While it may be many years before we learn what seeds were successfully sown during last year’s papal visit, such that the jury is out on whether or not it should be considered a success, there were few who attended 2012’s International Eucharistic Congress who do not think it a triumph, a real forward-looking sign of hope for the Church in Ireland.
If there was a sour point in it for many, however, it will have been in Pope Benedict XVI’s message to the congress, in particular when, after outlining some of the glories of the Irish Church, he turned to the subject of clerical sexual abuse.
“Thankfulness and joy at such a great history of Faith and love have recently been shaken in an appalling way by the revelation of sins committed by priests and consecrated persons against people entrusted to their care,” he said in a speech that can be read in full at w2.vatican.va.
“Instead of showing them the path towards Christ, towards God, instead of bearing witness to his goodness, they abused people and undermined the credibility of the Church’s message. How are we to explain the fact that people who regularly received the Lord’s body and confessed their sins in the sacrament of Penance have offended in this way?”
“It remains a mystery,” he said, shocking those who thought he might have some explanation to offer. He went on, however, to make a vitally important observation.
“Yet evidently, their Christianity was no longer nourished by joyful encounter with Jesus Christ: it had become merely a matter of habit. The work of the Council was really meant to overcome this form of Christianity and to rediscover the faith as a deep personal friendship with the goodness of Jesus Christ,” he said.
Over six years have passed since the then Pope said this, but this week it became supremely clear that he has not simply shrugged this conundrum off as a mystery that cannot be explained. Wednesday saw three different outlets publishing an essay on this subject by the Pope Emeritus apparently written for a Bavarian publication, as “previously unpublished” (catholicnewsagency.com), a “global exclusive” (nypost.com), and “special to the Register” (ncregister.com).
How the three outlets acquired this essay ahead of, say, official Vatican media is a puzzle in its own right, of course, and a somewhat troubling one given how it’s given further fodder to those who would foster divisions by making out as though there is a kind of cold war between Benedict and the Pope.
That’s for another day, however; what’s important here is how Benedict delves into questions of how traditional sexual morality was destabilised in the 20th Century, how this effected the formation and lives of priests, and how the Church might respond.
Crucially, he’s not trying to do everything here – that would be an impossible task, given that he was writing a 6,000-word essay, not a book. Instead he’s grappling with an under-examined question, strikingly at odds with lazy questions of what it is in Catholicism or clerical life that encourages abuse; anybody with any familiarity of broader statistics knows that priests don’t abuse more than others, and that Catholic societies are no more prone to abuse than others.
Instead he’s homing in on the question of why Catholicism didn’t prevent abuse. Why did priests who presumably had objectively rich sacramental lives do monstrously wicked things? Why did bishops and others tasked with overseeing such priests endanger the innocent by not preventing such priests from harming children? How could anybody who purports to be Catholic have committed and facilitated such crimes?
The essay deserves reading and reflecting on in full, and in connection with it, it’s worth reading the revdbh.blogspot.ie post entitled ‘Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI weighs in on abuse crisis’, Carl Olson’s editorial ‘Benedict XVI’s essay is both insightful and incomplete’ at catholicworldreport.com, and Austen Ivereigh’s americamagazine.org piece on how ‘Pope Benedict’s letter on sex abuse is not an attack on Francis (or Vatican II)‘.