinion and blasting it to the wider culture.  

If anyone in those media outlets had asked my opinion (which they didn’t), I would have told them the pope emeritus was substantially correct. (I outlined how in a recent Register column!) Around the same time as Benedict published his essay, the Ruth Institute published a far-reaching study on clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church. Father Paul Sullins, the senior research associate at the institute, extended earlier work all the way through 2017 based on the John Jay Report data, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, and other previously untapped data sources. Father Sullins posed this question: Is the date of ordination related to clergy sex abuse? That is, are some ordination classes systematically more likely to have predators? 

His thorough analysis shows a disproportionate percentage of abusing priests were ordained in two time periods: the late 1960s and the early 1980s. (The “Executive Summary,” Item 8 and pages 18-19 of the study provide details.) The first wave of abusers was ordained at exactly the period Benedict identified, the late 1960s. The men ordained in the second wave, the early 1980s, were trained in the last period prior to John Paul II taking the helm. 

But more to the point, it strains the imagination to believe that a cultural shift from traditional sexual morality to a systematic smashing of taboos made no difference inside the Church. The combined promises of sex without shame and intercourse without babies have created a paradise for predators and a nightmare for everyone else. 

Benedict was correct to point out that the sexual revolution harmed seminary training by enabling the formation of “homosexual cliques” and by the cessation of teaching traditional Christian sexual morality. We could have been protecting the world from the toxic sexual culture. Instead, far too many people within the institutional Catholic Church became enablers. Benedict was wise enough to see this for what it was. 

Do I wish he had done more for victims? Do I wish he had dug even more deeply into the network of malefactors and rooted them out of the Church? Of course, I do. Yet I cannot think of anyone before or since Benedict who has done or is doing more than he did, both as pope and as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. 

In my judgment, the real issue for some of Ratzinger/Benedict’s critics is that he opposed the sexual revolution. Many advocates of the sexual revolution inside and outside the Church wish to cordon off the widespread sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable people as if it were unrelated to their ideology. They want to be “sex positive” but somehow protect children from predators. They want to do something about the #MeToo problem, without calling into question the fundamental right of every person, rich or poor, powerful or weak, to have as much sex as they can get away with. 

I believe we already know these lines in the sand will not stop the tidal waves from coming in. People like Joseph Ratzinger are a problem to the ideologues who have given their lives and their bodies to the revolution. People like Benedict are in the way of “progress.” That was Benedict’s unforgivable sin, in the eyes of the global sexual establishment. 

As to his resignation, I, like many people, wish he had not resigned. He steadfastly maintained that he was not pressured and did not resign under duress. One would have to doubt the honesty and intelligence of a lifetime to believe he was either dissembling or confused at that late date. No, he intended to resign. 

As Pope, he once remarked, “My power ends at that door.” I took this to mean that he understood that in spite of his lofty office, numerous obstacles (human and institutional) stood between him and many of the things he thought should be done. He was well aware of what he referred to as the “filth” and corruption in the Church. 

People sometimes say, “he should have stayed and fought.” I sympathize. However, a realistic assessment of a strategic situation sometimes counsels for an orderly retreat. The Allies evacuated from Dunkirk. They regrouped and attacked on D-Day. 

Perhaps Pope Benedict saw that he could not root out all the rot in the Church. Perhaps he thought a better path for him, given his personality, skills and situation, was the path of prayer and trust in divine Providence. 

Ratzinger was a clear thinker. I’m not so sure that this was strictly a matter of intelligence. It was also a matter of character: He was courageous enough to look at the most difficult topics without flinching. He was a formidable thinker due to equal parts intelligence and courage. The habit of virtue of courage grows with use, like all virtues. After a while of looking squarely at reality, calling things by their correct names, and speaking the truth, these activities come to seem natural. They are nothing remarkable, just the everyday activity of facing reality on reality’s terms. 

And part of the reality of his situation as pope is that the problems were beyond the power of the pope to solve on his own. So many of us believed everything was fine. We were not inclined to look too closely at clergy sex abuse or any of the other problems that have recently come to light. 

As things happened, Benedict’s resignation began a sequence of events that uncovered deep-seated problems in the Church. He did not expose the rot. The rot exposed itself. We now know more clearly than before that our beloved Church has serious financial, moral and personnel problems that are difficult to ignore or explain away. Now that we know, we can deal with them. Could these problems have been revealed, had he not resigned? We will never know the answer to that question. But the fact is: We do know things we would not have known without his resignation. Doing our part to address the numerous problems in the Church is our contribution to making lemonade out of this big pile of lemons.

We also know that he was at peace with his decision to abdicate the papacy.  He loved Truth the way other men love power. Calling him a coward is a big mistake, in my judgment.  

“Let us go ahead together with the Lord for the good of the Church and of the world,” he said, before departing into retirement. We might add that this comment applies to his death as well. As Catholics, we have a long tradition of believing that holy people can continue to do good on earth after their deaths. May it be so for our treasured Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, as we continue to be his “Co-Workers of the Truth.”