April 26, 2019


To address abuse crisis, God must return to center of our lives

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI recently published an essay, written with the blessing of Pope Francis, on the clergy sexual abuse crisis. The occasion for this essay was the meeting convened by Pope Francis for the presidents of bishops’ conferences throughout the world and held at the Vatican on Feb. 21-24.

The former pope’s reflections are personal, but they draw on his long career as a theologian, a bishop, a curial official and the successor of St. Peter. As was often true in the past, his current insights and analyses are controversial. Some commentators say—incorrectly—that the former pope contradicts his successor, Pope Francis. Others say that he boldly says what others know to be true, but are too timid to speak openly about because of the inevitable backlash from those who have a vested interest in the status quo.

At the heart of the controversy is the debate about what caused the sexual abuse crisis. While the various arguments are complex and wide ranging, the social media caricature comes down to this: clericalism vs. homosexuality. In summary, those who blame the crisis on clericalism say that long-standing Church structures and patterns of behavior allowed bishops to “protect” priests and bishops accused of sexual crimes over their victims. Hence the widespread practices of reassignment and cover-up.

On the other hand, those who blame homosexuality say that a total breakdown in traditional sexual morality, which exploded in the 1960s, allowed or encouraged the development of homosexual cliques in seminaries, in religious communities and among groups of clergy—including some bishops. The resulting cover-up was an attempt to deny, or at least downplay, the existence of homosexual activity in the clergy.

A careful reading of Pope Benedict’s essay shows that he has given this issue much thought. He also reveals that he feels some personal responsibility for the Church’s missteps in dealing with the crisis in all its wide-ranging dimensions.

On first reading, the former pope appears to be on the side of those who blame homosexuality for the sexual abuse crisis because he clearly identifies the so-called sexual revolution and the breakdown of traditional morality as root causes. But Pope Benedict is not a rigid ideologue. He sees things in their fuller perspective, and he digs deeply into their root causes.

The real crisis identified by the former pope is a crisis of faith, a denial of the existence of God, and a loss of confidence in God’s presence in the Church and the world. Simply stated, once God is no longer seen as the meaning of human life and social identity, none of the rules apply. Without God, Church structures become excessively clerical (the only way to preserve the status quo) and sexual morality becomes relative, allowing anything desired by consenting adults to happen without censure.

This fundamental cause—the breakdown of our consciousness of God as the center of human existence—leads both to clericalism and to a radical devaluation of the meaning and purpose of human sexuality. Because bishops and priests are human, they are heavily influenced by the cultural forces that surround them 24/7. They are also not immune from the devil’s unremitting suggestion that we humans are free to make our own rules and do as we please. With God no longer in the picture—practically speaking—there is nothing to prevent us from ignoring God’s will and substituting our own.

“What must be done?” the former pope asks. “Perhaps we should create another Church for things to work out? Well, that experiment has already been undertaken and has already failed. Only obedience and love for our Lord Jesus Christ can point the way. So let us first try to understand anew and from within [ourselves] what the Lord wants, and has wanted with us.”

In other words, the only possible solution to our current crisis of faith is to return God to his rightful place at the center of lives. Then we must ask with humility and genuine openness, “Lord, what do you want us to do?”

Surely, the Lord wants us to root out all abuses of power in the Church (and in society) and to be a more open, engaged and collegial community of faith. And, as an integral part of this cleansing and healing, we can be certain that God wants us to act maturely and responsibly in all areas of life, but particularly in the realm of human sexuality where we are called to nurture and protect the beauty and productivity of God’s creative love with special care and responsibility.

Pope Benedict XVI concludes his essay with an expression of his gratitude to Pope Francis “for everything he does to show us, again and again, the light of God, which has not disappeared, even today.”

Let’s follow the example given us by our current pope and his revered predecessor. Let’s make God the center of our lives and the purpose for all our actions as a Church and as a society.

—Daniel Conway

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