ROME — In his retirement, Pope Benedict XVI is apparently tired of hiding.
The former pontiff, who declared he would “remain hidden to the world” when he became the first pope in six centuries to abdicate in 2013, has released a 6,000-word letter that puts the blame for the clerical sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church on the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the disappearance of God from public discourse in the West and what he considers dangerously liberal theological ideas that eroded morality after the church reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
Among his claims, Benedict wrote that the sexual revolution deemed pedophilia as “allowed and appropriate,” and that the landmark social protests of 1968 for “all-out sexual freedom” as well as sex education for young children and nudity in advertising prompted a “mental collapse” that he linked to “a propensity for violence.”
“That is why sex films were no longer allowed on airplanes,” he wrote to illustrate his point, “because violence would break out among the small community of passengers.”
The letter, written for the German church magazine Klerusblatt, was published overnight by conservative Catholic websites that have consistently exalted Benedict and criticized his successor, Pope Francis.
The deeply theological and esoteric missive, which Benedict called his contribution “in this difficult hour” for the church, was written “absolutely on his own” by Benedict, according to Archbishop Georg Gänswein, Benedict’s longtime personal secretary, who is also the prefect of the papal household under Pope Francis.
In writing the letter, Benedict realized the fears of many church experts who have argued that having two pontiffs living at the same time was a recipe for pastoral, theological and political disaster and could lead to confusion among the faithful.
Although Benedict wrote that he gave his successor and the Vatican’s Secretariat of State a heads up about the letter, it amounted to the most significant undercutting yet of the authority of Pope Francis, who has instead blamed a systemic abuse of power and an unhealthy adoration of authority within the church’s hierarchy for the crisis.
Francis, who two months ago held a landmark summit meeting on the crisis with church leaders from around the world, has struggled to find his voice on sex abuse, though he promised “concrete and effective measures” to resolve it. Those are yet to come.
Benedict cited the summit meeting as the impetus for his letter. And by speaking up at such a vulnerable time, he made clear where he stands on the issue. Some theologians, describing the letter as “deeply flawed,” “troubling” or “embarrassing,” suggested it put him squarely on the wrong side of history.
“The willingness to blame a permissive culture and progressive theology for a problem that is internal and structural is stunning,” Julie Hanlon Rubio, a professor of social ethics at the ’s Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University who has written on sexual morality, wrote on Twitter.
Others noted that Benedict had seemed to violate not only his own promise to stay out of his successor’s way, but also guidelines set by the Vatican’s Directory for the Pastoral Ministry Of Bishops, which states that “the bishop emeritus will be careful not to interfere in any way, directly or indirectly, in the governance of the diocese. He will want to avoid every attitude and relationship that could even hint at some kind of parallel authority.”
Until now, Benedict, who turns 92 next week and lives a secluded life in a convent behind the Vatican walls, has remained mostly quiet, limiting his appearances to warm and white-cloaked photo opportunities with Francis. His eight-year papacy was noted for its doctrinal orthodoxy but also for public-relations disasters — including an early speech that offended much of the Muslim world — that church experts said sapped influence and power from the shy German. But in recent years, especially as Pope Francis has struggled to respond to the sex abuse crisis, Benedict received a positive re-evaluation for having defrocked hundreds of abusive priests.
That legacy now seems likely to undergo another revision.
Benedict wrote that within the church, an erosion of moral theology, apparently also among abusive priests, left it “defenseless against these changes in society.”
The letter was instead silent on Benedict’s tenure — for 24 years before becoming pope — as the church’s doctrinal watchdog, during which time much of the cover-up for abuse took place. He said that his former department, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was ill-equipped to handle the abuse cases.
Benedict has remained an icon to conservatives and traditionalists in the church who feel besieged by Francis, a pope they consider a dictator, a liberal radical and an existential threat to church doctrine. For years they have sought to draw Benedict into the Vatican’s political and culture wars.
As the abuse crisis conflagrated again under Francis’ watch in the United States, Chile and Australia — where Cardinal George Pell, one of Francis’ top cardinal advisers, is now in a prison cell after being found guilty of abuse — conservative critics of the pope sought to weaponize it.
In August, the former papal ambassador to Washington, Carlo Maria Viganò, wrote an extraordinary letter calling for Francis’ resignation and accusing him, without proof, of covering up for homosexual cabals inside the church and for the abuses of Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington whom Francis had stripped of his cardinal’s hat and eventually threw out of the priesthood.
But it was Benedict and his predecessor, John Paul II, who were in power during the time abuse by Mr. McCarrick and his promotions took place.
Nevertheless, Benedict in his letter echoed the theme promulgated by Archbishop Viganò and his allies. Benedict lamented “homosexual cliques” in the seminaries “which acted more or less openly and significantly changed the climate in the seminaries.” The former pope said the situation had since “greatly improved,” but his ideological allies still blame homosexuality for the abuse crisis, an assertion discredited by scientific studies.
But Benedict more directly blamed the movement toward sexual freedom and God’s exit from public discourse for the abuse.
“It could be said that in the 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the previously normative standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely,” Benedict wrote, “and a new normalcy arose that has by now been the subject of laborious attempts at disruption.”
While Francis has taken to blaming the devil for pedophilia in the church, an assertion that infuriates abuse survivors who instead blame priests and the bishops who cover up for them, Benedict instead pointed to God’s absence as a motive for the crimes. “Why did pedophilia reach such proportions?” Benedict writes. “Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God.”
Physically feeble though, according to those who have visited him, still mentally sharp, Benedict apparently thought his letter would lend Francis a helping hand.
“Since I myself had served in a position of responsibility as shepherd of the church at the time of the public outbreak of the crisis, and during the run-up to it,” Benedict wrote, “I had to ask myself — even though, as emeritus, I am no longer directly responsible — what I could contribute to a new beginning.”