Catholic Church’s growing division laid bare by response to report on Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
In Germany’s emotional debate over Joseph Ratzinger, the self-styled Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, there is only one point on which the warring parties agree.
What began as an investigation into post-war clerical sexual abuse and its cover-up in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, which Benedict led for four years until 1982, turned into a limitless battle royale for his reputation, and that of the institution to which he has been inextricably linked for more than six decades.
The 94-year-old’s friends and allies see a ‘despicable’ plot underway to destroy the legacy of a kind intellectual and brilliant theologian. His detractors and opponents point to a different Benedict who, they say, was taken aback by institutional blindness and the same hardline approach he took with others.
In recent weeks, both sides have had their say on his Munich years. Attorneys commissioned by the archdiocese have produced nearly 2,000 pages documenting nearly 500 cases of clerical sexual abuse they found in church archives — with a higher chance — and linked five to the Ratzinger era from 1977-1982, when Benedit was archbishop.
They dismissed one but said that in the other four there were clear indications that Benedict XVI was at least aware of the problematic priests but did not intervene.
The former pope disputed these claims in his 82-page written response, using arguments familiar to Irish ears: no knowledge, no responsibility, different times.
Last week, his lawyers went further: Investigators had produced no hard evidence, they said, and instead relied on gossip and circumstantial evidence.
Much attention has focused on a case from 1980, and Benedict’s denial – three times – that he attended a meeting that discussed accepting a pedophile priest into the diocese.
In his original first-person testimony, the 94-year-old insisted his memory was still clear and he had near-perfect recall of events, people and documents decades earlier.
After investigators refuted his refusal to attend a crucial meeting, Benedict XVI passed the responsibility of asserting otherwise to “a small group of friends who selflessly compiled [testimony] in my name “.
The order of Benoît’s letter last week is as revealing as its content. He begins by thanking his friends and supporters, moves on to his personal dismay at being called a liar during the 1980 meeting, then addresses the issue of clerical sexual abuse.
He writes of his “deep sorrow, my most sincere wish for forgiveness on the part of all victims of sexual abuse” and, recalling the disciples of Jesus – asleep in the Garden of Olives – is “a situation which, today again, continues to happen, and for which I too feel called to respond”.
With both sides digging into their trenches, hurling mortars at the other side, the matter is at an impasse in Germany.
His private secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, said “anyone who sincerely reads the letter” can see the honest apology at his head.
His implication – that anyone who comes to a conclusion different from the letter is not sincere – was not well received by the vocal German critics of Benedict XVI.
They say the ex-pope’s pardon request is incomplete because at no point does he mention doing anything wrong or failing to live up to the considerable responsibility he admits to having in the church . Instead, it addresses failures and forgiveness in the conditional.
Benedict XVI asks himself rhetorically “if today too I must speak of a most serious fault”. Giving no response, he instead expresses the consolation that “however great my fault today, the Lord forgives me, if I allow myself to be sincerely examined by him, and am truly ready to change.” This is a papal “if, may, if” apology.
Half a century after the Second Vatican Council, its unresolved tensions between traditionalists and reformists can be seen in the passionate worldwide reaction to the Munich report and its demands from Benedict XVI, reflecting a growing split in the global Catholic Church.
For the conservatives, Benedict must be defended to the end: their last standing traitionalist galleon figure whose lifelong war against the “dictatorship of relativism” and all-out modernity is crucial for the future of the Church. Catholic.
For liberals and unbelieving critics, the report and its letter are stunning examples of clerical blindness, seeking elsewhere to assign blame for homegrown church problems.
With both sides digging into their trenches, hurling mortars at the other side, the matter is at an impasse in Germany. The defense and the prosecution have had their say on the Munich case of Benedict XVI, but who is the judge? Two weeks ago, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich said he saw no reason to doubt the investigators or their report, but would wait to comment on their allegations against Benedict until the pope at the retirement responded.
Now that he has, Cardinal Marx insists he already commented “in detail” a week earlier. Most of the other bishops commented on the letter without comment.
Their most charitable reading of his letter is that Benedict has tried to improve how the German Catholic Church deals with clerical sexual abuse, but is unable to see the institution’s self-created problems and has made matters worse. . As they call it here: verschlimmbessern.
Their demands for reform of the German Church, in particular to fight against clericalism, have failed their first practical test: they cannot bring themselves to share in public their private criticisms of the German ex-pope.
They have remained as true to themselves as the author of last week’s letter from Rome. With an air of sad farewell, Joseph Ratzinger, the former professor of theology, remained in character until the end.
Derek Scally is Berlin correspondent