God’s Absence Enabled the Offenses
Fr. Gerald E. Murray
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his surprise letter on the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, examines the root causes of the criminal immorality of an astounding number of Catholic clerics. He identifies as a prime factor the collapse of sound moral theology, the result of the rejection of natural law reasoning. Underlying this theological chaos is a deeper crisis, what Benedict calls “the absence of God.” He writes: “Only where faith no longer determines the actions of man are such offenses possible.”
This calls to mind Robert Cardinal Sarah’s book God or Nothing. When God ceases in fact to be the motive, the center and the hope of the Church’s teaching and activity, innovators very quickly create clever substitutes that in fact turn out to be nothing more than self-worship.
Benedict writes that, after the Council, “it was chiefly the hypothesis that morality was to be exclusively determined by the purposes of human action that prevailed.” Since each man determines his purposes, each man creates his own morality, making himself the determinant of right and wrong for himself, pushing God and His law aside.
Man is to be honored in place of God as the source of his own moral truth. This is the apostasy of the autonomous man of “conscience” who recognizes God’s law only when it is in agreement with what he has decided he already wants to do.
In the strange world of a Church without God at its center, what about other doctrines of the Faith? Benedict examines the loss of faith manifested by how many in the Church treat the Most Holy Eucharist: “Our handling of the Eucharist can only arouse concern.”
The generalized loss of a sense of awe and respect for Christ’s Real Presence is undeniable. Benedict writes: “What predominates is not a new reverence for the presence of Christ’s death and resurrection, but a way of dealing with Him that destroys the greatness of the Mystery.” His use of the word “destroy” is telling.
The new thinking about the Mass and the Eucharist that largely prevailed after the Second Vatican Council resulted in various changes that have diminished the reverence expressed by the average Mass goer:
- Holy Communion is no longer received kneeling but standing, no longer on the tongue alone but now also in the hand;
- the tabernacle was moved off of the main altar, and the priest now stands, or sits in a chair, in the location where the Blessed Sacrament was formerly reserved;
- the tabernacle containing the sacramental presence of God made man is placed off center on a side altar or in some instances in a location not visible from the church pews;
- silence in church before Mass has been replaced by casual banter in audible tones;
- many, many parishioners no longer genuflect when entering or leaving the church;
- venerable liturgical forms, the Latin language and sacred chant were cast out and replaced by generally inadequate and uninspiring replacements;
- almost everyone at Mass goes to Communion, while very few people go to Confession, indicating that people no longer have a consciousness that one must not receive Communion is a state of mortal sin, because most people no longer think that mortal sin is still mortal sin.
Benedict identifies the signs of this breakdown of faith and worship:
- “The declining participation in the Sunday Eucharistic celebration shows how little we Christians of today still know about appreciating the greatness of the gift that consists in His Real Presence.
- “The Eucharist is devalued into a mere ceremonial gesture when it is taken for granted that courtesy requires Him to be offered at family celebrations or on occasions such as weddings and funerals to all those invited for family reasons.
- “The way people often simply receive the Holy Sacrament in communion as a matter of course shows that many see communion as a purely ceremonial gesture.”
The temptation to make religion into a kind of folkloric experience celebrating man’s attempt to build a community of benevolence and good feeling is seen when a priest invites everyone at a Funeral Mass or Nuptial Mass to receive Holy Communion.
Why would a priest invite people who do not believe in the Real Presence to come forward to receive, saying to them ”The Body of Christ” in response to which the non-believers are asked to say “Amen,” signifying belief in what they do not believe?
Why would a priest communicate to non-practicing Catholics that they should feel free to receive Holy Communion without previous confession? How did we get to this point of treating the Sacred Body and Blood of Christ as a mere token of participation in a ritual?
Benedict calls us all to renewed faith: “what is required first and foremost is the renewal of the Faith in the Reality of Jesus Christ given to us in the Blessed Sacrament.”
It is obvious that a profound disorientation entered into the Church that has manifested itself in doctrinal confusion and an attitude of laxity regarding immorality and even criminal sexual abuse.
The remedy that Benedict indicates is to return to a deep appreciation of the Faith according to its true nature, which includes being ready to die for Christ as the price of fidelity to him.
A Practical Way for Pastors – and Laity
Benedict was the universal pastor of the Church, but his essay on sex abuse and the crisis is written not as pope but as a priest, to priests, in Germany (specifically, to the journal Klerusblatt). Therefore, although it raises large questions in passing – and no one who publishes today can claim to be addressing only a restricted readership – it is valuable mainly as showing a practical way for pastors. In doing so, it also shows ordinary Catholics how humbly to serve the Church in these troubled times.
We see its limited purposes in its opening sentence: “The matter begins with the state-prescribed and supported introduction of children and youths into the nature of sexuality.” He is referring to how, in Germany in 1968, the Ministry of Health under Käte Strobel published a “sex atlas” (Sexualkundeatlas), and produced a movie called Helga, both ostensibly “educational,” but calculated to subvert the authority of local governments and churches over sexual mores.
One could raise deep and universal questions on this basis. Walker Percy, for instance, pleaded with us to consider how America almost overnight became a society in which people streamed to see a pornographic movie in their neighborhood theater. He meant Deep Throat (1972), which became the highest grossing movie of its time.
Or one might ask why libertinism gets introduced under the guise of objective science.
Or whether a sexually permissive society doesn’t, as a society, set itself against the welfare of children – abandoned in divorce, instrumentalized by in vitro conception, or killed by abortions.
But it’s clear that Benedict gives the example simply to appeal to the memories of his readers, mainly elderly German clerics, to shock them once again into seeing that “what is evil and destroys man has become a matter of course.”
Even his reference to Veritatis splendor has a limited purpose. It’s an open secret that Veritatis splendor is not a favorite reference source of the magisterium of Francis. In particular, Amoris Laetitia ignores it, while seeming, to many interpreters at least, to re-introduce all the errors that the encyclical rejected – the “fundamental option,” conscience as subjective not objective, the denial of intrinsically evil acts.
So how is it possible to refer to Veritatis splendor without at least asking whether any current hesitancy, today, in dealing firmly with sexual abuse, is a consequence of a dalliance among influential bishops in those old errors?
And yet Benedict, now devoted primarily to a life of prayer and contemplation, obviously avoids asking this. He does not even write in the manner of someone who thought to raise the question, but then thought better of it. In his essay, Veritatis splendor was important in putting an end to the Church’s vulnerability in teaching, in the face of the sexual revolution.
That vulnerability led to a collapse in seminary formation. Veritatis splendor proved a necessary piece in the reform of seminaries, which has mainly been successful. This again reflects the viewpoint of a priest, who wonders “how young people in this situation could approach the priesthood and accept it, with all its ramifications.”
I said that Benedict’s essay shows a humble path. So it is, here, in its engagement with Veritatis Splendor. He refers to just one teaching of the encyclical, “there [are] actions which [are] always and under all circumstances to be classified as evil.” His essay clearly assumes that that claim, although once controversial, is now taken for granted by everyone.
Why? Because everyone has come to judge, correctly, that sexual abuse of minors is intrinsically evil. Philosophy professors know that certain stock examples have always been able to confound relativists in the classroom: What about rape? What about dashing out the brains of infants?
Well, what about sexual abuse of minors? For Benedict it’s a secondary point that that logic has not, yet, been universally extended to other intrinsically wrong sexual acts, such as sodomy.
That he is writing humbly, for priests, is shown in the Eucharist’s being the focal point of the essay. John Paul II used to write a humble letter to priests, as a fellow priest, on Holy Thursday. Benedict does something similar just before Holy Week.
Benedict gives a wonderful précis of the gospel: the universe is meaningless without God; but a loving God would reveal himself; and he showed the depth of his love by taking on our nature.
Just as the source of evil is flight from God, so the remedy for evil is found in the presence of God. “Let us consider this with regard to a central issue,” he next says, “the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Our handling of the Eucharist can only arouse concern.”
Note the “our”: he means priests. It’s within the power of any parish priest to address the abuse crisis just here.
The letter closes, “I would like to thank Pope Francis for everything he does to show us, again and again, the light of God, which has not disappeared, even today.” Here, too, is an example of great humility, since it is clear from Benedict’s essay that, the differences noted above notwithstanding, he has allowed himself to be influenced by Francis.
Consider that a couple of paragraphs in the essay are on the theme of the devil as the great accuser. That was not a big theme of Benedict’s pontificate but it has been for Francis, long before Viganò.
Or the theme that, although it’s good to foster communities of Christian life, the Church catches up the good and bad in its dragnet.
The most beautiful paragraphs in the essay perhaps those on martyrdom, “Today God also has His witnesses (martyres) in the world. We just have to be vigilant in order to see and hear them.”
Benedict, I think, means Francis and the martyrs Francis has noticed for us. Read Francis’ homily at a Mass for Martyrs of the 20th and 21st centuries to get the point. And of course, he encourages us to be witnesses ourselves.
*The Elevation of the Host by Jean Béraud, c. 1890 [private collection]
** Prayer (Modlitwa) by Stanisław Dębicki, 1887 [National Museum, Wrocław, Poland]