Sex, scandal, the Church, and a general atmosphere of disintegration: That’s the main focus of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s unexpected intervention into today’s unhappy Church politics. Benedict, after contacting Pope Francis, has written a statement on the Church and its sex abuse scandal that he plans to publish in a Bavarian periodical. The tone of the document is his usual one, that of calm and matter-of-fact statements. Overall, it’s more testimony than analysis, testimony from a man who lived through cultural convulsions and theological betrayals. And it’s a faithful man’s testimony of God’s enduring love.
The Revolution of ’68 has always loomed large in Benedict’s accounts. The events of that fateful year were felt much more acutely in Western Europe than the United States. The war-smashed continent took a deep breath in 1945, and the next fifteen years saw determined efforts to rebuild. The object was not just material reconstruction, but moral and spiritual restoration as well.
Somehow the West succeeded, but at a cost. It took steely resolve to turn back communism in France and Italy. Germany and Austria had Russian divisions on their borders. Everyone felt the ominous threat of nuclear annihilation. In retrospect, it was not the young people who changed so much in ’68. It was their parents, many of whom had neither the will nor inclination to resist. Perhaps they were spiritually exhausted, first by the civilizational catastrophe of the first half of the twentieth century, and then by the two long decades of painstaking efforts to bring back prosperity, decency, and normal life.
Whatever its causes, Benedict is surely correct. The Revolution of ’68 shattered the prohibitions, inhibitions, and stable norms that are necessary to restrain man’s appetites, and thus contributed to the conditions in which clerical sexual malfeasance and abuse festered. But it is important to realize that ’68 unchained more than just sexual desire. It unleashed pleonexia. The enduring content of that historical moment was an imperative of release that ministered to a voracious desire for sensual experiences and material consumption.
The social transformations wrought by that imperative are ongoing. They are so powerful that, in the politics of the West, they have fused left and right into a neoliberal consensus that seeks maximal release for the sake of wealth creation (the economic de-regulatory right) and maximal release for the sake of personal fulfillment and self-acceptance (the cultural de-regulatory left). It’s no surprise that the Church was swept up in the imperative of release that flies the false flag of freedom.
Benedict gives ample attention to the ways in which leading moral theologians baptized the imperative of release, recounting the pathetic pledge of Franz Böckle to resist with all his resources the only evil he recognized: the limitation on release that comes with acknowledging the notion of intrinsically evil acts—things that cannot be done. Böckle was typical. To one degree or another, since Vatican II the majority of theologians in the West have shrunk from the implications of the Church’s affirmation of the objectivity of truth.
He provides anecdotes about seminary training in the 1970s and 1980s that indicate that an insouciant dismissal of the Church’s magisterium was not the sole province of moral theologians. A certain “progressive” mentality predominated, and it drove out anything that had the slightest smell of the authority of revelation. During the pontificate of John Paul II there were entire sectors of the Church in quasi-open rebellion, loyal to the imperative of release rather than the bishop of Rome. To this Benedict adds detailed observations about the inadequacies of the Church’s own legal code that made the official mechanisms for disciplining clerical sexual abuse ineffective. The overall impression: Overwhelmed by the Revolution of ’68, riddled with dissent, and structured by institutional and canonical assumptions ill-suited to present realities, the Catholic Church has become an ungovernable mess. The picture gives one sympathy for the men trying to master her present, grave challenges.
Benedict sees the influence the Revolution of ’68 exercised over the Church. As one of the last survivors of the heroic generation, the men who in the mid-twentieth century reshaped the Church with bold new intellectual projects, culminating in the Second Vatican Council, I wish he would reflect on the ways in which the lines of influence went the other way as well. There can be little doubt that Vatican II functioned as a triggering mechanism during the explosive 1960s. It signaled to the West that the epitome of unchanging truth was reconsidering, rethinking, reframing—in a word, revising.
All of this revising was said to re-express the same, unchanging truths. They were simply being restated with an eye toward greater openness. But of course “openness,” while not a synonym for release, is a close cousin. If the Pope Emeritus wishes to give an adequate account of the historical context for the failure of moral discipline among the clergy, he needs to reckon with the Church’s profound role in the Revolution of ’68, not just her fate in its aftermath.
This is not just a task for Benedict; it something we all need to undertake. As he warns, we can’t escape our problems by creating another Church. I’d add: We can’t escape by pretending we live in another era, one undefiled by ’68 and the imperative of release. As we seek the way of faithfulness in the twenty-first century, we need to keep our eyes on Christ, as Benedict rightly reminds us. But we also need to take the full measure of the twentieth century, and do so while keeping in mind that the Church was an agent in those tumultuous decades as much as it was a victim.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.