Benedict’s powerful message—and the bid to suppress it

By Phil Lawler (bio – articles – email) | Apr 11, 2019


After six years of public silence, broken only by a few mild personal comments, Pope-emeritus Benedict has spoken out dramatically, with a 6,000-word essay on sexual abuse that has been described as a sort of post-papal encyclical. Clearly the retired Pontiff felt compelled to write: to say things that were not being said. Benedict thought the subject was too important to allow for his continued silence.

Vatican communications officials thought differently, it seems. Benedict’s essay became public on Wednesday night, but on Thursday morning there was no mention of the extraordinary statement in the Vatican’s news outlets. (Later in the day the Vatican News service issued a report summarizing Benedict’s essay; it appeared “below the fold” on the Vatican News web page, below a headline story on relief efforts for cyclone victims in Mozambique.) For that matter it is noteworthy that the former Pope’s statement was not published by a Vatican outlet in the first place; it first appeared in the German Klerusblatt and the Italian secular newspaper Corriere della Sera, along with English translations by the Catholic News Agency and National Catholic Register.

Benedict reports that he consulted with Pope Francis before publishing the essay. He does not say that the current Pope encouraged his writing, and it is difficult to imagine that Pope Francis was enthusiastic about his predecessor’s work on this issue. The two Popes, past and present, are miles apart in their analysis of the sex-abuse scandal. Nowhere does Benedict mention the “clericalism” that Pope Francis has cited as the root cause of the problem, and rarely has Pope Francis mentioned the moral breakdown that Benedict blames for the scandal.

The silence of the official Vatican media is a clear indication that Benedict’s essay has not found a warm welcome at the St. Martha residence. Even more revealing is the frantic reaction of the Pope’s most ardent supporters, who have flooded the internet with their embarrassed protests, their complaints that Benedict is sadly mistaken when he suggests that the social and ecclesiastical uproar of the 1960s gave rise to the epidemic of abuse.

Those protests against Benedict—the mock-sorrowful sighs that we all know sexual abuse is not a function of rampant sexual immorality—should be seen as signals to the secular media. And secular outlets, sympathetic to the causes of the sexual revolution, will duly carry the message that Benedict is out of touch, that his thesis has already been disproven.

But facts, as John Adams observed, are stubborn things. And the facts testify unambiguously in Benedict’s favor. Something happened in the 1960s and thereafter to precipitate a rash of clerical abuse. Yes, the problem had arisen in the past. But every responsible survey has shown a stunning spike in clerical abuse, occurring just after the tumult that Benedict describes in his essay. Granted, the former Pontiff has not proven, with apodictic certainty, that the collapse of Catholic moral teaching led to clerical abuse. But to dismiss his thesis airily, as if it had been tested and rejected, is downright dishonest.

Facts are facts, no matter who proclaims them. The abuse crisis did arise in the muddled aftermath of Vatican II. Benedict puts forward a theory to explain why that happened. His theory is not congenial to the ideas of liberal Catholic intellectuals, but that fact does not excuse their attempt to suppress a discussion, to deny basic realities. (Come to think of it, this is not the first time that the public defenders of Pope Francis have encouraged the public to ignore facts, to entertain the possibility that 2+2=5.)

That message—the message of Pope-emeritus Benedict—is a striking departure from the messages that have been issued by so many Church leaders. The former Pope does not write about “policies and procedures;” he does not suggest a technical or legalistic solution to a moral problem. On the contrary he insists that we focus our attention entirely on that moral problem and then move on to a solution which must also, necessarily, be found in the moral realm.

As background for his message, Benedict recalls the 1960s, when “an egregious event occurred, on a scale unprecedented in history.” He writes about the breakdown in public morality, which was unfortunately accompanied by the “dissolution of the moral teaching authority of the Church.” This combination of events left the Church largely defenseless, he says.

In an unsparing analysis, Benedict writes of the problems in priestly formation, as “homosexual cliques were established, which acted more or less openly and significantly changed the climate in seminaries.” He acknowledges that a visitation of American seminaries produced no major improvements. He charges that some bishops “rejected the Catholic tradition as a whole.” He sees the turmoil as a fundamental challenge to the essence of the faith, observing that if there are no absolute truths—no eternal verities for which one might willingly give one’s life—then the concept of Christian martyrdom seems absurd. He writes: “The fact that martyrdom is no longer morally necessary in the theory advocated [by liberal Catholic theologians] shows that the very essence of Christianity is at stake here.”

“A world without God can only be a world without meaning,” Benedict warns. “Power is then the only principle.” In such a world, how can society guard against those who use their powers over others for self-gratification? “Why did pedophilia reach such proportions?” Benedict asks. He answers: “Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God.”

It is by restoring the presence of God, then, that Benedict suggests the Church must respond to this unprecedented crisis. He connects the breakdown in morality with a lack of reverence in worship, “a way of dealing with Him that destroys the greatness of the Mystery.” Mourning the grotesque ways in which predatory priests have blasphemed the Blessed Sacrament, he writes that “we must do all we can to protect the gift of the Holy Eucharist from abuse.”

In short Pope-emeritus Benedict draws the connection between the lack of reverence for God and the lack of appreciation for human dignity—between the abuse of liturgy and the abuse of children. Faithful Catholics should recognize the logic and force of that message. And indeed Benedict voices his confidence that the most loyal sons and daughters of the Church will work—are already working—toward the renewal he awaits:

If we look around and listen with an attentive heart, we can find witnesses everywhere today, especially among ordinary people, but also in the high ranks of the Church, who stand up for God with their life and suffering.

Still the renewal will not come easily; it will entail suffering. For Benedict, that suffering will include the waves of hostility that his essay has provoked, the dismissive attitude of much lesser theologians, the campaign to write him off as an elderly crank. No doubt the former Pope anticipated the opposition that his essay would encounter. He chose to “send out a strong message” anyway, because suffering for the truth is a powerful form of Christian witness.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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  1. Ratiocinations says:

    Incidentally, in my very short list of very astonishingly unjust things that I witnessed which occurred in the post-Vatican ii years, I should also have added to that initial mention of elderly dying in despair my having witnessed elderly and revered priests being berated and treated as though they were useless and obsolete pieces of trash.

    It was a time in which some, who knew how to attain administrative power, relished the personal degradation of others; and they rationalized their actions by the blind presumption that they were a quasi-gnostic elite newly chosen by G_D to purge the Church of its delusions.

    It was not an era of ‘creative destruction.’

  2. Ratiocinations says:

    I am somewhat surprised at naïve responses concerning this lengthy letter that supposedly was entirely composed by Emeritus Pope Benedict. As for the tactic of releasing it directly to German and American news sources, such merely confirms that the text, as it stands, was deemed to serve its purposes for whomever favored its release.

    Now, as to its content, even NCR’s Michael Sean Winters finds the analysis rather superficial and anecdotal. As I mentioned in another post, why would a coherent profound prelate seem to blame the 1960’s, the cultural surround, for the utter failures, the ill-found presumptions, and the malicious machinations and intrigues that had such an impact on the internal unfolding of Vatican ii?

    Rather, as I recall the degradation within civil societies, it was more the total implosion and silence of the voice of the Church and Her offering any coherent witness which contributed to the dissolute hedonism and the growing abuses of our own government power during that era.

    One of Michael Sean Winters’ statements in his reflections on the Emeritus Pope’s letter passingly mentions one aspect of the inner-life of the Church concerning that era: “pre-Vatican II seminary formation did not prepare men for serving in a post-Vatican II culture.”

    Well, it was not so much that “pre-Vatican II seminary formation,” with the important qualification of ‘at least where such was diligently pursued and maintained,’ failed to give adequate preparation to those who were to go forth and witness to the Truth in this world and serve the Church with integrity.

    Rather, the entire complex interior culture of the institutional Church was maliciously, by all too many, and intentionally, continually berated by some prominent hierarchs and ‘peritii’ during that era. Their iconoclastic views were given extensive promotion in the secular media.

    And this unleashed some of the most irrational, nihilistic, destructive acts I personally ever witnessed in my life by many a narcissistic cleric and member of religious institutes. It seems that the demons found ready agents in a certain minority proportion of the clerics who were all too disposed for self-serving destructive behavior.

    And so, I personally witnessed elderly persons dying in despair because the rituals and spiritual depth they had known for an entire life had purportedly been judged to be false and irrelevant; the wanton destruction of church interiors, of splendid libraries at religious institutes, and too many other artefacts to mention which had been wrought from the great sacrifices of prior generations of faithful who had revered the Church and Her traditions; and a continual barrage of disputable rationalizations which sought to discredit the complexity and profundity of the entire Catholic patrimony.

    And this went on incessantly until it was tempered under the long papacy of St. John Paul ii, to be prolonged somewhat under that of Benedict xvi.

    Given all that I witnessed, and to which I can swear is neither untrue nor exaggerated before the Most Holy Trinity, I find this letter of the Pope Emeritus to be rather unsubstantial concerning the specifics which occurred during the last 50 plus years. It is a mere (possibly contrived) gesture to distract some from just how terribly off we are compared to where we were prior to this era.

    Some have recalled a phrase from Emeritus Pope Benedict’s many prior reflections to the effect that Vatican ii unleased a sort of creative destruction from which we have yet to see its full fruitful results.

    Such quasi-Hegelian vistas, it seems to me, are unfitting for any Catholic woman or man who truly comprehends the blood, sweat, and agonies endured by so many past faithful through our complex history to realize the earthly manifestation of the Church as a living society in time.

    If (and I believe She will) the Church again comes to stand as a visible, vibrant form of substance within history, She will be capable not only of countering demonic ideological globalist secularism, which has greatly augmented during these decades in which the Church as a concrete institution has waned due to failures on the part of hierarchs and others.

    She also effectively will fruitfully engage and inform a robust secularity with Truth concerning right belief and right action.

    But that will require courageous and graced prelates, ordained, and laity who are truly formed by the fullness of the Faith in both understanding and behavior. And they will not be able to lay blame for any injudicious actions and grave omissions on their part as having been caused by the surrounding culture or lack thereof.

    That excuse is unworthy of any true Christfaithful.

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