Benedict’s Analysis: What impressed me most
There are several things which I found particularly intriguing about Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s analysis of the roots of the contemporary Church’s problem with clerical sexual abuse. And there is one thing that I found most impressive going forward.
First, it was both intriguing and gratifying to me that Benedict locates the particular cultural roots of the abuse problem in the massive cultural shift of the 1960s. That’s gratifying because I have long argued that the crisis in the Church that exploded in the second half of the twentieth century was primarily the result of the collision of a Church in intense need of interior renewal prior to that period with an enormous historical-cultural circumstance—namely, that the long slow secularization of Western culture finally reached the point, in the period following World War II, when that culture no longer recognized the reasons for the public moral restraint which had mostly characterized the West in the past.
The result was that in the matter of a few years—the 1960s—the sexual taboos were swept away, not in terms of private avoidance, which had long since generally disappeared, but in terms of a vanishing public “respectability”. This was a game-changer for a Church that was thoroughly entwined among the respectable institutions of the West and far too dependent on the surrounding dominant culture for its public posture of righteousness. The result was that when this massive public cultural shift occurred, bishops and priests very often simply continued to follow the dominant culture from which they tended to take their cues. It is precisely this analysis, for example, which explains why Modernism was frequently underground in Catholic universities in the first half of the twentieth century, only to burst into brazen dominance almost overnight.
Second, I found it very intriguing to see how much Pope Benedict knew about the problems in the Church. Sometimes faithful priests and laity wondered whether Rome really knew how bad things were, say, in the 1970s and 1980s, considering how little public acknowledgement and public discipline there was. The tip-off for me was the Pope Emeritus’ admission that the first American seminary visitation was pretty much a failure because so much had been hidden (even though things did get better over time partly as a result). He also remembered key details, such as that “one bishop, who had previously been seminary rector, had arranged for the seminarians to be shown pornographic films, allegedly with the intention of thus making them resistant to behavior contrary to the faith”. This was Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Michigan—who was, almost inconceivably, appointed over the well-justified opposition of faithful laity.
The third thing that intrigued me was a matter about which I was almost completely ignorant. Pope Emeritus Benedict discusses the inadequacy of the 1983 Code of Canon Law when it came to the ability to investigate, judge and impose significant ecclesiastical sanctions on wayward priests. It was partly this that led to Pope John Paul II’s decision to put the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in charge of the investigation of clerical abuse, for apparently only violations under the authority of the CDF could, as a matter of normal course, result in expulsion from the priesthood. Various revisions to the Code have been made since that time, but it is pretty obvious that the Church’s codified judicial processes can still be difficult to use effectively in at least some situations. The portions of Benedict’s analysis which touch on Canon Law are very interesting indeed.
What impressed me most, however, is what has always impressed me most about Pope Benedict and, indeed, Cardinal Ratzinger as was—namely, his wonderful spiritual depth. Pope Emeritus Benedict knows that the root crisis, not only for clerical abuse but for the entire problem of Catholic secularization, is the profound absence of God in the minds and hearts of far too may Catholics. He explores this problem in theology, in liturgy, even in the spiritual life, and he has much to say about it. But put generally, the main point is this:
A paramount task, which must result from the moral upheavals of our time, is that we ourselves once again begin to live by God and unto Him. Above all, we ourselves must learn again to recognize God as the foundation of our life instead of leaving Him aside as a somehow ineffective phrase.
The entire text of The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse is fairly brief, only about five times the length of one of my own typical commentaries, or about seven to eight times as long as this brief introduction. Everyone should read it, not for anger and recrimination, but for greater understanding and spiritual growth.
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