clergy abuse crisis

Benedict and the Crisis: What does theologizing have to do with the abuse of children?

When children are being raped by priests, why should we care whether theologians focus on a morality grounded in Greek philosophy or a pragmatic theology that exclusively utilizes Scriptural texts?

Last week, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI made a somewhat dramatic re-entrance into public life. In a letter originally released in the Klerusblatt, a monthly periodical for Bavarian clergy, Benedict discusses “the Church and the scandal of abuse.” The text has received varied reactions, with some praising Benedict’s criticisms of the post-Vatican II Church while seeking out a theological narrative of love and others criticizing what they perceive to be incoherent ramblings of a fading hierarch using the present crises to revive old theological squabbles.

The essay does read differently from Benedict’s previous essays and speeches, though his signature concerns arise especially in the second half. In this series of posts, I will explore the context of the letter, why certain portions should matter to the Church, and concerns that might arise for those reading the letter from an American perspective.

But why should this letter matter? Benedict is no longer pope, and he thus bears only the authority of a retired bishop. Nonetheless, I (and many others) consider him one of the preeminent theological minds of the last century. I do worry about blind adherence. Some of his proponents defend the anecdotal and suggestive portions of his text by alleging that Benedict is providing here the musings of an ailing mind nearing the end of his life.

This may be true, but for the purposes of my response, I will presume the brilliance and sharpness of a great theologian and will not give him the excuse of age. In addition, part of what we might see in the letter is a thinker with a newfound freedom, let loose of the constraints of being an institutional leader. Thus, Benedict may feel more freedom to release ideas that seem to be justified by anecdotes and even innuendo.


Context should not be forgotten when reading the letter. The audience is specific: Bavarian clergy. He writes for a specifically German and clerical audience, and thus his criticisms, exhortations, and explanations may not be as clear in the global and/or lay context. Lay people should resist reading the letter as if it were directly addressed to ourselves.

Likewise, Americans might question his accounts of recent Church history, but we should keep in mind that he is not presenting a global history in most of the letter. The majority of the text focuses specifically on happenings in Germany, even if he does touch on Apostolic Visitations elsewhere. His understanding of the Sexual Revolution, the “post-Conciliar Church,” and the landscape of theological development are intensely German.

The Debate

Even so, some might object that Benedict takes the deeply human trauma of clergy sexual abuse and then fails in his response by engaging in theological exposition. Readers looking for concrete solutions to concrete problems might be frustrated by his detailing of twentieth-century theological disputes over the nature of Christian morality. When children are being raped by priests, why should we care whether theologians focus on a morality grounded in Greek philosophy or a pragmatic theology that exclusively utilizes Scriptural texts?

In particular, he focuses on two German theologians, Father Bruno Schuller and Franz Bockle. Benedict discusses a time prior to the Second Vatican Council, where Catholic moral theology built its systematic foundations upon the natural law tradition, beginning with Plato and developing particularly in Aquinas. In contrast, both Schueller and Bockle sought to “free” moral theology from these foundations and focus more on making relative value judgments in light of Scripture alone. Bockle, in particular, pushed against magisterial statements about moral theology. In Veritatis splendor, Pope John Paul II affirms that there are absolute goods and intrinsic evils. Benedict notes that, in response, Bockle “announced… that if the encyclical should determine that there were actions which were always and under all circumstances to be classified as evil, he would challenge it with all the resources at his disposal.”

To put it simply, Veritatis splendor affirmed that some actions are always and intrinsically evil, while Bockle argued that nothing is intrinsically evil but is always subject to pragmatic considerations. According to Bockle, anything could be permissible if given the proper justification. Benedict affirms a systematic and philosophically-grounded moral theology, while Bockle affirms a pragmatic moral theology. My own concern is that a “pragmatic” moral theology might provide the internal conditions under which priests can begin to justify abuse.

Consider David Finkelhor’s four factors under which child sexual abuse occurs. For abuse to occur, Finkelhor argues that the abuser needs (1) motivation to abuse, (2) the neutralization of internal inhibitions to abuse, (3) to overcome the resistance of the child, and (4) to overcome external factors which might prevent abuse. The second prong, the overcoming of internal inhibitions, considers how abusers justify the abuse to themselves. Most people understand that engaging children in a sexual manner is wrong. However, abusers create complex narratives and excuses in order to justify their behavior. They employ “neutralization” techniques to overcome their internal inhibitions. To combat this, researchers from the John Jay report recommend educating priests on what behaviors are never appropriate with minors.

If we map these theological debates onto this second prong, we can see where each side might fall. Benedict would argue that an adult engaging in sexual activity with a child is always and everywhere intrinsically evil. It cannot be justified under any circumstances. Bockle, however, would argue “with all the resources at his disposal” against classifying any act as an intrinsic evil. I would argue that the difference between Benedict’s “natural law” foundations for moral theology and Bockle’s “pragmatic theology” is that “pragmatic theology” opens the door for priests to seek ways to justify their abuse.

We already know that this is, in fact, what they do. It may thus be fair to ask what school of theology these priests have been formed in, and what school of theology is lived in their lives. Questions of theological foundations are not mere “abstract questions” or irrelevant theorizing. These are real questions with real consequences.

Children are at stake, as is the Church. Central issues in the abuse crisis include the pragmatic calculation of goods engaged in by many Catholic leaders, in contrast to the intrinsic evil of lying, the responsibility to avoid formal cooperation with evil, and the paramount good of the protection of the vulnerable. The difference between Benedict’s theology and Bockle’s is that the former opposes this situation while the latter facilitates it.

None of this is to say that Benedict’s letter is without problems. There is much more to say, and in future posts I will raise other questions. But at this point, I will say that Benedict goes on these little tangents because they really do matter, and much is at stake. 

Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

1 comment on “Benedict and the Crisis: What does theologizing have to do with the abuse of children?

  1. Pingback: Benedict vs. Francis vs. Vatican II: In Benedict’s Recent Words – Chris Damian

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