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Column: Pope Benedict’s distressing, revealing letter

  • FILE - This Oct. 19, 2014 file photo shows Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI arrives in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican to attend the beatification ceremony of Pope Paul VI, and a mass for the closing of of a two-week synod on family issues, celebrated by Pope Francis. A German newspaper that quoted letters by Benedict XVI hitting back at criticism of his 2013 resignation says he was responding to a conservative German cardinal who took issue with his decision to take the title "emeritus pope." (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)



For The Washington Post
Sunday, April 14, 2019

There was consternation among Vatican-watchers in 2013 when Pope Benedict XVI became the first pontiff in centuries to resign the papacy rather than die on the job. Would it not be confusing to have two men residing in Roman palaces to whom the Holy Spirit had entrusted the “claves regni caelorum” — the very keys to heaven?

Now that Benedict, born Joseph Ratzinger, has broken his six-year official silence to quibble with his successor on the topic of sex abuse in the church, confusion is no longer a hypothesis. It’s murky indeed when Pope A offers veiled criticism of Pope B in the pages of a Bavarian periodical. As anyone knows who has co-parented children, authority figures who are not on the same page will be played against one another. So it is with Roman Catholic leaders today: Conservatives who don’t like the tendencies of Pope Francis are looking to their preferred pope for the doctrinal equivalent of ice cream and a later bedtime.

But, in another respect, Benedict’s strange, self-justifying public letter is clarifying. It shows, not always intentionally, how the Catholic Church went so terribly off-course, and why this important institution is having so much trouble finding its way. When a hierarchy makes itself accountable only to God, but at the same time grants itself sole power to speak on behalf of the Almighty, and then cloisters itself amid opulence and toadies, the result is a monstrous indifference.

Benedict grades his own tests. So, of course, he passes with flying colors.

According to his letter, church leadership — in which he has played an enormous role for more than four decades — is essentially blameless in the crisis. Priests raped children and bishops covered it up — because the rest of us in society forced them into it through our godless depravity.

Everything was wonderful until the 1960s, when the Devil induced secularists to question “the moral teaching authority of the Church.” With that as the problem, the answer is clear: Until the world resumes unquestioning obedience, there’s not much even a pope can do.

This potted history doesn’t match facts. Investigators around the world have documented abuses and cover-ups that occurred long before the ’60s. But it does fit perfectly into the career of Ratzinger. In his account, blame shifts away from church leaders during the very same years when he was rising rapidly through the ranks. By 1981, as right-hand man to Pope John Paul II (“God’s Rottweiler,” as the German cardinal came to be nicknamed), Ratzinger presided over the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. In this role, he was given responsibility for the problem of child-abusing priests. But what could he do? “All of this actually went beyond the capacities of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” he reflects. Now he tells us.

Those who haven’t lived like pampered royalty for decades, flattered by ambitious priests and served by devout housekeepers, won’t recognize the world as Benedict paints it. For example: Do you remember when “sex films were no longer allowed on airplanes because violence would break out”? Do you recall when “pedophilia was ... diagnosed as allowed and appropriate”?

Portraying the world as a seething hellscape, a place where child abuse is encouraged and travelers riot midflight over their pornography (not to mention a place where “students caught reading my books were considered unsuitable for the priesthood”), is a trick for cult leaders. Such lurid distortions and personal grudge-mongering are unworthy of a church that seeks to renew its vast but battered influence.

Let’s be clear: It wasn’t society or modernity or liberalism that normalized child abuse among the priesthood. That was the work of bishops, from the Roman Curia on down. Bishops authorized secret payoffs for victims to stave off criminal prosecutions. Bishops sent offenders on spiritual retreats when society would have clapped them in jail. Bishops hid the records and attacked the truth-tellers. And popes often rewarded those bishops with sinecures.

There is no path out of this crisis that doesn’t begin with confession and atonement by the hierarchy — not in some stilted statement or three-day confab, but concrete and genuine — and over many, many years. What’s happening is not God’s judgment on secular society; it is God’s challenge to a corrupted church. Even Francis, with his eyes wide open to the epidemic of pride and deceit inside the Vatican, has struggled to grasp the implications of this long failure of moral leadership and the extent of change it demands.

When the emeritus — or superfluous — pope steps in to offer a shield against the necessary accountability and humility, it’s clear the church has a problem. Two popes is one too many.

David Von Drehle is a columnist for The Washington Post.