The sad reality of Pope Benedict XVI

I have watched with curiosity for many years as the Traditional Latin Mass became increasingly popular among conservative Catholics. Many times I have considered attending myself and dragging our daughter along. For me, it has always been about a love of Church history and the gorgeous aesthetics of the Mass, nothing more. I studied Latin through graduate school and our daughter has had several years of Latin in homeschooling. We love the language and its role in history.

A friend of mine talks often about relatives who attend TLM, however, and the overlap between TLM and conservative conspiracy groups. Their family members became wrapped up in Q Anon via TLM friends. I found myself following TLM Facebook groups to see how common this issue was. And the members did not disappoint, let me tell you. There was considerable discussion about who in government was a Satanist, many conspiracy theories about the current pope, lots of prayers to St Michael the Archangel, famed for being a warrior. Much like Q Anon, the Oath Keepers, etc. these were folks who legitimately believed they were involved in a cultural war that realistically could into more than mere words.

On the streets, however, these folks have a different shtick. The TLM is about family, about recruiting younger generations into the rites of the Church, about preserving tradition and history. The only thing about the movement’s public presentation that might make one wonder are the rules about modesty for women, which seem more Pentecostal than Catholic. Most modern Catholics have never attended a church with a dress code, though there are rules about modesty when you visit the Vatican, for example. All ancient religions include appeals to modesty in some form or another though, so it’s hard to get worked up about it.

Although I found myself among those rushing to defend the TLM against Pope Francis’s decrees restricting its observance, part of me wondered if I should blame him for doing so, as it is not difficult at all to see where the movement wanders into divisive politics. That was his main problem with TLM groups, and it is not without its merits.

Another big thing about the TLM folks, however, was the reverence they had for Pope Benedict XVI (formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from Germany), whom in every way comes across as the anti-Francis (though they seem to have a very amicable relationship and genuine respect for each other). Benedict became the first (I think?) pope to simply retire from the obligations of the papacy – usually popes serve until they pass on to their great reward.

The Church never really explained why Benedict spontaneously retired. But if you ask many conservative Catholics, you will get theories suggesting he was forced out over politics. There will be many references to how the church is controlled by the “lavender mafia,” an ugly phrase coined by conservative commentator Rod Dreher to explain what he believes are networks of gay priests and pedophiles who prop each other up and move high into the ranks of the church. Dreher had been so upset by coverage of child abuse in the church that he switched to the Orthodox Church (which does not share the same theological beliefs as the Roman Catholic Church and is a distinct entity).

The love of Benedict seemed to come from the fact that he was stickler for Church traditions and mores, and thus he made the TLM more easily available. He resisted the leftist politics that have become a hallmark of Francis’s papacy, as Benedict grew up in Hitler’s Germany and has a sharp disdain for fascism, socialism, and communism. Members of Benedict’s family were harassed and murdered by the Nazis.

But Church investigations into sexual abuse in Germany paint a very different picture of Benedict, and reveal that he lied about being present at a meeting where it was decided that a known pedophile priest would be kept in a pastoral position (albeit elsewhere to conceal the nature of his crimes against children). This became a strategy within Church leadership to avoid controversy, which ended in an explosion of child abuse cases in the church. It’s honestly kind of depressing to read these things about a former pope.

From DW:

Former Pope Benedict XVI has apologized for providing false information during a probe into sexual abuse in his old Munich archdiocese, his secretary said in a statement on Monday that was posted to the Vatican News portal.

The statement, which was given to the German-language Catholic News Agency (KNA), said the false information was not given “with ill intent.”

Instead, it was blamed on an editing “oversight” that occurred with Benedict’s written testimony to the inquiry.

The former pope, 94, had told the inquiry that he had not been present at a 1980 meeting discussing a pedophile priest. He has now confirmed that he did attend the meeting but insisted that no decision had been made there about reassigning the priest to pastoral duties.

“Rather, only the request to provide [the priest] with accommodation during his therapeutic treatment in Munich was granted,” the statement said.

Benedict was “very sorry” for the mistake and said he hoped that it could be forgiven, said the statement, adding that he would give an explanation for the error later.

Another DW piece provides more background:

Before Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005, critics called him the “Panzerkardinal,” or “tank cardinal,” in reference to his sharp, dogmatic views: someone who uncompromisingly defended the church’s traditional doctrine. Soon after his election to pontiff, there were reports that the reportedly tough ex-cardinal was capable of laughter and was even a softie, to everyone’s surprise.

Now, Ratzinger is being described in a new way. One of the lawyers, whose office spent many months investigating abuse in Ratzinger’s former diocese of Munich, said he had a “very rocklike way of dealing with things” — in reference to the accusation that he covered up abuse in the church.

The approximately 1,900 pages that a Munich law firm has compiled on the archdiocese of Munich-Freising’s handling of sexual abuse cases are a “catalog of horrors.”

One of the lawyers says so literally, several times. The thick volumes are also a document of church history — they represent a new dimension, a new stage in the investigation of sexual abuse.

Since 1952, six archbishops have headed the archdiocese in Munich. All of them had been cardinals before or were elevated to cardinals while in office. All six, without exception, were guilty, to varying degrees, of clear misconduct in dealing with sexual abuse cases. Three of the six are still alive.

And, from 1977 to 1982, Ratzinger was archbishop of Munich, and then continued his career in Rome and ascended to the top of the Catholic Church as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. That’s why the global Catholic community watched with bated breath the events in Munich on Thursday this week.

With regard to the five years that Ratzinger spent in Munich, the experts speak of four cases of misconduct in which the archbishop should have acted against abusive priests but did not. For example in the case of priests, whose acts of abuse were known, but who nevertheless continued with pastoral work.

Ratzinger himself reacted to the allegations in an 82-page written statement. In it, he rejects “allegations,” claims ignorance of certain events or even says he does not remember them at all. He also firmly denies having attended a committee meeting at which a particularly nasty case of a cover-up was discussed. The experts from the law firm, however, prove with credible details that Ratzinger was there after all.

Ratzinger’s letter is an outrageous and, at the same time, tragic document. It’s hard to read when this great theologian explains that for a canonical judicial procedure to be opened would have required “an offense directed at the arousal of sexual desire.” Let’s not forget, we’re talking here about minors!

In light of the report by the Munich law firm, there are four points worth holding on to:

1) It’s important that the lawyers repeatedly and explicitly addressed the importance of the victims and the survivors of sexual violence and thanked them, appreciated their courage and their openness. That’s something they didn’t attribute to any clergyman. And they are right to demand that an ombudsman’s office be set up to represent their interests. This is about dealing appropriately with victims, which the church can hardly do itself.

2) It is important to look at the parishes where abusive priests worked and which the church should be monitoring more closely. Entire communities, friendships and families have already been divided over allegations, assumptions and disappointments. Here, too, the church is sinning against its base.

3) The church obviously cannot deal with the past by itself; the state judiciary must intervene more decisively. That is evident, and not just because of Ratzinger’s coldly worded statement. Two days before the publication of the Munich report, an archbishop testified for the first time in Cologne ⁠— another hot spot of church cover-ups and appeasement ⁠—  as a witness in the proceedings against a priest and alleged sexual offender. The dignitary, Archbishop Stefan Hesse of Hamburg, suddenly stood before the judge and had to answer concisely, precisely and,  according to those present, meekly. This demonstrates that state prosecutors or judges should be pushing the legal process forward. The state, if it wants to at all, should take over prosecuting the crimes. This would also mean that victims would no longer have to face the perpetrators or their organizations.

4) And finally, the fourth point is that this clerical and episcopal-driven church that elevates itself and tries to cover up its filth is no longer the church of the present. If one can at all sense a line in Pope Francis’ occasionally strange-sounding statements, it is the effort to keep alive the longing for God. And the church? Comes up somehow, too. But the exaltation of the past is over. The question is whether the Catholic Church will be able to cope with this.

It is exhausting to think about how the reality of the past in the Church diverges with the romantic version of it in conservative circles. You cannot return to the soul of the organization when you lionize people who were central to its problems and concoct narratives to prop them up in the Catholic imagination. If the movement were distinctly a religious movement in itself and did not wander into politics, it wouldn’t have any enemies. None of these people considered for a moment, however, that maybe the Church is rejecting the TLM folks because they had good reason to push out Benedict. No one likes to think that maybe, just maybe, they aren’t the ones on the side of all that is good and holy.

If the Latin rites are finally lost for good, it won’t be about snobbery. It will be the movement’s own recreational idolatry that sinks it. That’s a depressing thought, but it’s true.

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