As a last nod to Pope Benedict XVI’s posthumous collection of essays and addresses, What Is Christianity?, I believe I should take a closer look at the famous intervention he wrote for the meeting of episcopal conference heads called by Pope Francis in 2019 to consider the sexual abuse crisis. Pope Francis, however, had no interest in introducing a comprehensive analysis by Pope Emeritus Benedict, and so the analysis was first published after the meeting, in April.
Though I read about Benedict’s intervention at that time, I did not actually study the text until it appeared in this final book. Everyone is aware, I think, of the collapse of sexual morality not only in Western society but in the Church herself in the second half of the twentieth century. This was primarily a matter of the universities reflecting the new moral attitudes of an elite culture and, especially in Catholic universities, the deliberate opposition to both the natural law and prior Catholic moral teaching on the part of the moral theologians. It became widely taught that there were no particular actions which can be considered always and everywhere immoral and, to tell the full truth, a great many Catholic intellectuals—along with their more mainstream counterparts—began very rapidly to justify not only the sins that the secular culture now approved, but their own personal sins which had heretofore been more carefully hidden.
Thus the Church’s judgment that contraception was sinful was the first principle to fall, and after that (though many people still fail to get the connection) every form of sterile sexual pleasure was rapidly justified. The key to moral sexual pleasure became the disposition of “love”, which is perhaps the oldest deceit in the book: “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:4-5). Most established Catholic moral theologians in the West, it seemed, very much wanted to be like God. Beginning in the late 1960s, even pedophilia was defended as a form of genuine love, rather than a psychologically deformed and abusive sexual desire.
Benedict points out that during this period the ability to discern moral principles in either the natural law or Divine Revelation (or both) was called into question, and an academic preference grew for redescribing morality exclusively in terms of the purposes of human action. Thus, it became widely believed that no particular acts could in themselves be classified as good or evil, but that their goodness depended ultimately on the purposes of the actor. Nothing could be so calculated to turn morality into the bastard child of rationalization.
A cultural shift
Of course we see this kind of thing again and again in the course of human history, in that morality is constantly redefined in terms of (let us be frank) the current preferences of those who are influential in the world. This has always been a common human response to power, and its justification has always been a common habit of clergy and professors who wish to be acceptable to the dominant culture.
It is not necessary to look for a particularly unusual evil in all this, as if it were something entirely new in the history of the twentieth century. But I have often described the twentieth-century development as a result of the progressive decline of well-grounded Christian faith over the past few centuries, such that by the post-war years in the 1950s, people who were tired of the privations of depression and war, and were seeking an easier and more liberating life, actually no longer really understood the reasons for the old sexual moral conventions. In the rush to have their children well and cheaply educated, they happily presided over the wholesale destruction of their children’s moral formation in public schools and universities. In a very short time, then, the empty shell of traditional sexual morality was summarily swept aside out of share willfulness and rationalization.
In fact, our culture’s whole way of framing moral questions has changed from an objective to a subjective mode. In anything having to do with human sexuality, moral principles are quite simply forged out of wayward desire. There is no longer any broad cultural attempt to ground morality in anything more fundamental or more stable than that. Such a process is always chaotic and very selective, of course, for no society can lose its grip entirely on natural moral principles. Cherished weaknesses that must be regarded now as strengths shift in any culture within a certain “acceptable range”, and among the most vulnerable moral ranges are those that are considered private or personal—in other words, those that have to do not with deliberate lies, or theft or murder, but with sexual identity, sexual pleasure, and self-deception.
Now Benedict points out that this cultural quest for what we might call the psychological principles of a universal morality—that is, the grounding of morality purely in human intentions—was doomed to failure. He argues that despite the foundations of morality found in the natural law, this does not mean (as so many were trying to argue) that a common morality must be reduced to the core principles that are truly recognized in all human cultures and religions (which eliminates almost everything). Rather, it was more important to recognize the uniqueness of what we call Biblical morality—the uniqueness of a moral sense specifically rooted not in our self-justifying purposes but in God’s revealed purposes.
The remedy for these ills within the Church, therefore, is precisely the reaffirmation of the essentially distinctive character of Christian life.
Within the Church
In this connection, Benedict makes an important point which I will quote in full:
Given the extent of the crimes of pedophilia, a saying of Jesus comes to mind: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mk 9:42). However, in its original sense, this saying does not refer to the corruption of children for sexual purposes. Instead, the phrase “little ones”, in Jesus’ language, means simple believers who might be shaken in their faith by the intellectual pride of those who consider themselves intelligent. Here, then, Jesus is protecting the good of the faith with an emphatic threat of punishment for those who do it harm. [What Is Christianity, 186]
Benedict introduces this point with particular reference to not only the need to protect the rights of the accused in a legal process and to care for those who have been abused, but also the absolute need to protect the faith of the Christian community. We are speaking here of the damage caused by scandal, which causes other souls to abandon their confidence in God and the Church, and perhaps in morality itself. He goes on to discuss the need for the Church to concern herself with both the victims of sexual abuse and the faith and trust of the Catholic people as a whole. This is a demand that goes well beyond the defense of the Church’s institutional stability. It demands an outcome which Benedict himself found expressed in the words of Romano Guardini, who nearly a hundred years ago had expressed the hope that “an event of inestimable importance had begun; the Church is awakening in souls.”
Benedict admits that he was tempted to turn this sentence upside down: “The Church is dying in souls”, for the Church and the Faith are increasingly presented in political categories, and may eventually be experienced almost exclusively in political forms. In the United States, for example, we may ask what messages we hear most frequently from the Conference of Catholic Bishops, and whether even these messages are not framed very frequently in political terms, in terms of civil rights and votes and campaigns.
In conclusion, Benedict reminds us that Our Lord compared the Church to a fishing net in which there are good and bad fish, and to a field in which good seed competes with seeds sown by an enemy. And so Benedict insists that the Church cannot awaken in souls again unless we focus not just on the good OR the bad, but on both the good AND the bad—and on the sharp contrast between the two:
In every age, there are and there will be not only the weeds and the bad fish, but also God’s sowing and the good fish. Forcefully proclaiming both proportionately is not false apologetics, but a necessary service to the truth. (194)
How many, Benedict urges us to ask, speak weakly about what is good in the Church precisely because they refuse to speak frankly about what is bad? Or perhaps they speak only weakly about what is bad in the Church precisely because they refuse to speak clearly about what is good. Benedict leaves us with this thought: Speaking and teaching clearly about both what is right and what is wrong is essential to the good of souls, and so to the good of the Church.
Dare we hope with Guardini and Benedict that the Church might once again “awaken in souls”?
For the details on Benedict’s last book, see my brief review in True Renewal: Why is it so hard to grasp?
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