Pope Benedict’s Essay Is a Summary of His Theological Quest
National Catholic Register, 16 April 2019
COMMENTARY: As the pope emeritus has found time and again, when everything unimaginable is before us, the only path back is back to God, revealed in Jesus Christ.
The recent essay of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse,” was published in the proximity of his 92nd birthday, which fell on April 16. The essay can be read as a summary of key moments in the long life of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI.
At 6,000 words, it is possible that this is last major text Benedict will publish. It already shows less of the rigor with which he wrote six years ago. And if it is his last text, it is an accurate summary of the man and his mission.
The German Moment
The essay was published in a small clerical journal in Germany, even though it was relevant to a universal audience. Benedict has always been attentive to the travails of the Church in Germany, believing it to have been a principal locus of crisis for the Church universal.
I have written before about the “German moment” of Pope Francis, in which the priorities of the German episcopate are given deference. Benedict, in addressing himself to the German situation in light of the sexual-abuse crisis, extends that German moment back several generations.
It is noteworthy that for more than 20 years, during Cardinal Ratzinger’s service as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the weekly meetings of pope (John Paul II) and prefect were conducted in German. All the great doctrinal, liturgical, moral and disciplinary issues of that consequential period were discussed in German, and language brings with it an ambience of culture and ecclesial experience.
The 1968 Revolution
In that experience, Cardinal Ratzinger always emphasized the singular importance of the social upheaval that he calls the “Revolution of 1968.” It shocked the young professor and marked a definitive turn in his life.
He was initially a scholar who, presuming that the foundations of the faith were firm, explored where new developments were necessary to keep the faith fresh. After the experience of 1968, his priorities shifted toward protecting the foundations of the faith, which suddenly seemed in danger. This was particularly relevant to sexual morality.
“It could be said that in the 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the previously normative standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely,” Benedict writes in his essay. “Among the freedoms that the Revolution of 1968 sought to fight for was this all-out sexual freedom, one which no longer conceded any norms.”
The Primacy of Theology
The great theologian — as priest, bishop, cardinal, pope and now pope emeritus — remains always that, a student and scholar who gives priority to theology. Cultures rise and fall, but for the Church, the criterion of response must always come from divine Revelation, from reflection on the word of God, from the Person of Jesus Christ — it must be a theological response. And here Benedict says that the Church’s theology was weak precisely when it had to be strong to cope with the reverberations from “1968.”
“Catholic moral theology suffered a collapse that rendered the Church defenseless against these changes in society,” Benedict writes. “Consequently, there could no longer be anything that constituted an absolute good, any more than anything fundamentally evil; [there could be] only relative value judgments. There no longer was the [absolute] good, but only the relatively better, contingent on the moment and on circumstances.”
The failure of theology — in seminaries and in universities — found its way into the pastoral life of the Church. As moral theology weakened, Benedict argues, the Church failed to defend the traditional sexual ethic. In extreme cases, it led even to a rise in sexual abuse by priests and a failure to confront it forcefully.
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