Thursday, April 11, 2019

Confusion and division must not continue: Benedict's letter

I suppose at least some of my readers know about the ill-advised letter composed by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (see "Full text of Benedict XVI essay: 'The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse'") that became public over the past few days. Writing the letter was ill-advised. Making the letter public comes close to a catastrophe. I have no desire to denigrate a very old man who, as the letter indicates, is clearly not at the top of his powers. I cannot imagine that those close to the former pope did not dissuade him from writing about this. Failing that, how did it leave his dwelling?

I don't mind stating up-front that I hold Pope Benedict XVI in the highest regard. Over the decades I have been Catholic I have benefited enormously by reading the theology of Joseph Ratzinger. When it comes to the issue of the sexual abuse of children and young people in the Catholic Church, Josef Ratzinger did a lot. First and foremost, he recognized it as a problem that needed to be dealt with. To the extent that priestly sexual abuse was acknowledged and dealt with at all during the papacy of John Paul II it was largely due to the efforts of then-Cardinal Ratzinger. When he became pope, the matter began to receive the attention that it deserved. He sustained this throughout his papacy. As we all know, it took Pope Francis some time to come to grips with this issue himself, despite the efforts of his predecessor.

Back to the letter- I am amazed at its anecdotal and rather shallow contents. At least to me, it reads like a tightly-written apologetic tract, the kind that makes a very tight but not very cogent argument, one that ignores many relevant facts and issues. If one were to take the letter at face value, it would seem that there was no pedophilia or ephebophilia in the church until the mid-to-late-1960s. But my own diocese's disclosure is enough to disprove this. One can read the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. Even with its flaws, you can see that the analysis applied in this letter fails to account for a healthy number of cases that happened before the much-vilified sexual revolution. For these instances, Benedict's letter has no explanation whatsoever.

The so-called sexual revolution certainly had many downsides and created a lot of causalities. However, there were some good things that emerged from this societal movement. Some of the good things found their way into Humanae Vitae. For instance, in teaching that sexual intercourse has a "unitive" dimension, Pope Paul VI was quite revolutionary. Progress that is true progress usually requires some short, tentative, incremental steps before gaining momentum.

If you don't believe there wasn't sexual weirdness among ecclesiastics before the 1960s, I urge you to pick up a copy of Hubert Wolf's The Nuns of Sant' Ambrogio: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal. It is an engrossing book. Wolf tells the tale of a rather lengthy and strange series of events that happened in Rome on the eve of the First Vatican Council. In this book, Wolf also provides deep insight into how inhumane church teaching had become with regard to sexuality. For example, confessors manuals and moral theology works held that French-kissing between spouses was a mortal sin (see "Humanae Vitae at 50").

Even if one takes the sexual revolution as the starting point, the sexual abuse of children and young people, male and female, was at least as prevalent among traditionally-inclined priests as it was among so-called progressives, if not more so. I will just note in passing that Benedict's characterization of what is called "revisionist" moral theology amounts to a gross caricature. Often revisionist moral theologians, like Bernard Häring, were more aware of the complex and ambiguous nature of human sexuality and understood that one could apply an atemporal set of norms to govern this unruly aspect of humanity. I write this as someone who, along with my wife, has sought to adhere to church teaching on marital sexuality throughout our marriage. We still do. So, I am not dismissive of the church's teaching in least.



One could drive a truck through the gap between Benedict's admission that it is impossible to build a systematic sexual ethic on the basis of Scripture alone. In his letter, Benedict points to the efforts of one moral theologian to do just that. His summarily dismissive attitude toward contemporary moral theology as it seeks to address human sexuality in light of the paucity provided by the Scriptures, especially the New Testament, as well as accounting for the deeper understanding we have the human person overall and human sexuality in particular.

As an amusing side note, I was unaware of something Benedict asserts in his letter, namely there was a time when one could watch "sex movies" on commercial airliners. And that this was a bad idea because violence would break out. Yeah, anyway...

I could go on, but I will limit myself to 3 further observations:

1- Benedict's "history" is narrow, incomplete and overly simplistic to the point of not only being misleading, but laughable

2- Isn't it interesting that nowhere is clericalism (a term that I grasp is rapidly being overused and misused) part of his diagnosis? This stands in stark contrast to Pope Francis's Letter to the People of God, written last August from last summer. In that letter Francis grasp the really troublesome dynamic in play, which he identifies as "clericalism." Rather than being the source of the problem, for Francis the communion ecclesiology of Vatican II, characterized by the phrase given us by the Council, "hierarchical communion" (communion modifies and flattens hierarchy), is the solution, not the problem

3- Back to the issue of Christian sexual ethics, natural law and Stoicism are poor substitutes for the Gospel. Perhaps some things do not lend themselves to the kind detailed systematic approach the church has sought to impose on human sexuality

If popes resigning becomes a common feature of church life, then we require clearer guidelines about the comportment and engagement of former popes. Taking my cue from many people who are more knowledgeable about these things than I am, I think there should be no such title as "Pope Emeritus." There can only be one pope at a time, lest there be confusion. One of the major reasons for the existence of the papal office is to guarantee authoritative teaching.

Therefore, should a pope resign, he should be designated as "Bishop of Rome Emeritus." He should be forbidden the use of any and all papal insignia, including wearing white. Rather than being known by his papal name, he ought to revert to using his given name.

While it may be lost on Benedict/Ratzinger, it is not on those close to him that his unfortunate letter plays into the hands of those who seek undermine Francis and the important work of reform he is undertaking. As a result, it compounds division in the church. To say I am deeply disappointed in this development is to state my feelings in a muted manner.

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Addendum:

This morning, I ran across Austin Inverleigh's piece on Pope Emeritus Benedict's letter- "Pope Benedict's letter on sex abuse is not an attack on Francis (or Vatican II)". It is a good piece but ultimately unconvincing article. I don't see the intent of Ratzinger's letter as an attack on anyone or on the Council. However, I think the letter plays into the hands of Francis's enemies. They will weaponize it. I do not back down on my view that the letter is embarrassingly shallow. Again, I wish Benedict and the church had been better served by those around him.

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