Benedict’s Essay Broadens Conversation on Causes of Crisis


National Catholic Register, 7 May 2019

COMMENTARY: The pope emeritus’ essay invites examination of three particular causes of the sex-abuse problem that has plagued the Church.

The recent essay of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse,” was an apt summary of a long life of ecclesial and theological service, as I commented previously. At the same time, it significantly advances the Church’s handling of the sexual-abuse crisis.

Since the first sexual-abuse cases emerged into public knowledge in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Church’s response has focused on dealing with allegations in a timely and effective manner and on implementing safe-environment protocols. Any deeper analysis of the ecclesial culture that gave rise to the crisis was largely avoided. That is beginning to change, and Benedict’s essay is a welcome contribution to that development.

The essay correctly identifies the increase in sexual-abuse cases as something that occurred in the late 1960s. Every serious study of priestly sexual abuse has confirmed that there was a remarkable spike in cases in the late 1960s, which peaked in the 1970s, and then dramatically declined. Obviously, there were some cases before and after, but there was a dramatic spike and decline. The decline came before any significant reform measures were taken.

So something happened. Benedict, who has long identified “1968” as a grave moment of cultural unraveling, argues that it was the stunning cultural collapse in sexual morality, in the face of which the Church proved unable to adequately resist. A tsunami of sin flooded the household of faith.

The identification of the sexual revolution as something other than an unalloyed good earned Benedict’s essay the ridicule of secular sophisticates. But the pope emeritus was not claiming that the sexual revolution was guilty and the Church was not; rather, he argued that the Church failed to resist cultural trends of great destructive potential in a comprehensive manner.

The Church, in fits and starts, is finally beginning to address the widespread failures that led to the scandal of sexual abuse and its cover-up.

The Vatican summit in February was adamant that there was only one cause — the corruption of clerical power, or “clericalism.” That was so obviously false that it needlessly compromised the credibility of the summit, even if it may have been practical to restrict the scope of discussion over the course of just a few days.

But there is not just one cause of so widespread a problem or such a complex phenomenon.

Jesuit Father Matt Malone, editor of America magazine, wrote that Benedict’s essay, in identifying “1968,” was not unlike Pope Francis, who identifies “clericalism” as the cause. Others still identify homosexuality in the priesthood or the lack of women’s leadership in the Church.

“There appears to be a kind of circular reasoning at work,” Father Malone writes. “Again, it does not follow that these conclusions are necessarily wrong. But if the cause of every major ecclesial scandal just happens to be that thing that you have railed against for years, then you should ask yourself whether your view may be biased.”

Ross Douthat of The New York Times made a similar point, prompted by Benedict’s essay and the response to it.

“I was writing … mostly a lament for what [Benedict’s essay’s] reception betokened,” Douthat wrote, “[a] general inability, Catholic and secular, to recognize that both the ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ accounts of the sex-abuse crisis are partially correct, that the spirits of liberation and clericalism each contributed their part, that the abuse problem dramatically worsened during the sexual revolution (a boring empirical fact if you spend any time with the data or the history) even as it also had roots in more traditional patterns of clerical chauvinism, hierarchical arrogance, institutional self-protection.”

It might be considered a classic Catholic “both/and” rather than “either/or,” except that here there are more than just two factors in play. Benedict’s essay, written with the authority of one who has dealt with the sexual-abuse crisis for longer and more comprehensively than anyone else, helps to widen the scope of what can be spoken about. In particular, Benedict’s essay invites examination of three particular causes.

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