In a March 28 article on the present plight of the Pope and priestly pedophilia (wow, I didn’t intend that alliteration!), the NEW YORK TIMES wrote: “As archbishop, Benedict expended more energy pursuing theological dissidents than sexual predators.” They’re referring to the early 80s, when Pope Benedict was Cardinal Ratzinger presiding over the diocese of Munich.
The claim has to be set in context, as John Allen reminds us in an op-ed piece in the same issue of the NYT. In those days, priestly pedophilia was understood to be more of a moral disorder than a psychological disorder. If it’s a moral problem, you can go to confession with a “firm purpose of amendment,” and then get back to your life armed with God’s grace. If the problem is psychological, you will need serious therapy and maybe God’s grace will be able to bring you only so far. The bishops, at that time, didn’t realize the messy psychic roots of pedophilia.
Okay. That’s true. But what was becoming clear in the 80′s, I’m told, was the reality of post-traumatic stress and the disorder it causes. That was seen in Vietnam vets. And it was also clear that the trauma of sexual abuse of children can have the same enduring devastating effects. That the bishops could have, or should have, known: If they thought that the moral disorder of priestly pedophilia could be set aright in the confessional and through grace, they should have also known (and maybe did) that the psychological disorder that the abuse caused in children could not be handled so neatly. Such disorder and pain pervaded the life of the abused victims into their adulthood, long after the priests were absolved and back at the altar. Where was the pastoral concern for the children who, as we have heard, were sometimes required to take oaths of silence about what had happened to them?
And here is where the TIMES article is telling us something. What seems to be true of Ratzinger was broadly true of many bishops: he was more concerned about the horrors of heresy than the horrors of psychological devastations of sexually abused children.
That brings me to the “dictatorship of relativism.” This was the phrase that Cardinal Ratzinger used in the sermon he preached for all his fellow Cardinals during the Mass before they all entered the Sacred Conclave and elected Ratzinger as Pope. Many commentators have pointed out that it was this rallying call to oppose relativism that roused many Cardinals to vote for him.
Relativism, loosely described, means “anything goes.” Ratzinger was going to put a stop to that among theologians. That’s what occupied him as archbishop of Munich, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and as Pope. There are limits to what a theologian can say. If he or she goes too far, they lose their job.
But while Ratzinger and many Catholic bishops have opposed the dictatorship of theological relativism, they seem to have slacked on opposing — indeed, they seem to be fostering — a dictatorship of moral relativism when it comes to how they have handled not only pedophile priests, but bishops who have covered for, and then reassigned, such priests.
While theologians who have gone too far in questioning the uniqueness of Christ have been forbidden to teach, bishops who have not reported pedophile priests to the authorities have been promoted.
Where’s the relativism? Where’s the “anything goes”? Who is the dictator of relativism?