Ratzinger on the sex abuse scandal

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.

UPDATE: Leon Podles, an expert on the American sex abuse scandals, wrote a better review than I did. He is also more critical of Bergoglio than I.

Podles writes:

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.


  1. You seem to have missed (or they missed) a whole obvious area of concern in that sexual celibacy is not easy to achieve for most humans, and that repression of natural human sexual impulses can lead to harmful thoughts and obsessions. You can’t pray them away – the weight of guilt and confusion must be extraordinary in naive young men who think that on joining the priesthood they have divine support in overcoming the raw need for intimate human companionship. It’s tragic. And all through the history of the Catholic church it seems that contrary to the rules of the church, clergy did indeed have at the very least clandestine relations and sometimes more open companions. Perhaps all the sexual revolution did was make the church at the time close this door and tighten it’s expectations on priests and bishops to attempt celibacy, and it was this that led to the sexual repression overdrive.

    I’d also think it’s worth considering the effect of education, communication and legal advancements in terms of confronting sexual abuse generally in society. Who knows if levels of abuse actually sky rocketed or if victims simply felt more knowledgeable, empowered and supported in recognising a crime they might previously have hidden.

    1. If celibacy caused pederasty then priests would be more likely to engage in pederasty than anyone else, but they don’t.
      The scandal wasn’t that some priests were predators but that they were getting away with it.

      1. I think that is indeed part of the scandal, in that protecting people and abstaining from any sexual behaviour is part of the job description. It amplifies the crime, and the resulting cover up even more so. But you’re right to point out that so far it seems they are no more likely to prey on children than any other group.

      2. To be fair celibacy might have an indirect impact: priests are more likely to be homosexual than the average man because celibacy gave them an excuse for not marrying. Estimates are around 10% as opposed to 2% of general population though it is impossible to know for sure. That may have contributed to a don’t-ask-don’t-tell culture of priests looking the other way when cases like this came up. On the other hand this sort of thing happens in other organizations too so there might be no corrolation.
        Celibacy is also a pretty common human condition whether for reasons of health or circumstances, even for married people. If sex were really essential for mental health I think there’d be a lot more neurotics running around. We’d have to make sex manditory.
        I’ve probably known a couple hundred priests in my life and I’ve seen it all. Two that I had met briefly turned out to be evil. One or two were mentally ill. The vast majority good men, even ones who may have screwed up. A handful were saints.

      3. Celibacy isn’t very common, and it is also associated with poorer mental health. I’m sure it’s a natural state for many individuals but in terms of the general population, that equates to a small percentage. Besides, it’s not just about the sex, it’s about the intimate companionship.

      4. I’m not thinking of celibacy as a permanent lifestyle choice, that would be a statistically negligible number of people. But it is very common for adults to go, say, a year or more without sex. I don’t think that is optimal but there is no evidence of mass neurosis.

      5. Well that’s irrelevant. For Catholic clergy it’s a permanent lifestyle choice that denies them a real life partner for sex, for intimacy, for sharing the experience. It’s a head fuck for most I’m sure, regardless of how prepared they feel at the start.

      6. It could be irrelevant, they are a statistically negligible population. All we can do is look at analogies. Your certainty of what it does to their heads is conjecture.
        I can’t speak from firsthand experience of what it is like to be a priest so I am relying on conjecture too but like I said, I’ve probably known a couple of hundred between school and work and I’m good friends with a few. I suppose that biases me in their favor but if they were generally neurotic or miserable I think I would have noticed.

      7. Yes. But important question is: How much do they spend on shoes?

  2. “The purpose of the church is to honor God and save sinners, not to contemplate its own perfection.”

    That’s a great line. Piety becomes a distraction when we don’t keep this in mind.

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