Is Pope Benedict XVI's 'Absence of God' Letter Driving a Schism in the Catholic Church?

Is Pope Benedict XVI's 'Absence of God' Letter Driving a Schism in the Catholic Church?
Pope Francis and former Pope Benedict XVI (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool photo via AP)

On April 10, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI published a 6,000-word essay on the priestly sexual abuse scandal that traced the issue back to the Sexual Revolution and the absence of God. German theologians have accused Benedict of causing a “schism,” and not without reason.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 and resigned from the office in 2013, becoming the first pope in nearly 600 years to do so. Since the pope is considered infallible when speaking ex-cathedra on matters of faith and morals, a resignation is particularly noteworthy. Given the Catholic Church’s history of having multiple popes at the same time, Benedict’s decision to address this issue may make it seem as though he is challenging Pope Francis for the leadership of the church.

Ironically, Benedict’s letter — which condemned the view that the Catholic Church is “just some kind of political apparatus” — is extremely interesting in political terms. Rather than signing off with his given name, Joseph Ratzinger, the pope emeritus signed off with his baptized name Benedict XVI, as if he were still pope. However, at the beginning and the end, Benedict referred to Pope Francis as “the Holy Father” and explicitly thanked him at the end of his essay.

“At the end of my reflections I would like to thank Pope Francis for everything he does to show us, again and again, the light of God, which has not disappeared, even today. Thank you, Holy Father!” Benedict concluded.

Benedict did not intend to mount a challenge to Francis, but his letter explicitly condemns liberal theologians as part of the problem on priestly sexual abuse. He condemned the moral laxity of the Sexual Revolution and the Catholic Church’s rejection of natural law moral philosophy as central to the flare-up of priestly sexual abuse.

“Among the freedoms that the Revolution of 1968 sought to fight for was this all-out sexual freedom, one which no longer conceded any norms,” Benedict wrote. He harshly criticized German moral theologian Franz Böckle, who insisted that no actions are consistently everywhere and always evil.

“There are values which must never be abandoned for a greater value and even surpass the preservation of physical life. There is martyrdom. God is (about) more than mere physical survival. A life that would be bought by the denial of God, a life that is based on a final lie, is a non-life,” Benedict wrote. “Martyrdom is a basic category of Christian existence. The fact that martyrdom is no longer morally necessary in the theory advocated by Böckle and many others shows that the very essence of Christianity is at stake here.”

The true essence of Christianity would expel priestly sexual abuse, the former pope argued. “Why did pedophilia reach such proportions? Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God.” He argued that the theological trend of doubting the infallibility of church leadership on matters of morality strengthened the threat of the Sexual Revolution. Some have argued “that the Church cannot have her own morality,” a claim that eviscerates the unique moral claims of Jesus on His followers.

“We Christians and priests also prefer not to talk about God, because this speech does not seem to be practical,” Benedict conceded. “God is regarded as the party concern of a small group and can no longer stand as the guiding principle for the community as a whole. This decision reflects the situation in the West, where God has become the private affair of a minority.”

Yet “a world without God can only be a world without meaning,” he argued. Without God, the world “is somehow simply there and has neither any goal nor any sense. Then there are no standards of good or evil. Then only what is stronger than the other can assert itself. Power is then the only principle. Truth does not count, it actually does not exist.” Indeed, in Marxist philosophy, power dictates truth.

Benedict argued that the unique power of Christianity rests in the claim that God revealed Himself to human beings. He did so to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and He did so most importantly in the life of Jesus Christ. “A paramount task, which must result from the moral upheavals of our time, is that we ourselves once again begin to live by God and unto Him,” he wrote. In Jesus, God modeled the kind of love that casts out evil like priestly sexual abuse.

Some have criticized Benedict’s argument that the priestly sexual abuse problem became worse in the 1960s and “became most acute in the second half of the 1980s.” Rachel Donadio at The Atlantic argued that this is not true — because allegations of sexual abuse occurred both before and after that time period. As National Review‘s Nicholas Frankovich explained, however, the data support Benedict on this issue.

As an evangelical Protestant, I am inclined to agree with Benedict’s analysis of the Sexual Revolution making the problems worse, and the absence of God being the key explanation for why the abuse worsened. Some Catholics have indeed rushed to the former pontiff’s defense.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (a position Ratzinger once held), vigorously defended Benedict’s view. Müller told the German newspaper Die Welt that Benedict’s letter “pierced the boil,” and his essay “is more intelligent than all the contributions at the Roman ‘Abuse Summit’ and the know-it-all moral experts at the German Bishops’ Conference.” In an interview with LifeSiteNews, he also defended Benedict against accusations that the former pope is causing a “schism.”

Some Catholics vehemently disagreed with Benedict’s diagnosis, however. The Jesuit Father Thomas Reese slammed the letter, arguing that to Benedict, “facts don’t matter.” It stands to reason that the Jesuits, a very theologically liberal order, would oppose the former pope’s theological conclusions.

As a Protestant, I deeply appreciated Benedict’s analysis, although I disagreed with his rejection of Protestant denominations.

Toward the end of his essay, the former pope mused that “perhaps we should create another Church for things to work out? Well, that experiment has already been undertaken and has already failed. Only obedience and love for our Lord Jesus Christ can point the way.” Ouch!

Benedict compared the Catholic Church to the field in Jesus’ parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20, Luke 8:4-15). In this field, “the good grain that God Himself has sown grows, but also the weeds that ‘an enemy’ secretly sown onto it. Indeed, the weeds in God’s field, the Church, are excessively visible. … And at all times, there are not only the weeds, but also the crops of God. To proclaim both with emphasis is not a false form of apologetics, but a necessary service to the Truth.”

Indeed, God’s Church includes both weeds and healthy vines, but His Church is not limited to the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. Churches in Armenia, Ethiopia, Egypt, India, and many other parts of the world are just as old as the Catholic Church, and the Spirit of God breathes in Protestant and Orthodox churches across the globe. As Romans 10:9 states, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

When Martin Luther tried to reform the Catholic Church and was excommunicated, he had to begin a new institution. But that does not mean he “created another Church.” Fundamentally, all those who believe in Jesus Christ as their redeemer and follow Him are members of God’s Church.

The institution of the Roman Catholic Church has many virtues, but issues like the priestly sexual abuse scandal reveal that it is all too human. Former Pope Benedict XVI may not have intended to divide the church with his letter, but by resigning from the papacy he created a major problem for the Catholic Church. Since that church considers popes infallible in the right circumstances, and since those circumstances involve moral teaching, and since Benedict warned of an “absence of God” in that church, he could not deliver his important message without inspiring legitimate complaints that he was dividing the church.

When Pope Francis visited former Pope Benedict at the beginning of Holy Week, the current pontiff may have been attempting to make it clear that the two popes are on good terms. No schism is occurring. Nothing to see here.

Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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