It goes without saying that Benedict XVI’s recently published letter on sex abuse is terrible. I will also leave an obligatory note here about how I have liked Ratzinger’s writings (even as a Protestant), have tweeted my amazement at them, and have read enough people couching their critique of the former pontiff as loving fanboys disappointed in their master that I will do nothing of the sort here.
The letter stands or falls on its merits alone, and there are few to recommend it. The whole thing is about how the student movements of the 1968 were about atheism because they were Marxist (the joke was Je suis Marxiste, tendance Groucho), and that the absence of God from society led to a sexual revolution, and that that sexual revolution became manifested in the normalization of pornography, and in this way, clergy in the church were influenced by a pornographic society to give in to their basest desires. It’s a facile argument, one that probably most would think belongs more in Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option than in the writings of Benedict XVI. The counterargument is, of course, that clergy sex abuse was happening before 1968 too, and so were pornography and prostitution. So much for that, then, unless one wants to try their hand at saying that the distinction Ratzinger is making is between the private nature of pornography before the sixties and its public proliferation afterwards. But there are all sorts of problems with that too, not just in terms of Foucault’s reminder that a sexually repressed society does its disciplinary work by talking more about sex (not less), but also because Augustine’s comments on the theatre and the coliseum in the fourth century bespeak a kind of public bloodlust akin to the pornographic and his Confessions, far from relegating those desires to a private sphere, openly channels them to their chaste fulfillment in God.
Like it or not, though, the letter is also vintage Ratzinger. He is not at the low end of his diminishing powers in the waning years of his life; he’s just saying what he’s always been saying for many years before. Those who are shocked by his account of atheism generating a pornographic society should read his introduction to YouCat, the Latin Church’s catechetical program for teens. There, he warns them to seek the Lord, ‘if your faith is not going to dry up like a dewdrop in the sun, if you want to resist the blandishments of consumerism, if your love is not to drown in pornography, if you are not going to betray the weak and leave the vulnerable helpless’ (p. 10). It is in fact the argument of his Jesus of Nazareth series: the true prophet in Scripture is the one who seeks the face of the Lord in a personal way, whereas false ones predict flawed utopias. As for the fixation on 1968, that’s the turning point, as a number of Ratzinger readers know, for how Ratzinger became horrified by the chaos that embroiled the academy and became a conservative anti-Marxist. For details, one might read the introduction to the revised edition of Introduction of Christianity, which is book-ended by the dates 1968 and 1989:
The year 1968 marked the rebellion of a new generation, which not only considered postwar reconciliation in Europe inadequate, full of injustice, full of selfishness and greed, but also viewed the entire course of history since the triumph of Christianity as a mistake and failure. These young people wanted to improve things at last, to bring about freedom, equality, and justice, and they were convinced that they had found the way to this better world in the mainstream of Marxist thought. The year 1989 brought the surprising collapse of the socialist regimes in Europe, which left behind a sorry legacy of ruined land and ruined souls. Anyone who expected that the hour had come again for the Christian message was disappointed. Although the number of believing Christians throughout the world is not small, Christianity failed at that historical moment to make itself heard as an epoch-making alternative. Basically, the Marxist doctrine of salvation (in several differently orchestrated variations, of course) had taken a stand as the sole ethically motivated guide to the future that was at the same time consistent with a scientific worldview. Therefore, even after the shock of 1989, it did not simply abdicate. (p. 1, in ‘Introduction to Christianity,’ in The Essential Pope Benedict XVI).
Atheism, which for Ratzinger is the loss of a personal friendship with God and a faith in false egalitarian utopias that can be crystallized as ‘Marxism’ in ‘several differently orchestrated variations,’ leads to the perversion of utilitarian logics, and part of that perversity is the pornography of an atheistic society, a social order in which it becomes normal to use other bodies for sexual pleasure instead of seeing the other as a person in their own right. For the pope emeritus, Marxism is at the root of porn.
Surprisingly, at least probably to a number of people who want to make Ratzinger out to be a crazy old man, the pope emeritus is also not theologically out of line in making this argument, not even with Vatican II, as far as the theologizing of the Latin Church is concerned. Blaming atheism for modern problems is not only to be found in the Vatican line against communism in the papal development of Catholic social teaching from Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum to Pius XI’s explication of the doctrine in Quadragesimo anno and Divini redemptoris, where communism is denigrated as evil because it is atheistic and so the church should propose its own version of it with almost exactly the same critiques of capitalism and proposals for a return to the commons, except including God instead of excluding him. It is also the basic thrust of Henri de Lubac’s Drama of Atheist Humanism, where Comte, Marx, and Nietzsche become ciphers for utopian programs that may propose visions of social justice, whether radically egalitarian, nostalgically conservative, or openly erotic, but at the end of the day are ‘thrusting mankind away from God and at the same time urging it along the lines of a double bondage, social and spiritual’ (p. 13). The rad trads who rejoice at the passages in the letter where Ratzinger critiques the appropriation of the Second Vatican Council for the sexual revolution and the denigration of eucharistic propriety in the reception of the Council’s reforms should be less polemically celebratory. What Ratzinger is actually proposing is that the theology of Vatican II, which is so influenced by de Lubac as well as Hans Urs von Balthasar (whom he openly cites in the letter), sets the church against an atheism that is ipso facto utilitarian. It’s the conciliar thread that then winds in scholarly circles through Communio as opposed to Concilium, gets picked up by Milbank and his friends for Radical Orthodoxy, and seeps into Protestantism through the likes of Stanley Hauerwas. It’s not crazy; it’s just its account of the history of the secular (or as Joan Wallach Scott has it, the sexular) is factually problematic.
There are a number of people who have interpreted their own fascination with the piece as them being attracted to the glittering sheen of the letter. For the most part, they seem to be looking for an apologetic, for a father figure to tell them that atheists are the bad guys, that Catholics are good, and that their Catholic Church has been infiltrated by atheism. Ratzinger delivers on both — the apologetic and the daddy issues — so they flock to it. These folks need to re-read their Flannery O’Connor. That from which one cannot avert their gaze — is it not the grotesque, the hideous, even the pornographic? I, too, could not help but read it, and in so doing, I stumbled on this fascinating passage on the Eucharist, which I will quote in full:
God became man for us. Man as His creature is so close to His heart that He has united himself with him and has thus entered human history in a very practical way. He speaks with us, He lives with us, He suffers with us and He took death upon Himself for us. We talk about this in detail in theology, with learned words and thoughts. But it is precisely in this way that we run the risk of becoming masters of faith instead of being renewed and mastered by the Faith.
Let us consider this with regard to a central issue, the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Our handling of the Eucharist can only arouse concern. The Second Vatican Council was rightly focused on returning this sacrament of the Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ, of the Presence of His Person, of His Passion, Death and Resurrection, to the center of Christian life and the very existence of the Church. In part, this really has come about, and we should be most grateful to the Lord for it.
And yet a rather different attitude is prevalent. What predominates is not a new reverence for the presence of Christ’s death and resurrection, but a way of dealing with Him that destroys the greatness of the Mystery. The declining participation in the Sunday Eucharistic celebration shows how little we Christians of today still know about appreciating the greatness of the gift that consists in His Real Presence. The Eucharist is devalued into a mere ceremonial gesture when it is taken for granted that courtesy requires Him to be offered at family celebrations or on occasions such as weddings and funerals to all those invited for family reasons.
The way people often simply receive the Holy Sacrament in communion as a matter of course shows that many see communion as a purely ceremonial gesture. Therefore, when thinking about what action is required first and foremost, it is rather obvious that we do not need another Church of our own design. Rather, what is required first and foremost is the renewal of the Faith in the Reality of Jesus Christ given to us in the Blessed Sacrament.
In conversations with victims of pedophilia, I have been made acutely aware of this first and foremost requirement. A young woman who was a [former] altar server told me that the chaplain, her superior as an altar server, always introduced the sexual abuse he was committing against her with the words: “This is my body which will be given up for you.”
It is obvious that this woman can no longer hear the very words of consecration without experiencing again all the horrific distress of her abuse. Yes, we must urgently implore the Lord for forgiveness, and first and foremost we must swear by Him and ask Him to teach us all anew to understand the greatness of His suffering, His sacrifice. And we must do all we can to protect the gift of the Holy Eucharist from abuse.
At face value, these paragraphs read as a plea for a return to a kind of Latin liturgical propriety, be it in the restoration of the traditional Latin mass, or in renewed emphases on gestures and form, or in metallurgic upgrades to eucharistic hardware. Devaluing the formality of the Eucharist, Ratzinger seems to be saying, has resulted in literal abuse, not just in the sense of liturgical dancers wearing nothing but spandex trying to imitate Riverdance, but also in the horrifying perversion of eucharistic terminology in the commission of sexual abuse.
The story that Ratzinger tells of the victim whose superior abused the words of institution is hardly unusual when it comes to the stories of sexual abuse in the Latin Church. In one documentary I saw, an expert on sex abuse — I can’t remember who it was now (in other words, was it Sipe, Doyle, or Berry?) — spoke of an abuser who would touch a consecrated host to the vagina of the teenage girl he was abusing and say that he loved her the way the Lord did. In the Netflix documentary The Keepers, the abusive priests at the Catholic girls’ school forced one of the victims to perform oral sex on them and shouted to her at the moment of climax to take the Holy Spirit, which they told her was in their semen. The Pennsylvania Grand Jury report tells the story of boys being forced to dramatize liturgical perversions, including in a pornographic crucifix, for the camera. Catholicism, the Latin apologists are quick to remind us, has a sacramental imagination, one where grace infuses the material world in all things and culminates in the Eucharist where bread and wine transform into the Body and Blood. Perversely, rape by Latin clergy seems just as sacramentally imaginative, fusing the eros of grace with the erotics of pornography.
It is important to pay attention to the geography that Ratzinger proposes as undergirding such perversions. The thesis that Ratzinger advances through his letter is that this pornographization of the sacred comes from the infiltration of the church by a secular pornographic society. The argument, in other words, is that atheism in the world has made the church pornographically utilitarian too. Writing of Germany, Ratzinger deplores the proliferation of public pornography, especially in its introduction to young people as a kind of sexual education in schools. The unthinkable became normalized, he says, and in the wake of this kind of sexual formation, the demands of celibacy became impossible. The Second Vatican Council, he suggests in turn, made way for a departure from natural law in moral theology toward a more utilitarian way of thinking that dovetailed with this sexual revolution. In this view, the defiling of the Eucharist and the sacramental imagination come from the outside, where the secular is. Society has been perverted, the argument is, taking the church with it. It’s like the old pornographic trope in ecclesial garb, the one that sexualizes Eastern European women by insinuating that the experience of communism and its afterlives has made them all freaks in bed. The only trouble with this fantasy, besides it being terribly misogynistic, is that Slavic women have long been bought and sold as sex slaves, even before the enslavement of African peoples, which is also why they were called slavs in the first place. It’s also why one of the national heroines in Ukraine is Roxelana, a trafficked woman who ended up in the Ottoman harem, where she became the sultan’s favourite and ended up ruling the kingdom with him. The history of the de-personalization of the body precedes atheistic dreams of utopia and even the emergence of the secular. Indeed, most colonized peoples in the world, including the European ones, do not have the luxury of forgetting this fact. Ukraine is not a brothel, the bare-breasted activists of Femen never stop reminding us.
Ratzinger’s geography is set: atheistic utopia from the sixties is the problem, a utilitarian society has de-personalized sex, and the church went along with it. By way of recovering God in his absence, the pope emeritus cites Hans Urs von Balthasar, whose book he had under his arm on way to the helicopter on his last day on the job. ‘I will never forget the warning,’ Ratzinger writes, ‘that the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once wrote to me on one of his letter cards. “Do not presuppose the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but present them!”’ Society has become atheistic, Ratzinger’s fundamental contention is, in the ‘absence of God’ has come pornography instead, and it is only in the proposal of God in the public square by a church that has itself become pornographized that the public proliferation of sexual utilitarianism will be rolled back. Speaking again of Germany, Ratzinger lays out a brief history of constitutional atheism that has infiltrated the church:
We Christians and priests also prefer not to talk about God, because this speech does not seem to be practical. After the upheaval of the Second World War, we in Germany had still expressly placed our Constitution under the responsibility to God as a guiding principle. Half a century later, it was no longer possible to include responsibility to God as a guiding principle in the European constitution. 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.
Ratzinger speaks of a topsy turvy world: God was once public, and sex was private, and now this order has been reversed. To this atheistic society that relegates faith to the private sphere, the church must adopt – alas – the missionary position. To the absence of God, the proposition must be that God is present. The world of secularity has overridden the moral theology of the people of God, and thus God’s people must take the Lord back to the public square where he belongs. Only then will the pornographic perversion of the holy things be re-inverted to their original sacramental order.
The real question that this analysis raises is not really about whether the Trinity is true or whether all creation is constituted by the supernatural. It’s whether Ratzinger has accurately assessed the situation of the secular and its relationship with the church. Certainly, without question, the emergence of modern secularity — one that a number of theologians, including Ratzinger and his sympathizers, have shown to have emerged from the bureaucratic centralization of the Latin Church beginning in the tenth century papal revolutions — has resulted in the development of a public sphere with utilitarian political and economic logics. It is indeed correct that this desacralization of the natural order has led to ecological devastation, militarization, and all sorts of ideological experimentation that elevates depersonalized systems into positions of dominance over human persons with messy lives; this is why, for example, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has called for a World Day of Prayer for the Protection of Creation since 1989. Of course, such cultural secularization seeps down to the level of the person, who may find themselves anthropologically split, as the anthropologist Talal Asad puts it, between a public persona of political productivity and a private sense of indulgence in matters of erotic, whether one’s kinks might come from religion or BDSM. But does the privatization of faith and other pleasures lead to the perversion of the Eucharist in Latin cases of sexual abuse? That, I think, is the gnawing problem at the heart of Ratzinger’s letter.
Ratzinger’s solution is the recovery of what Balthasar called a theological aesthetic; what he does not entertain, perhaps because this line of questioning would be far too horrifying, is that the problem lies in the theological aesthetics themselves. ‘Beauty is the disinterested one,’ Balthasar proposes in Seeing the Form, ‘without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness’ (p. 18). The Balthasarian historical narrative is much longer than the popularized Ratzingerian one; for Balthasar, beauty has been cast aside as a movement of modernity, left to ‘passionate frenzy to the fleeing garments of beauty’ in the nineteenth century before an ‘impossible marriage with matter, a union which finally spoils all man’s taste of love’ and renders beauty ‘the object of his impotence’ in the twentieth (pp. 18-19). And yet, the beautiful is still a ‘primal phenomenon.’ Just because it has been spoiled, Balthasar argues, doesn’t mean that there is not the subjective impulse to be drawn to it:
Whoever insists that he can neither see nor read it, or whoever cannot accept it, but rather seeks to ‘break it up’ critically into supposedly prior components, that person falls into the void, and what is worse, he falls into what is opposed to the true and the good. The original of beauty lies not in a disembodied spirit which looks about for a field of expression and, finding one, adjusts it to its own purposes as one would set up a typewriter and begin typing, afterwards to abandon it. Nor is it a spiritless body which somehow ‘throws itself together’ through an inexplicably play of material forces (‘impulses’ would already be too strong), only to fall apart soon after. (p. 20).
No, what beauty is, as Balthasar puts it, is that the form, the body, creation itself is inherently correlated with Being. Sunder it, and the impulse does not go away; it becomes perverted, as the impulse to join oneself to the beingness of beauty itself is only thrown into confusion, not expunged.
Ratzinger and Balthasar both propose that what has perverted the theological aesthetic is the secularization of modernity; what is tragic is that they do not consider that the persons in the church can sin all by themselves. The assumption is that sex abuse is purely utilitarian, but the horror of a number of priestly abuse stories, including the one recounted by Ratzinger, is that they are beholden to a sacramental imagination. The priest sees beauty in the body of the minor and is captivated; he has seen the form and even correlated it to the Eucharist, and now desires to consume it. This perversion does not require the secular. All it needs is some imagination, just like, as de Lubac shows in Corpus Mysticum, the Eucharist can be perverted in a number of ways, including by taking the insight that those who consume the Body and Blood of Christ together are mystically joined in communion and using that as the driving engine for the ideology of the Holy Roman Empire. The church can defile the altar all by herself. She does not need the secular to help her. In fact, if the line from Corpus Mysticum is properly followed (as Charles Taylor, among others, does), the space of the secular is the illegitimate child of mater ecclesia, a product of the institutional incest between imperium and sacerdotium. If the secular is pornographic, it is probably because it is Joffrey to the Latin Church’s Cersei. Shame.
Recovering a theological aesthetic in the midst of a pornographic secular wasteland is a nice thought, in other words, but is not the answer to the sex abuse crisis, as the link between the utilitarianism of secularization and the usage of bodies for pleasure is an abstract connection that does not seem borne out by the much more horrifying anecdotes of theological aesthetics as part and parcel of the situations of abuse themselves. Secular pornography and the sex abuse crisis in the Latin Church may well be separate phenomena, tangentially linked but in an underdetermined way. For the latter problem, no amount of structural reform or theological recovery will lead to the purification of the church, which is a gathering of people who are clawing their way out of their passions through the grace of Christ in their midst. As I have argued last year, what the sexual abuse of minors in the Latin Church, as well as the acts of sexual violence committed by clergy who abuse their power more generally, comes down to is rape, and that is of interest to the civil authorities. The people of God should be formed in a way that the first impulse when someone is raped is that the sword of secular power should be invoked. They should also be reminded that blaming Marx, or atheism, or the secular for their own problems is just blame-shifting. In this way, we come to recognize the horrifying reality of sin in the world as our own propensity to pervert anything that is good into evil. For this, Christ came into the world, to save us because we sinners are sick and this sickness is nobody’s but our own.