VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Robert Sarah has praised Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s recent “notes” on the clergy sexual abuse crisis, saying they have “proved to be a true source of light in the night of faith that touches the whole Church.”
The cardinal, who was expected to discuss his new book Le soir approche et déjà le jour baisse at a May 14 event in Rome, instead surprised the audience of invited French intellectuals and Vatican diplomats by dedicating his whole talk entirely to Benedict’s reflections.
Benedict had written the notes to coincide with the Feb. 21-24 Vatican summit of bishops on protection of minors in the Church.
In his talk, published in full in French by veteran Vatican journalist Sandro Magister, Cardinal Sarah said Benedict was a “martyr for the Truth” who sees the crisis “correctly.” His reflections were able to touch the “deepest heart” of the crisis, he said, but reactions to them have “at times bordered on intellectual hysteria” and Cardinal Sarah said he was “struck by the wretchedness and stupidity of several comments.”
The Guinean prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship began his talk by pointing out that the Benedict XVI had “brilliantly illustrated, exposed and shown” the “fundamental ideas” that he himself had analyzed in his new book — namely the crises of faith, the priesthood, the Church, and Christian anthropology, as well as the “spiritual collapse and moral decadence of the West and all the consequences.”
Summarizing Benedict’s thesis in one quote from the text, Cardinal Sarah said: “Why has pedophilia reached such proportions? In the final analysis, the reason is the absence of God.” This is the “architectonic principle” of Benedict’s entire reflection, said the cardinal, who frequently returned to underline this point.
“The frightening multiplication of abuses has one and only one ultimate cause: the absence of God,” he said, adding another quote from Benedict that “only where faith no longer determines man’s actions are such crimes possible.”
The crisis of sexual abuse is the “symptom of a deeper crisis: the crisis of faith, the crisis of the meaning of God,” Cardinal Sarah went on, adding that Benedict wanted to point to something “much deeper and more radical” than simply doctrinal deviation as a cause.
He continued by saying that “nowhere does Benedict affirm that homosexuality is the cause of abuse,” but at the same time the cardinal drew attention to studies showing the “tragic extent among the clergy of homosexual practices” or acts that are “simply contrary to chastity” — a “painful manifestation” of a climate where there is an “absence of God and loss of faith.”
He took to task those who have accused Benedict of “historical ignorance” by suggesting he had blamed the crisis on the sexual revolution of 1968. The crisis began before that, he said, and “of course Benedict knows this.” His reference to the revolution was “precisely to show that the moral of crisis of 1968 was already itself a manifestation and symptom of the crisis of faith and not an ultimate cause.”
Reflecting on how Benedict showed how this crisis of faith came about, he said it entailed, first, the “complete abandonment of the natural law as the foundation of morality.”
This led to the “second stage,” which was a moral theology “exclusively determined for the purposes of human action” where “nothing is fundamentally wrong” and there were “only relative value judgments.”
The third step was to affirm that the Church’s magisterium could only teach infallibly on matters of faith and not morals. Benedict asserts a “minimum set of morals” exists which is “indissolubly linked to the foundational principle of faith,” he said, and that by rejecting the moral magisterium, “we remove from faith any link with concrete life.”
Living as if God were absent has left the human person “desperately alone” with only his “subjective intentions and solitary consciousness,” Cardinal Sarah observed. Morality is reduced to merely the “motivations and intentions” of the human subject. The rejection of the natural law “inevitably leads to the rejection of the notion” of objective morality and as a result, “there are no more objectively and intrinsically wrong acts,” he noted.
Pope St. John Paul II tried to combat this trend with his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, and again summarizing Benedict’s position, Cardinal Sarah said that “if no value is so objective that one must die for it, it is because God himself is no longer an objective reality that is worth martyrdom.”
At the heart of the “crisis of moral theology” is therefore a “refusal of the divine absolute,” the cardinal said — something he encapsulated in another quote, this time from the Russian writer Dostoevsky: “If God does not exist, everything is permissible!”
As an example, Cardinal Sarah pointed out that the “ideology of 1968 has sometimes tried to make pedophilia legitimate” because if any moral act depends merely on a person’s “intentions and circumstances, then nothing is definitively impossible” or “radically opposed to human dignity.”
“It is the moral atmosphere of rejection of God, the spiritual climate of rejection of divine objectivity, that makes possible the proliferation of abuse of minors and the trivialization of acts contrary to chastity among clerics,” Cardinal Sarah asserted. And quoting Benedict, he said in a world where norms of good and evil no longer exist, “then power is the only principle” and “truth does not count.”
He then turned to Benedict’s analysis of the consequences of this crisis of faith on the Church, and in particular priests who are the “first to be affected by the crisis of faith.” He recalled the Pope Emeritus’ observation of seminaries being “transformed into secularized places” where “homosexual cliques” were allowed to flourish. Again, he said this was “not so much the cause” of the abuse so much as “the sign of forgetting God” which was “already widely established.”
The “most serious thing,” he said, was that in the face of this degradation, formators “haven’t said anything, or have voluntarily promoted the horizontal and worldly conception of the priesthood.” He said it is “striking” to see God’s objectivity “eclipsed by a form of religion of human subjectivity,” and that “self-referentiality” has had the effect of denying “reference to God.”
Forgetting God “opens the door to all abuses,” Cardinal Sarah said, adding that “unfortunately there are priests who, practically, no longer believe, no longer pray of very little, no longer live the sacraments as a vital dimension of their priesthood.”
“They have become lukewarm and almost atheist,” he said.
The Church should not therefore be surprised at the abuse, he said. “If God does not exist, anything is permitted! If God does not exist in concrete terms, everything is possible!”
Turning to the canonical aspects of Benedict’s reflections, the cardinal noted that if a person’s “subjective intentions” become the “only reality” then such “idolatry of the subject effectively excludes any punishment, both of heretical theologians and abusive clerics.”
This leads to abandoning the “little ones” and failing to punish the perpetrators. Such a sense of impunity is “true clericalism,” he said. “Yes, clericalism is the attitude of refusing penalties and punishments” in the face of breaches of faith and morals. “The clericalism that Pope Francis calls us to eradicate ultimately consists of this unrepentant subjectivism of clerics!” Cardinal Sarah said.
He also agreed with Benedict’s warning against creating the Church “in our own image.” He said it is precisely because “we have given into” this temptation and “have set God aside that we see today the multiplication of cases of abuse. Let’s not fall into the same trap again!” And he also warned against saying the Church is guilty of a “collective sin” or that she contributes to a “structure of sin.” Such an approach leads to “pure subjectivism,” he said.
The Church, he said, is not in crisis — rather, “we are in crisis.” And the way out of it is simple. Again, quoting Benedict, Cardinal Sarah said, “If the cause of the crisis is the forgetting of God, then let us put God back in the center!” He said we must put the “Real Presence at the center of the Church and our liturgies” and renew the “faith in the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.”
With the Pope Emeritus, he said he was “deeply convinced” that abuse of minors will increase “if we do not adore the Eucharistic body of our God, if we do not treat him with joyful and reverent fear.”
“The devil wants to make us doubt,” he said. “He wants us to believe that God is abandoning his Church,” but again quoting Benedict, said it is still "the field of God” with “good and evil fish” and to proclaim these two aspects is “a necessary service to the Truth."
Benedict proves this, he said. “His prayerful and teaching presence in our midst, in the heart of the Church, in Rome, he confirms it for us. Yes, in our midst is the good wheat of God.”
Cardinal Sarah closed by thanking Benedict for being true to his episcopal motto as “cooperator of the Truth.”
“Your words comfort and reassure us,” he said. “You are a witness, a ‘martyr’ for the truth.”