Benedict XVI and the Absence of God

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s extraordinary letter on the sexual-abuse crisis in the Church generated expected, imprudent mixed reactions in the media and on social media. Almost immediately, some media organizations ran headlines that claimed that Benedict blamed the crisis on the 1960s and “homosexual cliques,” while Twitter was ablaze with 280-character-or-less reactions to the multifaceted, 6000-plus–word letter that could easily produce commentaries much longer than the letter itself. As usual, it was more important to be first and respond quickly than to provide accurate, fair commentary with diligent analysis.

The purpose of this commentary is two-fold. First, I will attempt to summarize some of the main points of Benedict’s letter, which shouldn’t be necessary, but is, to correct the many inaccurate headlines and summaries already online and elsewhere. Second, I will examine the important spiritual and theological aspects of his letter which are its most important elements, especially in light of the pastoral aim of the letter. Indeed, much more can and should be said about the letter beyond this short commentary.

Some preliminary observations are in order. First, Benedict’s ultimate purpose was not to diagnose the cause of the crisis; rather it was to offer “a new beginning” following the crisis.1 Second, his goal, and the goal of the “new beginning,” was to begin to restore credibility to the Church, allowing it to be a force for good in the world and to combat the “forces of destruction.” Third, the letter, in part, was intended to be a brief examination of the social context of the sexual-abuse scandal in the Church (both the abuses and the cover-ups) and not an exhaustive analysis of the causes of the crisis. Fourth, despite the many misleading headlines, Benedict placed the blame of the crisis directly on the abusers and those who covered up their crimes, even though he focused on the circumstances which impacted them. Fifth, his letter was not a repudiation or contradiction of Pope Francis even though they have addressed the crisis in different ways; Benedict offered a complementary but heavily spiritual, theological and pastoral perspective. He wrote the letter because he felt it was necessary to offer his specific insights given his leadership in the Church for so many years and during the crisis. Although Benedict did not focus on “clericalism,” he identified “powers” in the Church who failed in their duties and protected themselves and others. Sixth, in analyzing the social context, Benedict recounted some of his personal experiences of the moral decay brought on by the sexual revolution which he witnessed in Germany and in the seminaries. Commentators largely failed to acknowledge this local element in their critiques. Seventh, the letter was not Benedict’s attempt to offer a detailed prescription or policy agenda to solve the problem, but rather he intended only to offer perspectives for a proper pastoral response — and it was spiritual and theological in nature. This is ultimately the reason he published it in the Klerusblatt, a monthly periodical specifically for clergy.

While Benedict identified the moral decay of 1960s (and specifically the sexual revolution of 1968) in the West as an important part of the crisis, he clearly identified it only as the necessary context within which the problem could be understood; it was not its sole cause. In describing the effects on seminaries of the new sexually-liberated mindset of western society, Benedict mentioned the presence of homosexual cliques in the seminaries. Any fair-minded reader could not interpret this statement as blaming the entire crisis on these cliques; and he certainly did not claim that these cliques were also abusing children. Rather, the cliques were evidence he presented of the problems within the seminaries resulting from the wider effects of the revolution, and he listed them alongside other troublesome practices in some seminaries, such as the viewing of pornography and allowing seminarians preparing for a life of celibacy to dine daily with lay ministers, their wives or girlfriends, and their children.

Benedict also identified the decay of moral theology (especially in the realm of sexuality) in the Church which abandoned natural law (first in favor of an exclusively Bible-based moral theology, which was unsustainable) and became defenseless against the extreme changes of sexual attitudes of greater society. Proponents of this new moral theology, he claimed, essentially promoted a sanitized variation of “the ends justify the means” mentality and believed that there was no room for moral absolutes, only relative value judgments.

This theological decay, however, was also not the sole cause of the crisis — rather it created an environment in which seminarians were being taught that there were no more sexual norms and that no action could always be considered evil. It was a special contribution to the moral environment of society and the seminaries which, as Benedict said, made him wonder how young people could approach the priesthood and accept its calling. This environmental problem was further intensified by some bishops who rejected the premise that the Magisterium could teach infallibly on issues of morality and who also eschewed existing tradition in favor of a new, modern Catholicity with an unhealthy relationship with the world. Some of these bishops, among others, were those “powers” who joined forces to conceal the true situation of the seminaries during the Apostolic Visitations.

All of these issues contributed to the unhealthy environment in which seminarians, priests, bishops, and others chose, by their own free will, to abuse children and/or cover up the evil acts. As media commentators and others pointed out, abuse and cover-ups occurred long before and after the 1960s–1980s time period; Benedict did not dispute this, yet he argued that at no other time was such an environment operative (with its rapid change and destruction of moral judgments and normative standards in the realm of sexuality and elsewhere). The result was the creation of a troubled, morally ambiguous environment during which there occurred an exacerbation of an abuse problem which was certainly a constant human sin in the history of the Church and the world.

What, then, was the reason for the rise of this environment and what was the reason that so many people within this environment acted out so sinfully? Above all else, Benedict said, the primary cause was that which was at the root of all human sins — a turning away from God; and it was such an extreme turning away that there was a complete absence of God. He argued that a society or seminary experiencing the absence of God could only lose its orientation toward truth after its descent into the abyss of meaningless nothingness where good and evil disappeared.

It was such a simple diagnosis — the death of God. Why could other shepherds not have been so clear about the problem? Perhaps it is because many in the Church hierarchy have also fallen away from God, or at least failed in their duties to boldly proclaim and explain the existence of God and the true Gospel. Where is God in the solutions offered by the Church? Where is God in the diagnosis of the cause of the crisis? God is absent. Why?

Perhaps it’s because the world today and many in the Church want practicality, not spirituality or theology. Benedict said that priests and Christians prefer not to speak about God because it does not seem practical. His observation is extremely troubling because the existence of God is the most practical proclamation Christians can make. It informs our entire lives as Christians.

Perhaps the Church has become too focused on its earthly aspects and its practical role in the world at the expense of its mission to proclaim the existence of the Triune and Creator God and the salvation wrought by Jesus Christ, among other theological truths. Perhaps (relatedly), the problem is the over-politicization of the college of bishops and the Church? Benedict said that the Church is often thought of as a political apparatus, even unfortunately among bishops who speak about the Church in political categories and formulate their conceptions of the future Church in political terms. Of course, a Church conceived this way could only offer practical solutions grounded by worldly means. This political conception has extremely dangerous ramifications well beyond the Church’s approach to the sexual-abuse crisis. It negatively affects the life of the Church and the proclamation of the faith, turns the Church into a mere instrument of the world, and, as Benedict said, reduces Christianity to a mere theory alongside many others. In this situation, Marxism, radical individualism, and other worldly ideologies can take hold within the Church, destroying it from within.

We must reject this political conception of the Church. We must recognize and proclaim loudly and boldly that the Church is a supernatural institution filled with supernatural members, graced with the supernatural life, who have a supernatural mission. As a supernatural entity, we must offer supernatural solutions despite the world’s demand for worldly solutions. The first solution, therefore, is to restore belief in God and the true faith.

Benedict explained:

A world without God can only be a world without meaning. For where, then, does everything that is come from? In any case, it has no spiritual purpose . . . there are no standards of good or evil. Then only what is stronger than the other can assert itself. Power is then the only principle. Truth does not count, it actually does not exist.

The solution is the bold and daily proclamation of the existence of God. Beyond this “primordial need” of knowing and proclaiming that God exists, it is also necessary to proclaim a God who expresses and reveals himself, who thus determines the “form (Gestalt) of our life.” God did this in many ways, and most fully in the Incarnation, life, Passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ who revealed the truth that “God is love.”

Benedict wrote: “The sentence ‘God is’ ultimately turns into a truly joyous message, precisely because He is more than understanding, because He creates — and is — love.” Benedict then reminded us: “To once more make people aware of this is the first and fundamental task entrusted to us by the Lord.” Who is this “us”? It is all Christians, for sure, but, specifically, Benedict means the pastors of the Church who have been entrusted with proclaiming the word of God in a special way. Benedict said that the Church proclaims these truths in its theology, but in only analyzing the truth of God in this way “we run the risk of becoming masters of faith instead of being renewed and mastered by the Faith.”

What is needed is the daily proclamation of the Gospel — that God exists and that God is love. It is a pastoral-theological approach which first focuses on teaching the faithful about the nature of God rather than about practical, Christian living. What real use is there for talking about practical Christian living to a world (or Church) which either denies the reality of God or is ignorant of the nature of God and the meaning of Christ’s ultimate, salvific mission? In other words, we may reverse James 2:20 and ask — what use is good works and good living if faith is dead? In fact, if faith is dead, and God is dead, then there is no ultimate purpose for good works, and there is not even a standard measure for what can be considered “good”; the idea of the “good” itself would evaporate into relativistic meaninglessness.

The particular theological element of this pastoral-theological approach is thus constituted primarily by theo-logy, that is, a theology of God, as well as Christology and soteriology. Benedict is therefore calling more specifically for a pastoral-doctrinal-theological approach to the problem of the absence of God and its effect in the world and on the Church, including the abuse crisis; and although this solution appears to be merely a spiritual and theological approach which the world may view as limited in its effectiveness, it is actually the most practical approach for a Christian who believes in God, the effects of God’s grace, and the power of salvation.

Benedict did not explicitly state it, but he necessarily implied that a resurgence of a pastoral-theological approach — that the Church’s ministers preach the Gospel and the existence of God — must extend beyond the Church. That is, this pastoral-theological approach must also be missionary and evangelical; it must emanate from within the call for the New Evangelization. If the decay of the environment outside of the Church impacted the health of those inside of the Church, then the cure must be brought to the outside world itself. If God is alive inside of the Church but remains dead outside, then the Church’s mission not only remains unfulfilled, but the Church itself remains at great risk of further destruction.

What is the way forward — what is the new beginning following the crisis? Benedict said: “Only obedience and love for our Lord Jesus Christ can point the way.”

Benedict argued that in the Church’s previous responses, the faith itself was not considered a good to be protected. This was a major oversight which requires acknowledgement and consideration going forward. The faith itself (along with the Church as an institution) was being gravely harmed by abusers and their protectors. Benedict identified the unfortunate, illogical result of the crisis — the lack of true faith was the cause of the crisis but it was the true faith that was being attacked as a result.

At least two solutions are possible: 1) a restoration of the true faith in the Church, boldly proclaiming the existence of God and preaching the Gospel to the world; 2) ask Church critics and members of the Church thinking of leaving, and those who have already left, to consider the true, supernatural nature of the faith and the Church alongside its sinful members and ministers. This second solution is better stated as the great twentieth-century Catholic apologist Frank Sheed similarly suggested: Judge the faith and the Church by its greatest saints, not by its worst sinners — because the saints are the ones who actually lived up to the calling of Jesus and practiced the true faith of the Church.2

Anyone familiar with Benedict’s many theological works will easily recognize the beauty and clarity of thought in his letter. It is easy to criticize Benedict for what he did not say rather than for what he did say, but the purpose of his letter is the measure by which it should be judged. In that respect, his letter is a great gift to the Church.

  1. All quotations from Benedict’s letter “The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse” are taken from the English translation (by Anian Christoph Wimmer) on the Catholic News Agency website. See “Full text of Benedict XVI essay: ‘The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse,’” Catholic News Agency (April 10, 2019), available at catholicnewsagency.com/news/full-text-of-benedict-xvi-the-church-and-the-scandal-of-sexual-abuse-59639.
  2. Frank Sheed, The Church and I (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1974), 339–40.
Joel R. Gallagher About Joel R. Gallagher

Joel R. Gallagher is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He taught courses at the Catholic University of America and Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore, MD. He is currently working on a series of articles on the mysteries of the life of Christ according to the theology of Thomas Aquinas. His most recent articles are “The Gethsemane Event According to Thomas Aquinas” (Angelicum) and “Christus Victor Motifs and Christ’s Temptations in the Soteriology of Thomas Aquinas” (New Blackfriars). He is married and has two daughters.

Comments

  1. Avatar Virgil Evans says:

    What an absolutely marvelous piece. It called my cynicism into serious question.

  2. Avatar Bernadette. Fakoory says:

    I believe Pope BenedictXV1, when he retired from the role of papacy and withdrew into silence of prayer for the Church, was in Entering the role of Jesus praying in anguish to his Father in the garden of Gethsemane. Out of the deep anguish, sadness, darkness and chaos in which the Church found itself at that point in salvation history was at the same time that Hope in the election of Pope Francis transpired.

    Pope Francis began instantly to make easily accessible the faith of the Church in lay man’s terms . I know a lot of his critics believed he caused a lot of confusion in trying to make a midway path between the progressive left and conservative right movement on both the spiritual and political socio cultural levels. We note this in a His written work on Amoris Laetitia ,The joy of love. I believe this work was misunderstood .I do not believe he meant for anyone to be divorce and remarry and receive communion as if this was not a big deal in the eyes of God.

    In conclusion, I believe Pope Francis is doing what The second Vatican Council had initially set out to do and that is he is bringing faith in Christ alive and teaching the doctrine of the Church existential by living example faith in right action . Pope Francis is making faith more easily accessible to the laity and for that matter the priesthood.

    Pope Francis inherited a Church in crisis. He is the only pope to stand up and deal outrightly with sexual abuse. It is not right for the 19 theologians to accuse him of heresy. RememberOur lady of Fatima did say that the pope will be persecuted and have to go in exile. We need to be vigilant here and to pray for Pope Francis for he needs our prayers and support.

    Thank you
    Bernadette

    I believe he is the shepherd who Malachi spoke about.

  3. Avatar Margaret taylor says:

    I have a real problem with all this criticism in the Church. I am glad this was posted to read instead of just going by opinions of others. I have no problem with Pope Francis. When he came to America and I watched every day on TV, he reminded me in his dealings with people, more of how I thought Jesus was on earth….his love for everybody is evident. And all the critics who decry this or that…..how do they really know? I am soon to be 80 and they have been changing the way we do things in the church for years. How about “meat on Friday a sin”…I am worried about those who surround Pope Benedict. If people try to take over and change things, and it happens, it will never stop. It never does.