No Act of Contrition: Benedict XVI on Sexual Abuse

I wonder how Pope Francis feels about having a 92-year-old armchair quarterback living in a neat little cottage somewhere behind the Vatican who suddenly decides to “unpack” the sexual abuse crisis, its causes and solutions?

Retired Pope Benedict XVI has decided to share his enlightened version of the worst scandal in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, and to do so just as the church begins its Holy Week schedule of events, leading up to the celebration of the most important feast in the liturgical year: Easter, the resurrection of Christ from the dead – the defining tenet of the church.

Pope Benedict XVI, Photo by Peter Nguyen, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Benedict’s essay is not an easy one to digest, unless you are a theologian and let’s face it, not all theologians sing from the same hymnbook. But he seems quite convinced of his own, shall we say, infallibility. He actually states in his essay that the notion that infallibility or the “final competence” of the Magisterium of the church should apply only in matters concerning “the faith itself” and not to questions of morality was a theory that gained credence and acceptability in the 1960s. He refers to the “Revolution of 1968″ (post-Vatican II, don’t you know), as “… an egregious event on a scale unprecedented in history.” Please note that these are not words he applies to the abuse scandal. According to the ex-Pope, most of that so-called revolution centered around – you guessed it – sexual matters, including, in his home country of Germany, “state-prescribed and supported introduction of children and youths into the nature of sexuality.”

Benedict’s own views on sexuality are aligned quite closely with those of St. Augustine, one of his theological heroes, according to Jamie Manson, who wrote about Benedict’s most recent screed for the National Catholic Reporter. During his 32 years in power at the Vatican, writes Manson, Benedict “constantly reinforced a moral theology that treated nearly all sexual acts and sexual desires as shameful and unnatural.” And, as was part and parcel of the church’s views on sexuality, sex was to be permitted only for the purposes of procreation. As Manson reminds us, Benedict’s phrase for homosexuality or any act not limited to those purposes, was “intrinsically disordered.”


It was quite far down in Benedict’s 11-page document that I came upon the word “unpack”, which anyone who watches CNN or any Canadian political panel recognizes as journalese for cracking open a news story and — in another favorite bit of jargon — “deep-diving” into its contents. Forgive me if I don’t for a minute believe that Benedict came up with that verb on his own. Maybe it was the choice of a translator. Or is it a sign that someone who shares the ex-Pope’s conservative viewpoint on all things ecclesiastical (A ghostwriter? Perhaps a former associate or student of the former Pope?) actually penned this papal production?

In the course of Benedict’s “unpacking,” he argues that the so-called Revolution of 1968 sought “all-out sexual freedom” and, get this, that “part of the physiognomy of ’68 was that pedophilia was then diagnosed as allowed and appropriate.” He writes of arriving in the city of Regensburg on Good Friday in 1970 and seeing billboards plastered with “a large poster of two completely naked people in a close embrace.” (Had he never seen the artwork in the Sistine Chapel?)

Or consider this: “… sex films were no longer allowed on airplanes because violence would break out among the small community of passengers. And since the clothing of that time equally provoked aggression, school principals also made attempts at introducing school uniforms with a view to facilitating a climate of learning.” What planet did Benedict inhabit if he hadn’t seen school uniforms before the ’60s revolution? We wore uniforms at Holy Angels all through the ’40s and ’50s, as did all others who graduated from that exceptional oasis of education. And, by the way, a “climate of learning” went with the territory. The nuns saw to that.

Benedict bases much of his essay on his experience in Germany and on German theologians, including Franz Böckle, whom he indicates disagreed with his own view that martyrdom “is a basic category of Christian existence.” The fact that Böckle and other theologians believed martyrdom to be “no longer morally necessary” suggests, at least to Benedict, that “the very essence of Christianity is at stake here.”

Morals based on the natural law rather than on scripture is another topic that comes up for discussion in this overly-long treatise. Benedict saw a sense developing that “there could no longer be anything that constituted an absolute good, any more than anything could be fundamentally evil,” which meant that there could only be “relative value judgments.” Except, one suspects, for clerical abuse, which cries out to God for vengeance.


Benedict takes a while to get to the heart of what he states at the beginning of his essay is his reason for writing it at all. With the February gathering of the world’s bishops at the Vatican to discuss what he describes as “the current crisis of faith and of the church, a crisis that arose with the shocking revelations of clerical abuse perpetrated against minors,” Benedict writes:   “Since I myself had served in a position of responsibility as shepherd of the Church at the time of the public outbreak of the crisis, and during the run-up to it, I had to ask myself — even though, as emeritus, I am no longer directly responsible — what I could contribute to a new beginning.” There was always a belief that he had resigned as Pope because of the “crisis” and how little he had done to come up with any plans to tackle it.

Sistine Chapel, fresco Michelangelo, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Sistine Chapel, fresco Michelangelo, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Having decided to put forth his opinion, Benedict goes to great lengths to blame the entire situation on the “dissolution of the Christian concept of morality,” marked, as he insists, by “the unprecedented radicalism in the 1960s.” I’m surprised he didn’t mention The Beatles as part of that “dissolution of the moral teaching authority of the church,” but he does come down hard on seminaries and the fact that there was a “breakdown” in that particular form of priestly preparation.

He mentions “homosexual cliques, which acted more or less openly and significantly changed the climate in the seminaries.” (This is interesting, given that a recent book, In the Closet of The Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, by Frederic Martel, gives readers a surprising and quite provocative view of goings-on inside the Vatican.) In some German seminaries, Benedict states, candidates for the priesthood and lay ministries “lived together” and “at the common meals, seminarians and pastoral specialists ate together, the married among the laymen sometimes accompanied by their wives and children, and on occasion by their girlfriends.” Ah, of course, women! The root of all evil! Or as Benedict puts it, “the climate in this seminary could not provide support for preparation to the priestly vocation.” 

When he finally gets to the question of pedophilia, Benedict suggests that it didn’t become “acute” until the second half of the 1980s, although most observers see it as a clerical culture that has probably existed for centuries. Benedict says canon law didn’t seem “sufficient for taking the necessary measures to deal with the pedophiles among the clergy.” It becomes clear that the Vatican was overly concerned with protecting the faith and the church and gave little concern to the fate of the abused.

Benedict refers to pedophilia as being “theorized only a short time ago as quite legitimate” (by whom, may I humbly ask?) “but it has spread further and further.”  Its cause, according to Benedict, is that we have become “a society without God.” Or was it that clerical pedophiles had become a cult unto themselves, their own “society without God,” living secret lives of sin while continuing to offer praise and glory as they presided over the Eucharist and instructed the rest of us as to how we should live our lives? Definitely a case of “Do as I say, not as I do.”

In her article for the National Catholic Reporter, Jamie Manson writes that Benedict believed seminarians should be “separated from lay people and be given a status and power that obviously led many to sexually dominate and violate children, women and men.” For me, one of the most striking quotations in Benedict’s essay concerns Jesus’ statement that has oft been quoted by those writing about the abuse scandal — “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” I checked this one out since there was no way any victim of abuse was committing sin, as far as I’m concerned. The Old Testament translates it in part as “If anyone should cause one of these little ones to lose faith in me….”  Benedict writes that the “little ones” referred to by Jesus are “the common believers who can be confounded in their faith by the intellectual arrogance of those who think they are clever.” One can only imagine the number of abuse victims who have, indeed, lost faith in the Catholic church.

One assumes that Benedict will now, like the groundhog, slip back into his den, pulling behind him his many un-Christian views and settle in to await the day when he must answer to the God he insists is no longer a part of this universe.


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.





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