Benedict XVI has put the Church's penance for sex abuse at the heart of his pontificate
An optimist despite everything: Pope Benedict XVI (Photo: AP)The controversy over condoms has overshadowed many extraordinary things Benedict XVI says in Light of the World. Earlier this week I read the book from cover to cover and it didn’t change my view that the Pope is prepared to tolerate – let’s put it no stronger than that – the use of condoms to prevent the spread of disease. If I’d encountered the relevant passage without warning but in context, my jaw would still have dropped open. But enough on that subject. There are other surprises.
Let me offer a specific observation about Light of the World and a general one. No doubt I’ll get my throat ripped out again, especially by traditionalists, but perhaps that’s inevitable. Pope Benedict’s interview with Peter Seewald is an unsettling document, and not just because the concept of the Supreme Pontiff “in conversation with…” is intrinsically strange.
First, the specific point. The Holy Father has done more than take to heart the horrified outrage created by Catholic child abuse scandals, much of it directed at him. He has placed this crisis at the heart of his pontificate. He is aware, of course, of the malice of commentators who tried to frame him for other people’s crimes, but doesn’t dwell on it. He is more robust in defending Church authorities who did institute effective guidelines against abuse; he also speaks up for innocent priests and faithful burdened with collective guilt. But when Seewald throws a bunch of statistics at him demonstrating that paedophilia is statistically rare among Catholic clergy, he says: “If you look at the real statistics, that does not authorise us to look away from the problem or to minimise it.”
Far from looking away from the problem, Benedict takes Light of the World as an opportunity to stare it in the face. He realises that his pontificate has been damaged by the scandals and takes a step back to survey that damage unflinchingly. He observes that “evil will always be part of the mystery of the Church” – a statement so disturbing that, if a parish priest were to drop it into the middle of his Sunday sermon, folk in the pews might think he had gone mad or was playing with heresy.
The Pope doesn’t promise to solve this mystery for us, but he outlines a possible interpretation of a sickening coincidence: that the revelations of “filth” reached their peak during the Year for Priests. He wants to help Catholics understand God’s purpose in allowing the Church to appear contemptible even in the eyes of well-meaning people. Here’s the key quote:
One might think that the devil could not stand the Year for Priests and therefore threw this filth in our faces. As it wanted to show the world how much filth there was, even and precisely among priests. On the other hand, one could say that the Lord wanted to test us and to call us to a deeper purification, so that we would not celebrate the Year for Priests in a triumphalist way, as self-glorification, but rather as a year of purification, of interior renewal, transformation, and above all penance.This isn’t a self-exculpatory message. Rightly, Benedict does not accept responsibility – personally, or on behalf of the Church – for imaginary crimes of omission: the fact that the media ignored the Church’s condemnations of sex abuse, publication of guidelines and legal proceedings against errant clergy does not mean that these measures were never taken. What he does acknowledge is responsibility for failures to act against crimes that occurred on his watch, as it were, when his remit at the CDF had been expanded to cover these cases. “Unfortunately we addressed these things very slowly and too late,” he says of Marcial Maciel, the abusive and sexually incontinent founder of the Legionaries of Christ.
There’s a wider point, though, which is that the exposure of disgusting acts, most of which took place decades ago, is a humiliation that God is inflicting on the Church in order to purify it. And here we do glimpse the uncompromising toughness of Joseph Ratzinger’s earlier writings, and indeed his earlier conversations with Seewald. For one of the things that God is purifying the Church from, he suggests, is the moral relativism that encouraged priests with abusive urges to express them – and persuaded the Church authorities that the “loving” response to outrages was to hush things up. This liberal mindset led to “an odd darkening of the mind, even in very good people”. (Intriguingly, Pope Benedict implies that this explanation for what went wrong was offered to him by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, who is notably more liberal than many of his episcopal colleagues.)
There’s a certain bravery, I think, in presenting the exposure of “filth” as a heaven-sent opportunity to reform the Church: the message could easily be misinterpreted by the secular world. Also, are Catholic liberals – who still dominate the bishops’ conferences of Europe – really prepared to implement the precise “purification” that Benedict envisages? The Pope uses Light of the World to reiterate the ruling that homosexual orientation should be a bar to ordination: he doesn’t say so, but the very high proportion of scandals involving gay clergy seems to have confirmed his belief that the risk of ordaining even the most patently holy homosexual is too great. That is not the view of most European bishops or seminary directors, who may be persuaded to tighten screening but aren’t prepared to act as thought police (as they might put it); also, they won’t like the depiction of homosexuality as a “contrary to the essence of what God originally willed”.
Viewed as a whole, Light of the World is a dazzling synthesis of the Pope’s own thought, that of his beloved predecessor John Paul II, and of course the Magisterium. This is an 83-year-old man troubled by some of the failures of his pontificate but as intellectually and spiritually confident as he has ever been. There are startling moments of aggiornamento, such as the apparent clarification of the morality of using condoms to prevent disease; but the changes to Catholic teaching on birth control, homosexuality and women’s ordination that were so plausible to liberals in the 1970s now seem unthinkable. Also, this Pope understands that he doesn’t have the authority to change his own authority, as it were – the papal claims aren’t bargaining chips. Nor can he turn Anglicanism into a Church as Rome understands the concept: as he points out, the phrase “ecclesial community” comes from Vatican II.
Yet, if the Pope isn’t willing to gloss over hard truths in order to win liberal approval, he’s also careful not to throw bouquets in the direction of his long-standing admirers. And that’s my more general observation about Light of the World: that, in a number of places, Benedict XVI distances himself from the Papa Ratzinger of traditionalist legend. Scattered throughout the book are phrases that will make certain conservatives wince while they applaud its overall message. Summorum Pontificum is affirmed, but there’s no sense of it as a foundation for wider liturgical reform: when the Pope talks about why he changed the “offensive” Good Friday prayer for the Jews, he reminds us that it only affected “the small circle of people who use the old missal”. And, on the subject of Richard Williamson, the Pope points out that because he was “an Anglican and then went over directly to Lefebvre” this means that he had “never lived in the great Church” – indeed, was “never Catholic in the proper sense”. Traditionalists who admire the SSPX won’t like that choice of words at all. Nor will they appreciate the inspiration Benedict XVI clearly derives from the figure of Paul VI.
Still, at least Light of the World is untouched by the despair verging on self-pity that coloured many of Pope Paul’s later utterances. He famously watched the “smoke of Satan” drifting into the sanctuary and wondered what he’d done wrong. Benedict sees “filth” but decides to approach it as a challenge sent by God rather than as a trick of the Devil’s. Such optimism in the face of horrible crimes will offend some people; I think it’s evidence of courage and spiritual greatness.