Cryin’ in the Chapel

[Updated January 2, 2023]

Joseph Ratzinger, who as Benedict XVI was the first pope to quit in over 600 years, died today, December 31, age 95. The news media, having finally recovered from the awful agony of losing the 96-year-old Queen Elizabeth, now fling themselves into the requisite protracted period of piety and weeping and gnashing of journalistic teeth, indicated already by the New York Times’s digital headline on the day he died: Pope Francis Leads Church in Mourning Benedict: ‘So Nobel, So Kind’

The Times and the other serious news organizations are, of course, also offering up sidebar accounts that pull back a bit with more dry-eyed appraisals of the often-glowering Ratzinger, who was a haven of orthodoxy in a Church that has been decisively clobbered in its battle with modernity (just ask Ireland). The main thing about Ratzinger was that he bailed out in 2015 as the Church staggered under the weight of egregious ethical and financial scandal, topped off with the stunning revelations that tens of thousands of Catholic priests around the world had been on a 40-year rampage of sexual abuse of literally hundreds of thousands of children. while bishops scampered around quietly transferring offending clerics from one parish to another to keep the lid on, as people began to talk.

At the time of Ratzinger’s death today, three dozen dioceses and religious orders in the United States had been driven into bankruptcy by the huge costs of legal settlements of sex abuse of underage youths, parishes were being closed or merged, attendance at Mass had been plummeting for years, scores of bishops and even several cardinals had been fingered as predators themselves, and the Jesuits, in a defensive crouch, have been forced to admit sexual molestation charges within their ranks, including an admission that a Slovenian Jesuit priest, celebrated internationally for his work as an artist in mosaics, diddled captive nuns in a convent whom he groomed in the confessional, and in fact had tried to set up a ménage à trois with several of the good sisters.

That’s just a summary.

When he abandoned the papacy while similar horrors were unraveling, Ratzinger tried to keep up appearances, which was always his priority. He moved from the papal Apostolic Palace overlooking St. Peter’s Square and took up residence in a cozy monastery within the Vatican walls that’s not more than a football field’s length from St. Peter’s Basilica. There, as a new pope was being elected to wade through the mess, he invented a new title for himself: “Supreme Pontiff Emeritus Benedict XVI.” To the annoyance of aides to Pope Francis, and it was said to Francis himself, Ratzinger continued to dress in a white papal cassock and required his retinue of adoring staff priests and reverential housekeeper nuns to address him as “Your Holiness.”

As the mourning commences with Ratzinger’s totally anticipated death, a group that has long been active working with victims (and their families) who were molested by priests had a sober comment that unfortunately has not been widely noted. The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said soberly: “In our view, Pope Benedict XVI is taking decades of the church’s darkest secrets to his grave with him.”

It should also be remembered, if it is also not adequately noted by the media, that Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, was the director of the powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was known as the Inquisition before the name was changed in 1908 by a pope who understood a tiny bit about public relations. In 1986, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger issued a proclamation, signed by Pope John Paul II, forcefully reaffirming Church doctrine that homosexuality is an “objective disorder” and “an intrinsic moral evil.”

[Update Jan. 2: Reporter Jason Berry, whose 1985 articles in the National Catholic Reporter were the first to expose the extent of the predator-priest scandals — and who was subsequently given a fleeting brush-off by the Boston Globe and in the 2015 movie “Spotlight” dramatically awarding the Globe full credit for the expose — wrote in the Daily Beast yesterday that because of this astonishing letter to the world’s bishops, “overnight {Ratzinger] became a reviled figure to gay people and liberal Catholics, while in recent years lawmakers around the world have increasingly expanded human rights to LGBTQ citizens.”]

The intense preoccupation with sexuality by an ostensibly celibate clergy, priests and old-school nuns alike, is always amazing to me, though that’s an issue for a later post and for “Wreckage,” the book I am working about the virtual collapse of the Catholic Church that I grew up in. The apparent trigger for Ratzinger’s very long 1986 proclamation was “the movement within the Church which takes the form of pressure groups of various names and sizes [and] attempts to give the impression that it represents all homosexual persons who are Catholics,” Ratzinger wrote. “This is done in order to conform to these pressure groups’ concept that homosexuality is at least completely harmless. …” Darkly and weirdly, the future pope added, “Even when the practice of homosexuality may seriously threaten the lives and well-being of a large number of people, its advocates remain undeterred and refuse to consider the magnitude of the risks involved.”

The smoking gun, it seems to me, is an ominous if obliquely worded passage in Ratzinger’s 1986 holy manifesto that clearly said: FAFO, you practicing homosexuals may well just get the physical violence you deserve. The italics and boldface here are mine: “The proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered. When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.

Really?

So requiescat in pace, Ratzinger. Ite missa est. Don’t forget to take the ecclesiastical bling you love, as well as those cute red Italian shoes you favored. And don’t let the golden gate hit you in the butt.

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