April 16, 2019

Benedict XVI and the martyrdom of being misunderstood

By Andrea Gagliarducci
Vatican City - February 27, 2013: Pope Benedict XVI stands to show his thanks after a standing ovation from the audience. @ Stephen Driscoll / CNA
Vatican City - February 27, 2013: Pope Benedict XVI stands to show his thanks after a standing ovation from the audience. @ Stephen Driscoll / CNA

The Church is made of martyrs, visible testimonies of the gospel. 

There is not only the martyrdom of blood. Cardinal Agostino Casaroli spoke about a “martyrdom of patience” referring to his diplomatic work: he was Vatican secretary of State from 1979 to 1990 and before the Vatican “minister for Foreign affairs” who set up the relations with States on the other side of the Iron Curtain – the so-called Ostpolitik.  

There is also the hidden martyrdom of those who are not killed but are merely marginalized by society because of faith. 

Today, Benedict XVI turns 92. His martyrdom is even different: he endures a martyrdom because he is misunderstood. 

Benedict XVI’s particular martyrdom became even more evident after the publication of his essay “The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse.” Catholic News Agency published the full text in English translation

Benedict XVI wrote the essay as a reflection on the eve of the summit on the protection of minors that took place in the Vatican from Feb. 21 through Feb. 24. 

The essay was published with Pope Francis' ok and after informing the Vatican Secretariat of State. It sparked an extended discussion. 

It is difficult to summarize what Benedict XVI said, as every passage is essential. 

Benedict XVI's thought is clumsily this: since the 1960s, cultural discussion eliminated the notion of good and evil, especially on the issues of sexuality; this new cultural wave made its way also within the Church’s institution, and found fertile ground in the post- Second Vatican council culture that wanted to break up with the past; moral theology was not able to understand and tackle this new cultural wave and instead accepted that; St. John Paul II worked to counter this new wave reaffirming the notions of good and evil; nowadays, the big challenge is still that of returning to faith, and faith cannot be separated by reason. 

The essay was widely criticized, to the point that it seemed to say different things from what Benedict XVI wrote. 

Benedict XVI did not say that there were not abuse on minors before the 1960s. He instead noted that there is a growing trend in abuse starting from the 1960s, thanks to the new cultural background. 

Benedict XVI did not depict a world averse to the Church. He instead targeted moral theology, unable to understand and read the new signs of times.  

Benedict XVI never opposed to Pope Francis. He just gave his point of view on the abuse issue, and even thanked Pope Francis at the end of the essay. 

Above all, Benedict XVI did not want to provide some casuistry, to use the term Pope Francis likes. Benedict XV instead investigated the cultural roots of the abuse crisis, without shedding light on particular cases. 

Why, then, all of these arguments were part of the discussion? 

The truth is that just a few have read the Pope emeritus’ essay with no prejudice.

Benedict XVi’s essay hurts because of its lucidity. 

The narrative of 1968 is almost untouchable, and Benedict XVI tears it down. However, in doing that he is in good company. At least, he has Pope Francis’ company. 

Delivering the traditional new year’s speech to ambassadors accredited to the Holy See in 2018, Pope Francis noted: “In the wake of the social upheaval of the 1960s, the interpretation of some rights has progressively changed, with the inclusion of a number of “new rights” that not infrequently conflict with one another”.

Pope Francis’ speech was intended for diplomats, and so it focused on new human rights. However, the new human rights sprung from a cultural. BenedictXVI indicated the cultural background. 

There is another untold story: cultural background of the 1960s was opened to pedophilia. Giulio Meotti penned an article on this on the Italian newspaper “Il Foglio.” The piece, dated Sep. 13, 2013, was headlined “1968 of the pedophiles.” Italian Vatican watcher Aldo Maria Valli relaunched it

Meotti named names and last names and made mentions. 

One example: on Jan. 26, 1977, the French newspaper Le Monde launched a petition to decrease the  major age for  to 12, in order o achieve the “children sexual liberation.” 

Prominent intellectuals signed the petition. Among them: the semiotician Roland Barthes, the psychoanalysts Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, the founder of Medicins San Frontier Bernard Kouchner, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. 

Giulio Meotti took as basis Germany, inspired by an investigation of the German weekly Der Spiegel. In Germany, magazines like Rosa Flieder or Pflasterstrand justified pedophilia and even asked the depenalization and the legalization of sex with children. The theories were even put in practice by some institutes for education. 

Joseph Ratzinger knew and read these discussions; he understood their consequences and was concerned because even some Churchmen were fascinated by these theories. 

Could this cultural back have an impact on the perpetuation of abuse? 

Christopher Altieri on Catholic Herald correctly stressed that already in 1940 the phenomenon of sex abuse by clergy was the subject of discussion between Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald and bishops and religious superiors in the States

Abuse, violation of the vote of chastity immoral conduct of priests, have been issued since the beginning of the Church.

St. Peter Damian wrote the Liber Gomhorrianus in 1050. In the book, the saint monk targeted homosexuality in the Church and in particular the violation of priestly celibacy.

So, why shedding light just on the culture generated during the 1960s? 

Austen Ivereigh, Pope Francis’ biographer and certainly not a Ratzingerian, highlighted the response to this question in a tweet. 

Ivereigh wrote: “The John Jay College of Criminal Justice reports of 2004 and 2011, commissioned by the U.S. bishops, locate the greatest frequency of abuse in the 1970s, coming down gradually in the 1980s. Virtually every other major study since it shows the same."

However, Benedict XVI does not say that the crisis of the Church’s is the 1960s fault. He sheds rather light on a crisis of moral theology in understanding what was really at stake and in reaffirming good and evil. 

The Deutsche Arbeitsgemeinschaft Moraltheologie (the association of professors of moral theology in Germany) penned a harsh response that is revealing of the bitterness against Benedict XVI’s ideas. 

The moral theologians accuse the Pope emeritus of deploying “an extreme form of theology unconnected with the world” and to exploit the topic of abuse to “reiterate an already well-known critic to a moral theology  with which he does not share the view on sexual ethics.” 

They also claim that “those who question from the moral theological perspective that a homosexual act within a stable relationship is always a grave sin, do not legitimate for this reason the sexual violence.”

Also, they also stress that “those who, from the moral theological perspective, criticize the traditional rigorism against any form of contraception, do not in the end back a lack in norms.” 

The German theologians, however, did not get (or did not want to get) the point. Benedict XVI never said that sexual violence might be legitimated by theologians who do not say that a homosexual act, or a sexual act with contraception, is not a grave sin. Benedict XVI instead noted that moral theology was not able to meet the signs of times and somehow experienced some subsection to the logic of society.

The focal point, to Benedict XVI, is not rigorism. It is faith. This is clear in many speeches, interventions, and essays he delivered as professor, archbishop, cardinal, Pope. 

For example, in a speech delivered Sep. 7, 2006 to Swiss Bishops in ad limina visit, Benedict XVI underscored that “precisely in the past 50 years or so, it has come a long way in its methodology. On the other hand, however, since much has been lost in anthropology and in the search for reference points, all too often catechesis does not even reach the content of the faith. I can understand this since, even at the time when I was a parochial vicar - some 56 years ago -, it was already very difficult to proclaim the faith in pluralistic schools with numerous non-believing parents and children, because it appeared to be a totally foreign and unreal world”.

Pope emeritus added that  “the situation is even worse. Yet, it is important in catechesis, which includes the contexts of school, parish, community, etc., that faith be expounded fully, in other words, that children truly learn what ‘creation’ is, what the "history of salvation" brought about by God is, and who Jesus Christ is, what the sacraments are and what is the object of our hope....”

In the end, what Benedict XVI said in the essay and has been saying for all of his life is that the crisis of the Church is a crisis of faith, and that the crisis of faith is an outcome of a crisis of reason that rejects to explain faith and to use a religious language (that is, the proper language) to understand faith.

This cancer stroke the Church, too. 

As said, Benedict XVI has been saying this all of his life. Anytime he did, however, the reactions were of the same tenure of those provoked by his latest essay.

Nor German theologians, nor journalists and intellectuals reacted to Benedict XVI’s essay addressing one after one of the points he raised. The attacks were mostly personal. More than analysis, there have been commentaries.

Benedict XVI’s essay was even described as "regrettable", while a casuistry of Benedict XVI’s record in addressing clergy sex abuse scandal was produced to discredit his point of view. 

The essay is not ultimately about the decision Benedict XVI took when he was at the helm of the Church. Circumstances also dictate what kind of decisions are to be made.

Benedict XVI goes beyond. He looks at the cultural background. He tries to understand why the phenomenon is born. In the end, some of Benedict XVI choices can be understood only through the lenses of a more comprehensive analysis. Benedict XVI always tried to protect faith and never tried to destroy people. 

For this reason, the “government argument” could not work. So, it was proposed to silence the Pope emeritus or to give the position a more in-depth regulation, as his mere existence could spark confusion or controversy. 

However, anytime Benedict XVI speaks out, asks Pope Francis for permission. Pope Francis, in an interview granted to the Italian newspaper “Il Corriere della Sera” on March 5, 2014, said: “The Pope Emeritus is not a statue in a museum. He is an institution. (…) We spoke between us, and we decided together it was better he met people, he went out, he took part in the Church’s life.” 

Yes, someone might argue that Pope Francis wanted that this essay was out n order to generate confusion between Benedict XVI’s supporter and to let come out the party against Pope Francis. 

This kind of rationale would be equal to another rationale, that deems as “schismatic” the way Benedict XVI’s entourage eventually chose the media to deliver Pope Francis’ essay. They were, it was noted, conservative media, ready to attack the Pope. 

Neither one nor the other rationale hits the nail.

More reasonably, Benedict XVI’s entourage chose the media that always tried to tell with the reason the Pope emeritus thought. In addition to those media, the Italian newspaper “Il Corriere Della Sera” was included in the loop. "Corriere della Sera" is certainly not conservative in theological issues and certainly not the kind of medium eager to tell stories from the faith’s point of view. 

The need to spread the message from the right podium was then at the basis of the choice of those media.  

Targeting the media that spread the message seems then to be part of the narrative that targets the model of Church proposed by Pope emeritus. Since it is challenging to counter Benedict XVI with reason, those who have a different view diminish the impact of his words. It was also dropped the suspicion that Benedict XVI did not write the text.

All of this is not new, to Benedict XVI. Even during his pontificate, Benedict XVI was personally attacked. Moreover, Benedict XVI let everybody talk. He did not have supporters ready to attack as schismatic any critic to his thought, nor he wanted them. 

No one countered his word; almost everybody attacked him. At 92, after a life spent this way, Benedict XVI is enduring the martyrdom of being misunderstood. 

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.