Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse” calls for a return to God and to moral life. I’m excerpting two parts, out of order. First, from Part III:
When God does die in a society, it becomes free, we were assured. In reality, the death of God in a society also means the end of freedom, because what dies is the purpose that provides orientation. And because the compass disappears that points us in the right direction by teaching us to distinguish good from evil. Western society is a society in which God is absent in the public sphere and has nothing left to offer it. And that is why it is a society in which the measure of humanity is increasingly lost. At individual points it becomes suddenly apparent that what is evil and destroys man has become a matter of course. …
And second, from Part I:
Catholic moral theology suffered a collapse that rendered the Church defenseless against … changes in society. I will try to outline briefly the trajectory of this development.
Until the Second Vatican Council, Catholic moral theology was largely founded on natural law, while Sacred Scripture was only cited for background or substantiation. In the Council’s struggle for a new understanding of Revelation, the natural law option was largely abandoned, and a moral theology based entirely on the Bible was demanded.
I still remember how the Jesuit faculty in Frankfurt trained a highly gifted young Father (Bruno Schüller) with the purpose of developing a morality based entirely on Scripture. Father Schüller’s beautiful dissertation shows a first step towards building a morality based on Scripture. Father Schüller was then sent to America for further studies and came back with the realization that from the Bible alone morality could not be expressed systematically. He then attempted a more pragmatic moral theology, without being able to provide an answer to the crisis of morality.
In the end, it was chiefly the hypothesis that morality was to be exclusively determined by the purposes of human action that prevailed. While the old phrase “the end justifies the means” was not confirmed in this crude form, its way of thinking had become definitive. Consequently, there could no longer be anything that constituted an absolute good, any more than anything fundamentally evil; (there could be) only relative value judgments. There no longer was the (absolute) good, but only the relatively better, contingent on the moment and on circumstances.
The crisis of the justification and presentation of Catholic morality reached dramatic proportions in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. On January 5, 1989, the “Cologne Declaration”, signed by 15 Catholic professors of theology, was published. It focused on various crisis points in the relationship between the episcopal magisterium and the task of theology. (Reactions to) this text, which at first did not extend beyond the usual level of protests, very rapidly grew into an outcry against the Magisterium of the Church and mustered, audibly and visibly, the global protest potential against the expected doctrinal texts of John Paul II (cf. D. Mieth, Kölner Erklärung, LThK, VI3, p. 196) [LTHK is the Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, a German-language “Lexicon of Theology and the Church”, whose editors included Karl Rahner and Cardinal Walter Kasper.]
Pope John Paul II, who knew very well the situation of moral theology and followed it closely, commissioned work on an encyclical that would set these things right again. It was published under the title Veritatis splendor on August 6, 1993, and it triggered vehement backlashes on the part of moral theologians. Before it, the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” already had persuasively presented, in a systematic fashion, morality as proclaimed by the Church.
I shall never forget how then-leading German moral theologian Franz Böckle, who, having returned to his native Switzerland after his retirement, announced in view of the possible decisions of the encyclical Veritatis splendor that if the encyclical should determine that there were actions which were always and under all circumstances to be classified as evil, he would challenge it with all the resources at his disposal.
It was God, the Merciful, that spared him from having to put his resolution into practice; Böckle died on July 8, 1991. The encyclical was published on August 6, 1993 and did indeed include the determination that there were actions that can never become good.
The pope was fully aware of the importance of this decision at that moment and for this part of his text, he had once again consulted leading specialists who did not take part in the editing of the encyclical. He knew that he must leave no doubt about the fact that the moral calculus involved in balancing goods must respect a final limit. There are goods that are never subject to trade-offs.
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.
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.
In moral theology, however, another question had meanwhile become pressing: The hypothesis that the Magisterium of the Church should have final competence [infallibility] only in matters concerning the faith itself gained widespread acceptance; (in this view) questions concerning morality should not fall within the scope of infallible decisions of the Magisterium of the Church. There is probably something right about this hypothesis that warrants further discussion. But there is a minimum set of morals which is indissolubly linked to the foundational principle of faith and which must be defended if faith is not to be reduced to a theory but rather to be recognized in its claim to concrete life.
All this makes apparent just how fundamentally the authority of the Church in matters of morality is called into question. Those who deny the Church a final teaching competence in this area force her to remain silent precisely where the boundary between truth and lies is at stake.
C.C. Pecknold puts this in context, specifically why it matters whether the Catholic Church is mater et magistra—both mother and moral teacher:
Moral theologians had been on a long, exploratory mission to unsettle the place of natural and divine law, and to “update” morality in ways which were more accommodating to the revolution. Benedict admits these theologians were sophisticated in their endeavors, but the aim was simple: the innovators taught that every moral act was justified if the agent has the best intentions. It was an early version of the “love is love” argument. In Benedict’s view, the central pushback came with Veritatis Splendor in 1993, which decisively refuted this sophisticated form of situation ethics sometimes called “proportionalism.” St. John Paul II intervened by authoritatively teaching moral realism, “that there were actions which were always and under all circumstances to be classified as evil.” …
Benedict asks our question directly: “Why did pedophilia reach such proportions?” His answer is not political but theological: “Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God.”
Since we are no longer accustomed to speaking well about God in society, this answer is bound to meet with some indifference. But I suspect that after all the studies are done, after the review boards are formed, cases heard, after new protocols and safeguards are in place, Benedict’s answer will be the one which endures. What will be remembered as the seed of renewal, as the root of restoration, is precisely Benedict’s counsel that we turn our faces back to Christ who is the perfect image of the Father’s love.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput reflects further on Benedict XVI’s intervention. And Rod Dreher points out Benedict XVI’s tacit endorsement of Dreher’s Benedict Option:
Faith is a journey and a way of life. In the old Church, the catechumenate was created as a habitat against an increasingly demoralized culture, in which the distinctive and fresh aspects of the Christian way of life were practiced and at the same time protected from the common way of life. I think that even today something like catechumenal communities are necessary so that Christian life can assert itself in its own way.