Benedict XVI and the German Church he served ask for forgiveness in very different ways
In Germany of late, powerful bishops have spoken of prospects for change in Catholic life with a frankness the Church hierarchy has not seen elsewhere for a long time. When some one hundred and twenty-five priests and other church workers collectively “come out” as gay last month – with a manifesto criticizing the church’s “defamatory” teachings on sexuality and gender – Jean-Claude Hollerich, a Jesuit who is the Archbishop of Luxembourg, told German media KNA that the foundation of Catholic teaching on homosexuality “is no longer true” and called for a “fundamental revision of doctrine”. Reinhard Marx, the Archbishop of Munich and Freising – who last year spoke approvingly of the prospect of some form of Church blessings for same-sex unions – said: “I think things like ‘they can’t go on’, and that allowing some priests to marry “would be better for everyone”. Another bishop announced that homosexuals employed by his diocese, including priests, can profess their sexual identity without fear of disciplinary action. Meanwhile, a church renewal process called the Synodal Way has led to formal proposals for lay people in Germany to play a role in choosing bishops – a change that would profoundly alter the power structure of the church. .
These are overtures of the kind that progressive Catholics have sought for decades from the hierarchy. The issues they raise are so complex and controversial that a serious effort to resolve them could break the Church. Yet they were overwhelmed by a different controversy – that over the role of Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus, in enabling priestly sexual abuse when he was archbishop in Germany, and whether his “sincere plea for forgiveness” is a admission of guilt. .
Benoît will be ninety-five years old in April. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he served for more than two decades as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that oversees Church teaching. He was elected pope in 2005, resigned in 2013 (the first pope to do so since 1415) and, after Pope Francis succeeded him, took up residence in a monastery behind St. Peter’s Basilica. His request for forgiveness came earlier this month, in a personal letter (“Dear Sisters and Brothers”), following a report that included a section on his handling of priestly sexual abuse while archbishop of Munich and Freising, from 1977 to 1982.
The report was prepared by a team of outside lawyers and commissioned by Cardinal Marx, who was prompted by a 2018 report on abuse across Germany, which estimated that around 4% of priests had committed sexual abuse of minors in the seven decades after World War II. The new report is nearly two thousand pages long and chronicles at least four hundred and ninety-seven victims and at least two hundred and thirty-five perpetrators. He names Marx himself for mishandling two cases of priests suspected of abuse; Marx, who tendered his resignation to Pope Francis last June over the clerical abuse “catastrophe” (it was turned down), said he was still ready to do so. “I don’t cling to my job,” he said.
During the preparation of the report, the authors requested Benedict’s testimony and received an eighty-two-page written statement in response. The report concludes that the pope emeritus “can be accused of misconduct in cases of sexual abuse”, for having authorized, in four cases, priests suspected of sexual abuse of minors to continue their pastoral ministry. (Benoît has denied wrongdoing in these cases.) At a press conference, a lawyer involved in the report said that Benedict’s statement indicated that he had not attended a meeting in 1980. , regarding the status of a priest who had received therapy for pedophilia and , after the meeting, was returned to the ministry. In 1986 (by which time Benedict had gone to Rome), the priest was found guilty of sexually abusing minors. The lawyer then read the minutes of the 1980 meeting, which showed that Benedict had, in fact, been there. “We do not find credible the testimony or statement of Pope Benedict XVI that he was not at this meeting,” he said. The reaction was quick. Benoît was accused of lying and concealment. The Network of Survivors of Those Abused by Priests, an American advocacy group, has suggested that, having resigned as pope, Benedict should also resign as pope emeritus.
The report forced the German Church to reflect on its recent past, a period shaped by Ratzinger’s vision of Catholic doctrine as inviolable and of the Church as the last redoubt of order and stability in a rapidly changing world. . In 1962, two young theologians traveled from Germany to Rome as advisers to the Second Vatican Council: Hans Küng, a Swiss, who advocated far-reaching reform, and Ratzinger, who favored reform, but less urgently . After the Council, their perspectives diverged again. Küng sought to re-root the teachings of the Church in new scholarship on the Bible and the history of ideas; Ratzinger sought to correct what he perceived to be the Council’s excesses with eloquent reiterations of long-held doctrines. In 1979, fourteen months after the election of Pope John Paul II, the Vatican revoked Küng’s license to teach as a Catholic theologian; three years later, Ratzinger assumed the Vatican’s highest doctrinal post. Along with John Paul, he maintained that the Church’s teachings on sexuality and on the priesthood belong to an unalterable “magisterium”, or official teaching body, and he ensured that only men who affirmed this position be chosen as bishops. His stringent defenses of the magisterium and his silencing of theologians who took positions other than his own (earning him the nicknames of Ratzweiler and Panzer-Cardinal) have affected Catholicism since then – insofar as the the current German bishops can be said to be finally dealing with long-standing issues that he had used his supervisory powers to prevent their predecessors, and thus the Church as a whole, from dealing with.
Four days after the Munich report press conference, Benedict’s secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, released a statement saying Benedict’s false claim was “the result of an oversight in the drafting of his statement.” , for which the former prelate was very sorry, and added that Benedict was reading the full report. Gänswein also said a line in the statement that downplayed the 1980 meeting, because it did not specifically address the priest’s return to ministry, was “objectively correct.”
This answer was considered evasive, and not just by longtime critics of Benedict XVI. Two key personalities of the post-Benoît generation intervened. The head of the German bishops’ conference, Sixty-year-old Georg Bätzing from Limburg, said Benedict “must overrule his advisers”. Hans Zollner, a 55-year-old German Jesuit, who was given a leading role by the Vatican in its official efforts to combat child sexual abuse, said that “there should have been a lot more empathy and humanity in it than just sticking to the letter of the law” and suggested that Benedict XVI should address the issue with “a simple personal statement.” That’s what Benoit did.
It was not the first time that Benedict had engaged in controversy from the quarters of his monastery via a personal letter. In 2019, he published a six thousand word missive on clerical sexual abuse, which he attributed to a range of causes: the sexual revolution and the “new normal” of sexual permissiveness, the liberalization of theology after the Vatican Council II, the rise of “homosexual cliques” in Catholic seminaries and the decline of religious belief in the West. “Why has pedophilia reached such proportions? He asked. “Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God.” The new letter, by contrast, is only a page and a half long, and its tone is tender and vulnerable. The pope emeritus thanks those, including Pope Francis, who stayed by his side. And he thanks a “small group of friends” who read thousands of documents to help him prepare his statement for the Munich report “on my behalf”. He acknowledges the “error” that occurred in their account of the 1980 reunion, saying: “To me it was deeply hurtful that this oversight was used to cast doubt on my veracity, and even to call me a liar”.
Then, Benoît adds: “Now, after these words of thanks, must necessarily follow a confession as well”. Drawing on the penitential language of the ancient Latin Mass, he notes that he saw the effects of a “greatest fault” in the suffering of survivors of priestly sexual abuse. To these people he sends his request for forgiveness, because “I have understood that we ourselves are drawn into this grave fault each time we neglect it or fail to face it with decision or responsibility”. . He continues: “I had great responsibilities in the Catholic Church. All the greater is my grief for the abuses and errors that have occurred in these various places during my tenure.
The Vatican news website presented Benedict’s letter as “a personal confession,” and it was characterized by many as a breakthrough: a pope asking for forgiveness and doing a thorough “examination of conscience,” as he said, and aware that he soon “find me before the last judge of my life”. Cardinal Seán O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, who heads the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, praised Benedict for his “profound honesty.”