In a recent 6,000-word essay for the German magazine Klerusblatt, Pope Benedict XVI placed the blame for the clerical sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic Church on the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the increasing secularization of the West, and what he believes to be dangerously liberal theological ideas that have eroded morality following the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
The 92-year-old retired Pontiff goes on to claim that the sexual revolution transformed pedophilia into an “allowed and appropriate” sexuality and that the social protests of 1968 calling for “all-out sexual freedom,” including sex education for children, created a “mental collapse [linked to] a propensity for violence.”
On the surface, this essay seems nothing more than the ramblings of an old man out of touch with the modern world. In fairness, many of us have an older relative who long-windedly blames all problems on the modern world. Indeed, Benedict was already nearing middle age by the late-1960s which from a generational viewpoint, let alone being a highly conservative priest turned Pope, explains why he must find the 1960s and onward hard to relate to.
The reality is that Benedict’s essay highlights the Church’s propensity for attributing all of its ills on the outside world, while obstinately refusing to see that they are largely the authors of their own misfortunes.
There is no point in contradicting Benedict’s argument that the Western world’s view of sexuality and sexual identity has radically changed in the past fifty years. The invention of birth control, the wider acceptance of gay and lesbian rights, and shifting views of the institution of marriage have fundamentally changed sexual expression.
These changes, however, have played no role in the church’s sex abuse crisis. We know that the abuse of children at the hands of priests, and other religious men and women, extends back for centuries. Indeed, long before ‘free love,’ birth control, the legalization of abortion, the decriminalization of homosexuality or any other events the Church wishes to blame, the Church was covering up the sexual violation of children. The only reason the Church is now dealing with these scandals is that they no longer wield the power necessary to keep them secret.
The blame for the sex abuse crisis rests solely with the Church and its patriarchal hierarchy. It is the Church’s avoidance of dealing with sexuality in a mature and open manner that has created an environment where sexual deviancy can thrive.
In very simplistic terms, the Church teaches all sexual expression outside of procreation within heterosexual marriage is a sin. This teaching denies the reality of sex and sexuality and its multifaceted nature. In fact, it is attempting to deny biology and in doing so constructs a taboo around sexuality. The problem is that when something is taboo, it often becomes more titillating than it otherwise would be.
Priests and other religious men and women are required to be celibate. This may be controversial to some but celibacy in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, at least not when a person possesses a positive mentality about their own sexuality.
Celibacy becomes a problem when it is enforced within an institution with a repressive and negative view of human sexuality. It is because of this that the priesthood often attracts men with deep emotional issues surrounding their own sexuality.
It is not idol speculation that a significant number of men in the priesthood are gay. In their book The Sex Effect, Ross Benes and A.J. Jacobs call the priesthood a predominantly gay profession as it is estimated that more than 60% of Catholic priests are gay.
This likely stems from the fact that the priesthood has historically been a place for gay men to hide. The priesthood would shield these men from having to marry women. It also allowed these men to try and repress their sexuality, particularly when homosexuality was viewed as a mental disorder, by forbidding them from engaging in any sexual activity.
By attempting to enforce celibacy in a sex-negative environment, the Church has allowed the priesthood to become a hiding place for men who are uncomfortable with their sexuality. It should be noted that many priests, gay or straight, break their vows of celibacy whether it be with another person, or with themselves given that masturbation is also forbidden.
While it’s unfortunate that there are so many gay men closeted within the priesthood and helping to perpetuate anti-LGBTQ theology, they aren’t a major concern, despite the church’s attempt to scapegoat them. They may highlight the Church’s hypocrisy surrounding homosexuality, but homosexuality and pedophilia are not interconnected despite what John Paul II, Benedict XVI or even Francis have implied.
The priesthood’s propensity to be a sexual shield has opened a door to pedophiles, and this is a problem the Church seems to have no desire to deal with. There are so many documented cases of pedophile priests being moved to other parishes rather than being expelled and reported to police to face charges.
The Church’s inability to try and modernize its views of sexuality is a major problem, and one entirely of its own doing. Polls within America and Europe have shown that the majority of Catholics pay little heed to the Church’s teaching on sexuality. Polls in the United States have repeatedly shown that Catholic Americans are the strongest supporters of same-sex marriage over any other religious denomination — nearly 70% in 2017.
Perhaps the only good thing that the letter does is better showcase why Benedict left the Papacy, or was forced out if the rumours are true, and why he should remain secluded in retirement as he originally stated he would do.
If the Church really wants to deal with the sex abuse crisis, it must look within and not outward.