Earlier today, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI released a letter condemning the sexual revolution of the 1960s for causing the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal. The letter, a nearly 6,000-word essay, was published in a German newspaper before an official English translation by the Catholic News Agency was released and is controversial on two grounds: the content of the letter and the circumstances of the letter.
Benedict laments that the 1960s brought about a series of actions that proved catastrophic to both traditional ideas of morality and Catholic dogma. While the former Pontiff does not specifically point to a cause of the moral decline, he does list several examples of its presence. The first is the West German government’s decision, in 1967, to promote a more complete sexual education for students. The largest aspect of that policy was the film “Helga – On the Origins of Life”, which controversially was one of the first films with full nudity to show all aspects of a pregnancy. Benedict wrote “Sexual and pornographic movies then became a common occurrence, to the point that they were screened at newsreel theaters.” He also blames the clothing the 1960s for, in conjunction with pornography, causing violence.
One of the most controversial lines from the letter relates to pedophilia. Benedict wrote “Part of the physiognomy of the Revolution of ‘68 was that pedophilia was then also diagnosed as allowed and appropriate.” Later on in the letter, Benedict seems to say that pedophilia was not an issue until the 1980s. Many have rebuked that claim as objectively false, as pedophilia remains a crime in most of the world with a significant social taboo.
The ex-Pope also discusses the decline of traditional Catholic moral theology. He points to the Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope Saint John XXIII in 1962, as a leading cause of the decline, lamenting Vatican II shifted the focus from moral theology’s basis in natural law to a Scripture-based belief. Benedict wrote “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.”
Another comment from Benedict that has drawn criticism is the claim that “In various seminaries homosexual cliques were established, which acted more or less openly and significantly changed the climate in the seminaries.” Benedict seems to be blaming the Queer Revolution of the 1960s on the sexual abuse crisis the Catholic Church has faced since the 1990s, which is a slight variation on the traditional comment that legalizing homosexuality will lead to sexual miscreants (“What’s next – people marrying their dog?” the argument used to go).
At the time, then-Bishop Josef Ratzinger was one of the most conservative Catholic theologians. Apparently, Benedict, claims, to the point his work was black-listed by the new, more liberal bishops, writing, “Perhaps it is worth mentioning that in not a few seminaries, students caught reading my books were considered unsuitable for the priesthood. My books were hidden away, like bad literature, and only read under the desk.”
Benedict begins to close out the letter by presenting “solutions” to the crisis. Not the crisis of priests sexually abusing young children entrusted to their care, but the larger sexual freedom “crisis.” “Our being not redeemed is a consequence of our inability to love God,” Benedict argued. “Learning to love God is therefore the path of human redemption.”
Besides the content of the letter, the circumstances of the letter have sparked controversy. Benedict is the first Pope emeritus in 500 years. His 2013 resignation, citing poor health, put the Church in relatively unchartered territory. At the time, Benedict declared that he would live the rest of his life in quiet prayer and contemplation in an Italian monastery. For the most part, he has held true to that statement, only making appearances in the Vatican to celebrate major Church events with Pope Francis.
That is, until this letter. Benedict writes that he was inspired by the conference held by Pope Francis earlier this year to address the systematic problems that lead to the Catholic sex abuse scandal. That conference, in turn, was sparked by the conviction of Australian Cardinal George Pell for a series of charges relating to his sexual abuse of young boys in the 1980s. In the letter, Benedict seems to indicate that he had spoken to several Vatican officials before releasing it, including the Cardinal Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and Pope Francis.
Catholics around the world are unsure of how to respond to the letter from the former Pope, similar to how they reacted when Benedict announced his resignation six years ago. It is a tenant of Catholic belief that when a Pope is elected, he is elected by the College of Cardinals acting through Divine inspiration. How does someone stop being God’s chosen representative on Earth? How should Catholics treat the letter from Benedict? Does it have the same weight as a letter from the sitting Pope? This is unclear, and the fact that Pope Francis seems to have been aware of the letter and not objected to its release raises more questions than answers. The sentiment of Benedict’s letter also contradicts the standard messaging of Pope Francis, “who has often said abuse results from the corrupted power of clergy.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict has faced a series of critiques for his handling of the Church’s sexual abuse crisis during his eight-year pontificate. While he did remove many accused priests from the Church, he was perceived by many as slow to respond to the crisis as it grew.
In his letter, Benedict does not address the victims of the crisis directly and does not apologize or express sorrow for what was done to them.