In February Pope emeritus Jospeh Ratzinger, at the request of current Pope Bergolgio, wrote a letter to a synod of Bishops concerning the clerical sex abuse scandals. The letter has now been published and its… interesting.
He blames three things:
- The spirit of the sexual revolution infecting the church (including the acceptance of gay cliques in seminaries). He says the proximate cause was the abandonment of the notion of natural law in Catholic theology which made it impossible to resist the sexual revolution. The ultimate cause however was, according to Ratzinger, a widespread loss of faith among priests and bishops.
- The focus on “collegiality” as a governing style among Bishops made it difficult for them to take vigorous independent action.
- The reform of Canon Law’s criminal code, which was intended to protect theologians from charges of heresy, made the it practically impossible for Bishops to laicize a priest. Moving these cases from the Congregation for the Clergy to the Congregation for the Faith under Pope Woytjia was meant to expedite canonical processes, and further changes made under Pope Ratzinger made it easier to laicize a priest, but Ratzinger now says both changes were insufficient.
A lot of people are complaining that Ratzinger blames the sexual revolution for the “pedo” crisis to deflect from institutional failures but as we see above that he does discuss them. The idea that there was no relationship between the sexual revolution and the abuse crisis is odd: numbers of sex abuse cases in the church skyrocketed in the 60s and 70s before dropping off in the 90s. Most victims were not children but teenage boys. Sex with teens was not taboo among partisans of the sexual revolution like Kinsey or Hefner. Teens were encouraged to be more sexually active while partisans often advocated for lowering the age of consent.
One thing evident in the letter (and which comes up in other writings) was the utter horror with which Ratzinger reacted to the excesses of ’68. It was a pivotal moment for him. He was a theology professor at the time and was shocked by the atheism and militant stupidity of seminarians, both Catholic and Protestant, at the University of Tubingen where he taught from ’66 to ’69.
His comments on institutional failures are spot on and should not be controversial: “collegiality” does in fact discourage Bishops from showing leadership: they are all afraid to rock the boat, and Canon Law did not have practical provisions for dealing with this sort of thing. Ratzinger explains the situation in the ’90s when American Bishops were finally starting to come to grips with predatory priests:
… canon law, as it is written in the new (1983) Code, did not seem sufficient for taking the necessary measures.
Rome and the Roman canonists at first had difficulty with these concerns; in their opinion the temporary suspension from priestly office had to be sufficient to bring about purification and clarification. This could not be accepted by the American bishops, because the priests thus remained in the service of the bishop, and thereby could be taken to be [still] directly associated with him. Only slowly, a renewal and deepening of the deliberately loosely constructed criminal law of the new Code began to take shape.
What Ratzinger does not mention but which I think are essential to understanding the problem:
- Clericalism, which treats clergy as “made guys” to be taken care of and laity as outsiders, and treats institutions as ends, not means.
- The Lavender Mafia: gay cliques among powerful Bishops which predated the sexual revolution (looking at you, Cardinals Spellman and Wright) and which was (and is still today) well entrenched in the Vatican. An actively gay Bishop is easily blackmailed by priests he is attempting to discipline, if he cares to discipline them at all.
He makes no practical recommendations for moving forward, though he does praise the decision by Pope Bergoglio to further streamline the canonical process for dealing with reprobate priests. He does however insist on a return to authentic faith in God, and to not focus so much on the evil in the church that we ignore the many good people that sanctify it. He is right.
I would add something else: Bergoglio has flubbed his share of sex scandals but in a way he is right to not want to focus too much on it. There has to be a balance: yes the church needs a better way to punish perverts and criminals in the ranks of the clergy but the church should not obsess too much on the moral perfection of the clergy. The purpose of the church is to honor God and save sinners, not to contemplate its own perfection.
But there are two omissions in Benedict’s catalog, one he will never address and one he may or may not have considered, because it concerns a deeper problem.
Firstly: Pope John Paul II refused to deal with sexual abuse beyond a few anodyne remarks. John Paul protected abusers like Maciel and refused to listen to pleas, including from Cardinal Schoenborn, to act. Why?
Secondly: Sexual abuse did not begin in the sixties. The Holy Office had extensive files from the Counter-Reformation on solicitation in the confessional. St. John Calasanctius founded the Piarists and covered up a bad case of abuse in one of his schools to avoid alienating the Cherubini family which was influential at the Vatican. When the Jesuit archives were uncovered after the French revolution there were many cases of abuse in them.
My theory about question one: John Paul II was a paper tiger in the Vatican. He had little actual control over how the church was run, which is why he spent so much of his time traveling.