Pope Benedict’s Essay Is a Summary of His Theological Quest

COMMENTARY: As the pope emeritus has found time and again, when everything unimaginable is before us, the only path back is back to God, revealed in Jesus Christ.

At the beginning of Holy Week, Pope Francis made a special visit to the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery to offer Easter greetings and birthday wishes to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
At the beginning of Holy Week, Pope Francis made a special visit to the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery to offer Easter greetings and birthday wishes to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. (photo: Vatican Media/National Catholic Register)

The recent essay of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse,” was published in the proximity of his 92nd birthday, which fell on April 16. The essay can be read as a summary of key moments in the long life of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI.

At 6,000 words, it is possible that this is the last major text Benedict will publish. It already shows less of the rigor with which he wrote six years ago. And if it is his last text, it is an accurate summary of the man and his mission.


The German Moment

The essay was published in a small clerical journal in Germany, even though it was relevant to a universal audience. Benedict has always been attentive to the travails of the Church in Germany, believing it to have been a principal locus of crisis for the Church universal.

I have written before about the “German moment” of Pope Francis, in which the priorities of the German episcopate are given deference. Benedict, in addressing himself to the German situation in light of the sexual-abuse crisis, extends that German moment back several generations.

It is noteworthy that for more than 20 years, during Cardinal Ratzinger’s service as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the weekly meetings of pope (John Paul II) and prefect were conducted in German. All the great doctrinal, liturgical, moral and disciplinary issues of that consequential period were discussed in German, and language brings with it an ambience of culture and ecclesial experience.


The 1968 Revolution

In that experience, Cardinal Ratzinger always emphasized the singular importance of the social upheaval that he calls the “Revolution of 1968.” It shocked the young professor and marked a definitive turn in his life.

He was initially a scholar who, presuming that the foundations of the faith were firm, explored where new developments were necessary to keep the faith fresh. After the experience of 1968, his priorities shifted toward protecting the foundations of the faith, which suddenly seemed in danger. This was particularly relevant to sexual morality.

“It could be said that in the 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the previously normative standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely,” Benedict writes in his essay. “Among the freedoms that the Revolution of 1968 sought to fight for was this all-out sexual freedom, one which no longer conceded any norms.”


The Primacy of Theology

The great theologian — as priest, bishop, cardinal, pope and now pope emeritus — remains always that, a student and scholar who gives priority to theology. Cultures rise and fall, but for the Church, the criterion of response must always come from divine Revelation, from reflection on the word of God, from the Person of Jesus Christ — it must be a theological response. And here Benedict says that the Church’s theology was weak precisely when it had to be strong to cope with the reverberations from “1968.”

“Catholic moral theology suffered a collapse that rendered the Church defenseless against these changes in society,” Benedict writes. “Consequently, there could no longer be anything that constituted an absolute good, any more than anything fundamentally evil; [there could be] only relative value judgments. There no longer was the [absolute] good, but only the relatively better, contingent on the moment and on circumstances.”

The failure of theology — in seminaries and in universities — found its way into the pastoral life of the Church. As moral theology weakened, Benedict argues, the Church failed to defend the traditional sexual ethic. In extreme cases, it led even to a rise in sexual abuse by priests and a failure to confront it forcefully.


Cologne 1989 and Veritatis Splendor

That theological crisis continued for generations and was a preoccupation for Ratzinger as a theologian in the 1970s and then as a bishop and cardinal-prefect in the 1980s and 1990s.

In that light, we return to another signature year in the life of Ratzinger: the 1989 “Cologne Declaration.” After St. John Paul II appointed Cardinal Joachim Meisner to the see of Cologne in late 1988, a protest declaration was issued by 15 leading theologians, quickly joined by dozens and dozens more, centered in Germany but from all across Europe. It was a massive academic vote of nonconfidence in the theological restoration desired by St. John Paul II and entrusted to Ratzinger. That Benedict returned to that signal moment is not surprising; it is the third time he has done so as pope emeritus.

“The crisis of the justification and presentation of Catholic morality reached dramatic proportions in the late ’80s and ’90s,” he writes. “[The] ‘Cologne Declaration’ … focused on various crisis points in the relationship between the episcopal magisterium and the task of theology. [Reactions to] this text, which at first did not extend beyond the usual level of protests, very rapidly grew into an outcry against the Magisterium of the Church and mustered, audibly and visibly, the global protest potential against the expected doctrinal texts of John Paul II.”

That “expected text” was Veritatis Splendor, already being prepared in 1989 and published in 1993. It sought to correct the failure of Catholic moral theology to address the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. It came after the Catechism of the Catholic Church was published in 1992, a similar effort but much broader than moral theology.

The response to Veritatis Splendor “triggered vehement backlashes on the part of moral theologians,” Benedict writes. Benedict, in his retirement, has repeatedly returned to the enduring importance of Veritatis Splendor, and does so again.

It is, to understate the case, a delicate point of maximum importance. The objection of the four dubia cardinals to Amoris Laetitia was that it employed moral theories rejected by Veritatis Splendor. Indeed, Amoris Laetitia, despite mammoth length and nearly 400 citations, never mentions Veritatis Splendor.
It is well understood in Rome that to mention Veritatis Splendor is to, subtly but clearly, indicate less than full enthusiasm for the theological direction of the current pontificate. That Benedict would therefore do so, again, indicates how central 1989 and Veritatis Splendor remain in his biography and his thought.



Because of the gentle beauty of Ratzinger/Benedict’s writing, evident also in the recent essay, it is sometimes forgotten that he could employ polemics, even cutting language. He shows flashes of that here.

“I shall never forget how then-leading German moral theologian Franz Böckle … announced in view of the possible decisions of the encyclical Veritatis Splendor that … he would challenge it with all the resources at his disposal,” Benedict recalls. “It was God, the Merciful, that spared him from having to put his resolution into practice; Böckle died on July 8, 1991.”

Benedict also notes that so chaotic was seminary formation that whereas one “seminary rector had arranged for the seminarians to be shown pornographic films, allegedly with the intention of thus making them resistant to behavior contrary to the faith,” in “not a few seminaries, 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.”


Remembering God

“Why did pedophilia reach such proportions?” Benedict asks. “Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God. …

A paramount task, which must result from the moral upheavals of our time, is that we ourselves once again begin to live by God and unto Him. Above all, we ourselves must learn again to recognize God as the foundation of our life instead of leaving Him aside as a somehow ineffective phrase. I will never forget the warning that the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once wrote to me on one of his letter cards: ‘Do not presuppose the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but present them!’”

Here we see Ratzinger/Benedict, the master theologian, reaching the simplicity that comes on the other side of genuine sophistication.

In his three-volume work Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict put the most fundamental question and gave it a simple, direct answer: What did Jesus bring? He came to bring us God.

That fundamental question and answer has run through Joseph Ratzinger’s scholarly and pastoral work for more than 50 years. Reason leads us to ask about God, and if we “trust the Gospels,” as Ratzinger does, Jesus reveals him to us. If that is forgotten, then everything else becomes possible. And when everything unimaginable is before us, the only path back is back to God, revealed in Jesus Christ.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.