The Sexual Revolution and sex abuse scandals: A Protestant take on Pope Benedict's letter

David Closson is a research fellow for religious freedom and biblical worldview at Family Research Council. This article appeared on The Christian Post on April 29, 2019.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI recently surprised church observers by weighing in on the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal. In an almost 6,000-word article published in Germany, Benedict argued that clerical sexual abuse could be traced to the moral transformation that transpired during the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The rejection of biblical morality and absolute truth, Benedict said, has led to the “dissolution of the Christian concept of morality.”

The public comments represent a rare move for the former pontiff, who, in 2013, became the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign. At the time, Benedict pledged to live out his remaining years in quiet contemplation. Thus, his public letter, which was approved by Pope Francis, is a notable change for the former leader of the world’s largest church.

Initial reaction to Benedict’s letter was mixed. Whereas conservatives praised the former pope’s analysis, those on the theological left immediately criticized the letter for its “thin analysis” of the situation. Critics, such as church historian Christopher Bellitto, attacked Benedict’s letter for omitting conclusions that were reached during a February summit in Rome, such as the claims that “abusers were priests along the ideological spectrum, that the abuse predated the 1960s, that it is a global and not simply Western problem, [and] that homosexuality is not the issue in pedophilia.”

As far as the contents of the letter, it is divided into three parts.

The first section outlines the “wider social context” of the clerical sexual abuse scandal. In scathing language, Benedict attacks the 1960s as a time when the “previously normative standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely.”

Specifically, Benedict points to the loss of objective truth as a major turning point for the church.

Although the former pope’s analysis, in nature, is largely theological, he is specific about how changing cultural mores led to a rejecting of standards of right and wrong. For example, he argues that “sexual and pornographic movies… became a common occurrence” and that violence and sexual deviance began to be tolerated.

Elsewhere, he writes, “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.”

These changes in the culture eventually found their way into the seminaries. “The extensive collapse of the next generation of priests in those years and the very high number of laicizations were a consequence of all these developments,” Benedict wrote.

Arguing for the reality of and the need to recover biblical truth, he stated, “There are values which must never be abandoned for a greater value.”

In the second part of the letter, Benedict discusses how this loss of morality affected Catholic educational institutions, including seminaries.

He notes, “As regards the problem of preparation for priestly ministry in seminaries, there is in fact a far-reaching breakdown of the previous form of this preparation.” Specifically, Benedict notes the rise of “homosexual cliques” that changed the climate in many Catholic seminaries. Referring to one example, he notes, “the climate in this seminary could not provide support for preparation to the priestly vocation.”

Benedict goes on to note that the seminaries have improved since the 1970s.

In the final section of the letter, Benedict offers some thoughts on how the church should now move forward. Part apologetic, part pastoral counsel, Benedict argues in this section for a return to “the content of the Faith as laid down in the Bible.”

Commenting on the widely-held secular belief that the public square should be desacralized, Benedict notes that the “death of God in society also means the end of freedom.” He goes on to observe that the secular and cultural elite believe “Western society is a society in which God is absent in the public sphere and has nothing left to offer it.” Against this, Benedict argues that when the ground of morality is removed, “the measure of humanity is increasingly lost.”

Reflecting on the current crisis, Benedict offers a theological reflection: “Why did pedophilia reach such proportions” in the church? “Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God.”

For Christians reading the former pope’s letter, there are a few important take-aways.

First, Benedict is helpful in connecting the rejection of objective truth to the collapse of moral standards. When absolute truth is abandoned the result is the eventual acceptance of all sorts of depravation. This is why Christians have long recognized that moral values must be grounded in God’s revelation. The Bible, as God’s Word, is the final authority in matters of right and wrong. In regard to sexual ethics, pornography, homosexuality, and pedophilia are wrong because they deviate from God’s intention for marriage and human sexuality.

Second, the pope is right to point out the disastrous effects of the ideology underlying the sexual revolution. Although many commentators have called the pope’s assessment of the moral climate of the 1960s “embarrassing,” it is true that norms regarding sexuality were undermined during the sexual revolution. In his attempt to trace the causes of the abuse scandal, Benedict is noting what happens when moral standards are abandoned.

To be sure, the abuse in the Catholic church goes beyond the sexual liberation movement of the 1960s; clerical abuse predates the middle of the twentieth century. But the pope’s cultural analysis, particularly his observation about theological liberalism and his caution about the dangers of moral relativism are helpful. If biblical truth on marriage and sexuality is compromised and replaced with teaching antithetical to God’s Word — especially in the institutions responsible for training aspiring ministers — the result will be a confused generation of priests unprepared to lead the church.

Third, Christians who read Benedict’s letter should heed his heartfelt admonition about society’s desperate need for God. Tragically, the pope is right in his diagnosis that “Western society is a society in which God is absent in the public sphere.” But Christians should insist that the evacuation of God and biblical values from the public square is an unnecessary concession to secularists who demand a “value neutral” public square. As Richard John Neuhaus argued years ago, the notion that religiously informed beliefs must be kept out of our public discourse is false and based on the misguided belief that secular values are non-religious. Ultimately, everyone enters the public square with a worldview grounded in fundamental beliefs about what is true; everyone has commitments formed by an overarching metanarrative. And because our culture desperately needs God, Christians, the people who truly believe that the gospel is the answer to the world’s problems, must recommit themselves to loving their neighbors by sharing the good news of God’s grace.

Finally, Christians should embrace Pope Benedict’s call to embrace the incarnation. Believers celebrate — especially during Holy Week as we prepare to observe Easter — the reality that in the incarnation Jesus willingly offered Himself as the substitute for human sin. Therefore, the incarnation is the preeminent display of God’s love for His children and is the basis for establishing a right relationship between God and man.

While much of the media hullabaloo surrounding the release of the former pope’s letter stems from the unprecedented nature of having a pope emeritus, the theological and historical ruminations and pastoral counsel within the letter deserves attention. In our modern cultural climate where theology and biblical truth are largely considered outdated or irrelevant, the pope’s exhortation to hold fast to the church’s timeless moral beliefs is a needed reminder.

The full text of Pope Benedict’s letter can be read here.