Pope em. Benedict XVI. (Archive) © Osservatore Romano/Romano Siciliani (CBA)
For eight years, the pontificate of Benedict XVI has been. ends. But his activities in the church still cause controversy. A new book considers him a major culprit in the Catholic Church abuse scandal.
The relationship of German Catholics to "their Pope" Benedict has features of a tragic father-child story. In the 1960s, he was considered one who shook up Catholic dogmatics, one of the outstanding theologians of the great Vatican reform council, one who was looked up to. 20 years later, when he was the chief guardian of the faith, reprimanding dissenters and guarding the line between what were Catholic truths and what were dangerous heresies, the picture darkened. He became the bogeyman of all those who wanted a free theology with contemporary approaches to dogmatics, liturgy, moral and social teaching.
Astonished, they then saw others cheering him after his election as pope, and briefly they cheered with. Until, in the course of his pontificate, he accommodated the ultra-conservatives, triggering crises with misleading statements on Islam or Judaism. For his critics, the feared punisher now became the old man stumbling awkwardly in the leadership office, who reacted to criticism sometimes lamenting and sometimes grumbling. Only when he voluntarily resigned was he once again spoken of with respect – which, of course, ended abruptly when he once again spoke out from his retirement with conservative (and misunderstandable) positions.
The book by Reisinger and Rohl
The question of what the real reason for the resignation was still haunts German Catholics today, and so it is fitting that exactly eight years later a book about the "Ratzinger system" is published. The authors, theologian Doris Reisinger and film director Christoph Rohl, interpret the entire thinking and work of the theologian, cardinal and pope from his dealings with the abuse of minors and dependent people by clerics.
One might also say that they are trying to use the mistakes he made in dealing with this mega-scandal to highlight his entire thinking as misguided and harmful to the church. Also the resignation is in this perspective nothing else than the natural consequence of this failure.
Comprehensive perspective of the narrative
The authors describe in detail how, since the early 1980s, the Catholic Church on the ground and in the Vatican has tried, with diminishing success, to counter media reports of sexual abuse with evasiveness and appeasement. They trace how what began in the U.S. with an isolated case grew over the years into a conflagration – and how the men at the top of the church did nothing for a long time to bring the perpetrators to secular and/or ecclesiastical justice.
Little of this is new, but the narrative's comprehensive, almost global perspective is a remarkable achievement. What is new is the way Reisinger and Rohl describe the actions of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI. Interpret in this maelstrom of scandals, cover-ups and new revelations. While they concede that he recognized and named the extent of the crimes earlier than others in the Vatican. They acknowledge that by transferring the church's criminal proceedings to the strict Roman Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he made at least a small step forward. But they accuse him of having done so much too late, only under massive public prere, and then also for the wrong motives.
The case of Marcial Maciel Degollado
If one follows the authors, Ratzinger should have cracked down on the abuse scandal as early as the mid-1980s with the same severity that he displayed elsewhere against liberal or socialist deviants from church teaching. Thus, however, it took him and, with him, the entire church leadership decades to recognize the extent and respond.
As the most hair-raising example, the book recounts the case of Marcial Maciel Degollado, a pathological swindler from Mexico. He founded the "Legionaries of Christ," a Catholic priestly order that is still active worldwide, but had several wives and children in his private double life and sexually abused numerous minors and seminarians over decades. It was not church superiors who put a stop to him, but the American journalist Jason Berry with his revelations.
Too late and too little consistent
The behavior of Ratzinger, who suspected earlier than others in the Vatican what a felon there was in Pope John Paul II. in and out, the book authors judge it to be completely inadequate. While they acknowledge that, unlike many others in the Vatican, he did not accept bulging "donation" envelopes from Maciel on principle.
They also concede that in 2005 he sent a special investigator to Mexico against the will of the cardinal secretary of state. And that, as soon as he had the power as pope, he condemned the aged perpetrator to a life of penance and seclusion on the basis of the overwhelming facts. But all this again falls under the verdict: far too late and far too little consistently.
Tiring in parts
The authors' verdict on the motives of the hesitant clean man at the top of the church is even harsher. The prefect of the faith and later pope, as his published speeches show, was never concerned with the victims and their injured bodies and souls, but always only with the purity of the church, the priesthood and the sacraments. Even the fact that Benedict XVI. being the first pope to meet abuse victims on several trips, listen to their accounts and pray with them is not enough from their point of view; they characterize it (quoting an abuse victim) as a mere PR action.
These and similar sweeping condemnations make the reading of this otherwise insightful book tedious in places. If other biographers of Ratzinger have conjured up the luminous figure of a brilliant theologian and fearless fighter against aberrations and crimes in the Church, this book, almost in mirror image, plunges everything into deep blackness. Neither does justice to the thoughts and actions of the German theologian on the papal throne.