The Ratzinger Diagnosis

George Weigel

Published a week short of his 92nd birthday, Joseph Ratzinger’s essay on the epidemiology of the clergy sex-abuse crisis vividly illustrated his still-unparalleled capacity to incinerate the brain-circuits of various Catholic progressives. The origins of the text written by the Pope Emeritus remain unclear: Did he initially write it to assist the bishops who met in Rome this past February to address the abuse crisis? But whatever its history, the Ratzingerian diagnosis is well worth considering.

In Benedict XVI’s view, the Catholic crisis of clerical sexual abuse was, in the main, an ecclesiastical by-product of the “sexual revolution:” a tsunami of cultural deconstruction that hit the Church in a moment of doctrinal and moral confusion, lax clerical discipline, poor seminary formation, and weak episcopal oversight, all of which combined to produce many of the scandals with which we’re painfully familiar today.

This diagnosis does not explain everything about the abuse crisis, of course. It does not explain psychopaths like Marcial Maciel and Theodore McCarrick. It does not explain the abusive behavior by clergy and religious in pre-conciliar Ireland and Quebec. It does not explain the challenges the Church faces from clerical concubinage (and worse) in Africa today. But Ratzinger’s epidemiology does address, pointedly, the sharp spike in clerical sexual abuse that began in the late 1960s and peaked in the 1980s, before the reforms of the priesthood and seminaries initiated by Pope John Paul II began to take hold.

As it happens, I have been making virtually the same argument since the publication of The Courage To Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church in 2002. There, I suggested that the clerical self-deception and duplicity that accompanied widespread dissent from Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on family planning, Humanae Vitae, created an environment in which abusive sexual behavior intensified. Men who persuaded themselves that they need not believe or teach what the Church professed to be true (especially about the ethics of human love) were especially vulnerable to the tidal wave of the sexual revolution; and in short order intellectual duplicity led to behavioral duplicity — and abuse. That seminaries were in intellectual and disciplinary meltdown in this same period compounded the crisis. So did Rome’s failure to promote ecclesiastical discipline in the face of blatant dissent.

It was, in brief, a perfect storm, one in which the dark forces that are always trying to destroy the Church and impede its evangelical mission could wreak terrible damage.

For this analysis, I was duly bludgeoned by a portside Catholic commentariat that seemed locked into denial in 2002. Judging from the immediate, volatile, and sometime vicious responses to Ratzinger’s memorandum from the same quarters two weeks ago, too many on the Catholic Left remain in denial about the link between doctrinal and moral dissent and clerical wickedness. Thus, the Pope Emeritus was deemed senile by some, imprudent by others, and disloyal to his successor by the critics. One of these frothing pundits (many of whom are progressive ultramontanists for whom Pope Francis’s infallibility is virtually boundless) even went so far as to charge Benedict with being, in effect, a schismatic.

But did any of these critics engage Ratzinger’s argument? No. Did any of the critics offer a different, more plausible explanation for the spike in clerical sexual abuse that followed the penetration of the Church by the sexual revolution, the Humanae Vitae controversy, the breakdown of discipline in seminary formation, and the evolution of moral theologies that deconstructed the notion that some acts are always and everywhere wrong? No. As in 2002, there was lots of vitriol; but no serious alternative diagnosis was offered.

And as I’ve noted before, “clericalism” is not a serious explanation for the sin and crime of clerical sexual abuse. Clericalism facilitates abuse, in that abusers prey on those who rightly hold the priesthood in esteem. But “clericalism” does not explain sexual predation, which has other, deeper causes and is in fact a global plague.

The Pope Emeritus did the Church a service by offering a diagnosis of the abuse crisis that should be taken seriously by anyone serious about healing the wounds inflicted on the Body of Christ by the abuse of Holy Orders for wicked, self-indulgent purposes. Those who cannot or will not discuss the Ratzinger diagnosis with the seriousness it deserves thereby brand themselves as unserious about resolving the abuse crisis.

Featured image: © L’Osservatore Romano

COMING UP: The Easter Effect today

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Some two millennia ago, a ragtag bunch of nobodies learned what their tortured and executed friend, the rabbi Jesus from Nazareth, meant by “rising from the dead” (Mark 9:9-10) — because they met him again, the same but utterly transformed, as the Risen Lord. The Easter Effect upturned all they had once thought about time, history, and God’s promises to Israel; it also transformed these nobodies into extraordinary evangelists, for the missionary project they launched converted perhaps as much as half the Mediterranean world over the next two and a half centuries.

That Easter Effect is worth keeping in mind in this season of Catholic discontent. Even amidst anger and embarrassment, Christians can do the work of evangelization because the first Easter told us that, for the truly converted disciple who has met the risen Lord, despair never gets the final word: God will vindicate his plan for the salvation of the world. And if we momentarily filter out media bias, political posturing, and social media vitriol, Catholics can see the Easter Effect at work in the Church in 2019.

The best sign of Catholic vitality will be found at the Easter Vigil on April 20 when tens of thousands of adults, fully aware of the current crisis, will be baptized or will enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. Their primary act of faith is in the Risen Lord. By accepting baptism or reception into the Catholic Church today, however, these men and women are also making an act of faith in the Church and its capacity for reform. Let the desperate among us take heart and courage from that.

There are also great conversion stories being written today. If you’re feeling glum about the Catholic future, try Sohrab Ahmari’s memoir, From Fire By Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith (Ignatius Press). My friend Sohrab, one of the brightest young lights in the contemporary commentariat, has already lived a few lifetimes, six years short of his 40th birthday: ex-pat Iranian atheist becomes Marxist (of sorts) in Utah (I’m not making this up) before discovering the beauty of the Mass and the intellectual magnetism of all-in Catholicism. His story, told with verve and good humor, ought to make anyone despondent about the current Catholic situation think again.

This Easter, there is also good news at the contentious crossroads where Catholic truth meets the ever-more-aggressive sexual revolution: St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, Christianity’s most compelling response to that cultural and social upheaval, is now being “translated” into educational tools for elementary and secondary schools. Check out the materials being produced by Ruah Woods Press in Cincinnati (www.ruahwoodspress.com) and the Theology of the Body Evangelization Team (http://tobet.org). Then suggest that your local Catholic school or parish religious education program adopt them.

Catholics stuck in the slough of despond might also visit one of America’s many reformed seminaries, or the novitiate of one of its growing religious orders (the Dominican Sisters of Nashville; the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan; the Sisters of Life in New York). There, you’ll find deep Eucharistic and Marian piety, serious grappling with the fullness of Catholic truth, and an apostolic determination to be Christ’s healing presence in a society where addiction and suicide rates are rising ominously.

Catholic intellectual life is flourishing — if not always on big-brand-name Catholic campuses — thanks to initiatives like the Thomistic Institute, sponsored by Washington’s Dominican House of Studies. Over the past five years, the Institute’s strategy of bringing top-notch, vibrantly orthodox Catholic scholarship to high-leverage campuses has met an enthusiastic response, demonstrating that, while Catholic Lite is dying, the symphony of Catholic truth speaks powerfully to today’s cultural confusions. This month alone, the Institute is sponsoring events at Carnegie Mellon, UC-Berkeley, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Hillsdale, Kansas, George Mason, Ole Miss, New York University, Ohio State, Princeton, South Carolina, SMU, Stanford, Tulane, UCLA, West Point, and Yale.

And then there are our reformist bishops. Let me invite those who groan at the very thought of a bishop to spend four minutes with the Bishop of Spokane, Thomas Daly (https://vimeo.com/286946305). Here is the Easter Effect manifest in bracing honesty, clear analysis, pastoral concern, and zero clericalism.

These signs of renewal and reform are as much a part of today’s Catholic story as the things that make us angry, or disgusted, or desperate. Think on them this Easter with gratitude and hope.