Benedict XVI and the German Church He Served Seek Forgiveness in Very Different Ways

The Church hierarchy has been signalling a new openness to change, but a plea from the Pope emeritus, following the release of a report on abuse, follows an old path.

A close reading of the Pope emeritus’s recent letter suggests that, instead of admitting any guilt, he took care to avoid saying what he himself had done and what he had failed to do.


In Germany, lately, powerful bishops have been speaking of prospects for change in Catholic life with a frankness not seen from the Church hierarchy anywhere else in a long time. When some hundred and twenty-five priests and other Church employees collectively “came out” as gay last month—with a manifesto faulting the Church’s “defamatory” teachings on sexuality and gender—Jean-Claude Hollerich, a Jesuit who is the archbishop of Luxembourg, told the German news outlet KNA that the foundation of Catholic teaching on homosexuality “is no longer true,” and called for a “fundamental revision of the doctrine.” Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich and Freising—who last year spoke approvingly of the prospect of some form of Church blessings for same-sex-unions—said, “I think that things as they are cannot continue,” and that allowing some priests to marry “would be better for everyone.” Another bishop announced that gay people employed by his diocese, including priests, can profess their sexual identity without fear of discipline. Meanwhile, a process of Church renewal called the Synodal Way has led to formal proposals for laypeople in Germany to take a role in choosing bishops—a change that would alter the Church power structure profoundly.

Those are openings of the kind that progressive Catholics have sought from the hierarchy for decades. The issues they raise are so complex and controversial that a serious effort to address them could break the Church apart. Yet they’ve been overtaken by a different controversy—one about the role of Benedict XVI, the Pope emeritus, in enabling priestly sex abuse when he was an archbishop in Germany, and whether his “heartfelt request for forgiveness” is an admission of guilt.

Benedict turns ninety-five in April. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he served for more than two decades as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican office that oversees Church teaching. He was elected Pope in 2005, resigned in 2013 (the first Pope to do so since 1415), and, after Pope Francis succeeded him, took up residence in a monastery behind St. Peter’s Basilica. His request for forgiveness came earlier this month, in a personal letter (“Dear Sisters and Brothers”), following a report that included a section on his handling of priestly sexual abuse while he was archbishop of Munich and Freising, from 1977 to 1982.

The report was prepared by a team of outside lawyers, and commissioned by Cardinal Marx, who was prompted by a 2018 report on abuse in Germany as a whole, which estimated that roughly four per cent of priests had committed sexual abuse of minors in the seven decades after the Second World War. The new report runs to nearly two thousand pages, and chronicles at least four hundred and ninety-seven victims and at least two hundred and thirty-five abusers. It names Marx himself for mishandling two instances of priests suspected of abuse; Marx, who submitted his resignation to Pope Francis last June over the “catastrophe” of clerical abuse (it was declined), said that he was still prepared to do so. “I am not clinging to my job,” he said.

During the report’s preparation, the authors sought testimony from Benedict, and received a written eighty-two-page statement in response. The report concludes that the Pope emeritus “can be accused of misconduct in cases of sexual abuse,” for allowing, in four instances, priests suspected of sexually abusing minors to continue in pastoral ministry. (Benedict has denied wrongdoing over the cases.) At a press conference, a lawyer involved with the report said that Benedict’s statement had indicated that he had not attended a meeting in 1980, regarding the status of a priest who had received therapy for pedophilia and, after the meeting, was returned to ministry. In 1986 (by which time, Benedict had gone to Rome), the priest was convicted of sexually abusing minors. The lawyer then read from minutes of the 1980 meeting, which showed that Benedict had, in fact, been there. “We do not find the testimony or the statement of Pope Benedict that he was not at this meeting to be credible,” he said. Reaction was swift. Benedict was accused of lying and covering up. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an American advocacy group, suggested that, having resigned as Pope, Benedict should also resign as Pope emeritus.

The report has forced the German Church to ponder its recent past, a period shaped by Ratzinger’s view of Catholic doctrine as inviolable and the Church as the last redoubt of order and stability in a rapidly changing world. In 1962, two young theologians travelled from Germany to Rome as advisers at the Second Vatican Council: Hans Küng, a Swiss, who urged thoroughgoing reform, and Ratzinger, who favored reform, but less urgently. After the Council, their outlooks diverged further. Küng sought to re-root Church teachings in fresh scholarship on the Bible and the history of ideas; Ratzinger sought to correct what he perceived as the Council’s excesses through eloquent reiterations of long-held doctrines. In 1979, fourteen months after the election of Pope John Paul II, the Vatican withdrew Küng’s license to teach as a Catholic theologian; three years later, Ratzinger took the Vatican’s top doctrinal job. With John Paul, he maintained that Church teachings on sexuality and on the priesthood belong to an inalterable “magisterium,” or body of official teaching, and he saw to it that only men who affirmed that position were chosen as bishops. His rigorous defenses of the magisterium and his silencing of theologians who took positions other than his (which earned him the nicknames Ratzweiler and the Panzer-Cardinal) have affected Catholicism ever since—to the extent that the current German bishops can be said to be dealing at last with long-standing issues that he had used his supervisory powers to prevent their predecessors, and so the Church as a whole, from dealing with.

Four days after the press conference about the Munich report, Benedict’s secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, issued a statement saying that Benedict’s false claim was “the result of an oversight in the editing of his statement,” for which the former prelate was very sorry, and added that Benedict was reading the full report. Gänswein also said that a line in the statement that downplayed the 1980 meeting, because it hadn’t dealt specifically with the priest’s return to ministry, was “objectively correct.”

That response was seen as evasive, and not just by Benedict’s longtime critics. Two key figures of the post-Benedict generation weighed in. The head of the German bishops’ conference, Georg Bätzing, of Limburg, who is sixty, said that Benedict “must override his advisers.” Hans Zollner, a German Jesuit, age fifty-five, whom the Vatican has given a prominent role in its official efforts to address the sexual abuse of minors, said that “there should have been much more empathy and humanity in this than just sticking to the letter of the law” and suggested that Benedict should address the matter with “a simple, personal statement.” That is what Benedict did.

It wasn’t the first time that Benedict had engaged in controversy from his monastery quarters via a personal letter. In 2019, he issued a six-thousand-word missive on clerical sexual abuse, which he attributed to a range of causes: the sexual revolution and the “new normalcy” of sexual permissiveness, the liberalizing of theology after the Second Vatican Council, the rise of “homosexual cliques” in Catholic seminaries, and the decline in religious belief in the West. “Why did pedophilia reach such proportions?” he asked. “Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God.” The new letter, by contrast, runs to just a page and a half, and its tone is tender and vulnerable. The Pope emeritus thanks those, Pope Francis among them, who have stuck by him. And he thanks a “small group of friends” who read thousands of documents to help prepare his statement for the Munich report “on my behalf.” He acknowledges the “error” that occurred in their account of the 1980 meeting, saying, “To me it proved deeply hurtful that this oversight was used to cast doubt on my truthfulness, and even to label me a liar.”

Then, Benedict adds, “Now, to these words of thanks, there must necessarily also follow a confession.” Drawing on the old Latin Mass’s language of penitence, he notes that he has seen the effects of a “most grievous fault” in the suffering of survivors of priestly sexual abuse. To those people he conveys his request for forgiveness, because “I have come to understand that we ourselves are drawn into this grievous fault whenever we neglect it or fail to confront it with decisiveness or responsibility.” He continues, “I have had great responsibilities in the Catholic church. All the greater is my pain for the abuses and errors that occurred in those different places during the time of my mandate.”

The Vatican’s news Web site presented Benedict’s letter as “a personal confession,” and it was characterized by many as a breakthrough: a Pope asking for forgiveness and making a searching “examination of conscience,” as he put it, and aware that he will soon “find myself before the final judge of my life.” Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, who leads the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, praised Benedict for his “profound honesty.”

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