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BXVI’s Benedict Option

Pope Emeritus says building 'habitats of faith' is an 'essential task of evangelization'
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National Catholic Register has just published an extraordinary reflection by Pope (Emeritus) Benedict XVI, on the abuse scandal and its roots. First, though, let me share with you this passage:

Faith is a journey and a way of life. In the old Church, the catechumenate was created as a habitat against an increasingly demoralized culture, in which the distinctive and fresh aspects of the Christian way of life were practiced and at the same time protected from the common way of life. I think that even today something like catechumenal communities are necessary so that Christian life can assert itself in its own way.

That puts the praise that his personal secretary, Archbishop Gänswein, had last year for The Benedict Option in a certain light! So I’m excited to see this paragraph from BXVI’s own hand. Sue me.

But that’s only a single paragraph from the long new reflection by the Pope Emeritus, a reflection that is dark and at times unsparing. Here the former pope begins by talking about the culture that formed a generation of priests:

The matter begins with the state-prescribed and supported introduction of children and youths into the nature of sexuality. In Germany, the then-Minister of Health, Ms. [Käte] Strobel, had a film made in which everything that had previously not been allowed to be shown publicly, including sexual intercourse, was now shown for the purpose of education. What at first was only intended for the sexual education of young people consequently was widely accepted as a feasible option.

Similar effects were achieved by the “Sexkoffer” published by the Austrian government [A controversial ‘suitcase’ of sex education materials used in Austrian schools in the late 1980s]. Sexual and pornographic movies then became a common occurrence, to the point that they were screened at newsreel theaters [Bahnhofskinos]. I still remember seeing, as I was walking through the city of Regensburg one day, crowds of people lining up in front of a large cinema, something we had previously only seen in times of war, when some special allocation was to be hoped for. I also remember arriving in the city on Good Friday in the year 1970 and seeing all the billboards plastered up with a large poster of two completely naked people in a close embrace.

Among the freedoms that the Revolution of 1968 sought to fight for was this all-out sexual freedom, one which no longer conceded any norms.

The mental collapse was also linked to a propensity for violence. That is why sex films were no longer allowed on airplanes because violence would break out among the small community of passengers. And since the clothing of that time equally provoked aggression, school principals also made attempts at introducing school uniforms with a view to facilitating a climate of learning.

Part of the physiognomy of the Revolution of ’68 was that pedophilia was then also diagnosed as allowed and appropriate.

For the young people in the Church, but not only for them, this was in many ways a very difficult time. I have always wondered how young people in this situation could approach the priesthood and accept it, with all its ramifications. The extensive collapse of the next generation of priests in those years and the very high number of laicizations were a consequence of all these developments.

BXVI goes on to talk about the internal collapse within the Church. Read this passage, especially the final paragraph:

I shall never forget how then-leading German moral theologian Franz Böckle, who, having returned to his native Switzerland after his retirement, announced in view of the possible decisions of the encyclical “Veritatis splendor” that if the encyclical should determine that there were actions which were always and under all circumstances to be classified as evil, he would challenge it with all the resources at his disposal.

It was God, the Merciful, that spared him from having to put his resolution into practice; Böckle died on July 8, 1991. The encyclical was published on August 6, 1993 and did indeed include the determination that there were actions that can never become good.

The pope was fully aware of the importance of this decision at that moment and for this part of his text, he had once again consulted leading specialists who did not take part in the editing of the encyclical. He knew that he must leave no doubt about the fact that the moral calculus involved in balancing goods must respect a final limit. There are goods that are never subject to trade-offs.

There are values which must never be abandoned for a greater value and even surpass the preservation of physical life. There is martyrdom. God is [about] more than mere physical survival. A life that would be bought by the denial of God, a life that is based on a final lie, is a non-life.

Martyrdom is a basic category of Christian existence. The fact that martyrdom is no longer morally necessary in the theory advocated by Böckle and many others shows that the very essence of Christianity is at stake here.

More, about the sources of the abuse scandal:

In various seminaries homosexual cliques were established, which acted more or less openly and significantly changed the climate in the seminaries. In one seminary in southern Germany, candidates for the priesthood and candidates for the lay ministry of the pastoral specialist [Pastoralreferent] lived together. At the common meals, seminarians and pastoral specialists ate together, the married among the laymen sometimes accompanied by their wives and children, and on occasion by their girlfriends. The climate in this seminary could not provide support for preparation to the priestly vocation. The Holy See knew of such problems, without being informed precisely. As a first step, an Apostolic Visitation was arranged of seminaries in the United States.

… There were — not only in the United States of America — individual bishops who rejected the Catholic tradition as a whole and sought to bring about a kind of new, modern “Catholicity” in their dioceses. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that in not a few seminaries, students caught reading my books were considered unsuitable for the priesthood. My books were hidden away, like bad literature, and only read under the desk. [Emphasis mine — RD]

The [1980s] Visitation that now took place brought no new insights, apparently because various powers had joined forces to conceal the true situation. A second Visitation [2005] was ordered and brought considerably more insights, but on the whole failed to achieve any outcomes. Nonetheless, since the 1970s the situation in seminaries has generally improved. And yet, only isolated cases of a new strengthening of priestly vocations came about as the overall situation had taken a different turn.

Imagine the pain of Ratzinger, in the lines I bolded above, knowing that this was how many of the Church’s seminaries considered his writing. And, do not fail to recognize the bluntness with which he states that the two apostolic visitations failed.

This is the darkest passage:

And finally, there is the Mystery of the Church. The sentence with which Romano Guardini, almost 100 years ago, expressed the joyful hope that was instilled in him and many others, remains unforgotten: “An event of incalculable importance has begun; the Church is awakening in souls.”

He meant to say that no longer was the Church experienced and perceived as merely an external system entering our lives, as a kind of authority, but rather it began to be perceived as being present within people’s hearts — as something not merely external, but internally moving us. About half a century later, in reconsidering this process and looking at what had been happening, I felt tempted to reverse the sentence: “The Church is dying in souls.”

But he ends with hope:

Today’s Church is more than ever a “Church of the Martyrs” and thus a witness to the living God. If we look around and listen with an attentive heart, we can find witnesses everywhere today, especially among ordinary people, but also in the high ranks of the Church, who stand up for God with their life and suffering. It is an inertia of the heart that leads us to not wish to recognize them. One of the great and essential tasks of our evangelization is, as far as we can, to establish habitats of Faith and, above all, to find and recognize them. [Emphasis mine — RD]

I live in a house, in a small community of people who discover such witnesses of the living God again and again in everyday life and who joyfully point this out to me as well. To see and find the living Church is a wonderful task which strengthens us and makes us joyful in our Faith time and again.

Read it all.

When people mischaracterize the Benedict Option as nothing but a running-away from the world, I’ll refer them to the line of BXVI’s that I bolded just above. Establishing “habitats of faith” is “one of the great and essential tasks of our evangelization.” Do you see? Building Benedict Option communities is ESSENTIAL to evangelizing! So says Benedict XVI, who lives in one of these communities himself. Let’s build them, find them, and hold them up for people to see.

UPDATE: I would have liked to have seen some admission of his own role in the catastrophe, such as, “When I was pope, I should have fired some people.”

UPDATE.2: Rusty Reno makes some very useful comments about the BXVI text.  His summary take on BXVI’s assessment:

The overall impression: Overwhelmed by the Revolution of ’68, riddled with dissent, and structured by institutional and canonical assumptions ill-suited to present realities, the Catholic Church has become an ungovernable mess.

Reno helpfully points out that it’s not just the Sexual Revolution that made 1968 so devastating for the Church. It’s that the larger lesson of that period was that it was one of overwhelming release from old strictures and prohibitions. Reading Reno’s column, I thought of Philip Rieff’s Triumph Of The Therapeutic, which was published in 1966, and which explained that Western civilization had been building up to this for a long time. Sexuality was the tip of the spear, of course, but the movement was general throughout our civilization, and affected things that had nothing to do with sex.

Please, readers who have your backs up at Benedict for seeming to blame the ’60s for the abuse crisis, take Rieff (and Reno) seriously here. The sexual permissiveness unleashed by the era was part of a far more general renunciation of limits, and embrace of release. It was a tsunami that washed over our entire civilization.

Reno also says that the Catholic Church was not a passive victim of the times, but participated in the collapse affirmatively:

Benedict sees the influence the Revolution of ’68 exercised over the Church. As one of the last survivors of the heroic generation, the men who in the mid-twentieth century reshaped the Church with bold new intellectual projects, culminating in the Second Vatican Council, I wish he would reflect on the ways in which the lines of influence went the other way as well. There can be little doubt that Vatican II functioned as a triggering mechanism during the explosive 1960s. It signaled to the West that the epitome of unchanging truth was reconsidering, rethinking, reframing—in a word, revising.

All of this revising was said to re-express the same, unchanging truths. They were simply being restated with an eye toward greater openness. But of course “openness,” while not a synonym for release, is a close cousin. If the Pope Emeritus wishes to give an adequate account of the historical context for the failure of moral discipline among the clergy, he needs to reckon with the Church’s profound role in the Revolution of ’68, not just her fate in its aftermath.

Read the whole thing.

UPDATE.3: Leon Podles is one of the most insightful and uncompromising commenters on the abuse scandal. He is a theological conservative, but pulls no punches in criticizing his own tribe (orthodox Catholics) for their failures on dealing with the scandal. In his must-read commentary on BXVI’s letter, Podles says that Benedict is spot on in identifying  and condemning a clericalist structure within the Catholic institution that privileged the rights of clerics over truth and justice. He also says that Benedict is correct to cite the collapse of doctrinal orthodoxy, and a general loss of a living faith, as a contributing factor to the “anything goes” postconciliar atmosphere in the Catholic Church.


But there are two omissions in Benedict’s catalog, one he will never address and one he may or may not have considered, because it concerns a deeper problem.

Firstly: Pope John Paul II refused to deal with sexual abuse beyond a few anodyne remarks. John Paul protected abusers like Maciel and refused to listen to pleas, including from Cardinal Schoenborn, to act. Why?

Secondly: Sexual abuse did not begin in the sixties. The Holy Office had extensive files from the Counter-Reformation on solicitation in the confessional. St. John Calasanctius founded the Piarists and covered up a bad case of abuse in one of his schools to avoid alienating the Cherubini family which was influential at the Vatican. When the Jesuit archives were uncovered after the French revolution there were many cases of abuse in them.

Read it all.  Podles says that male pederasty — not strictly the same thing as pedophilia — is something that recurs in all cultures, and must be strongly resisted. Podles does not believe that Francis is serious about rooting it out within the Church.