Benedict Papacy In Crisis?

As scandals in the Church seem to be emerging almost daily, Pope Benedict’s papacy has come under increasing scrutiny. This may continue, many in Rome fear. A fascinating talk

By Robert Moynihan


Wednesday, March 10, 2010 — Today in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI gave a fascinating talk containing important insights into the ideas and principles guiding his pontificate.

And this talk, given at his regular Wednesday Audience, came as a series of terrible crises continues to strike the Church, from scandals in Ireland to matters connected to the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, from scandals in Germany to accusations against the Pope’s own brother, Father Georg Ratzinger.

In Rome, some fear this is just the beginning.

This fear is not idle, as the internet and world press are already full of reports that these crises may cast a shadow over the entire pontificate.

The battle occurring right now is over how history will judge Benedict’s papacy.

For example, one industrious observer — American writer David Gibson — wrote this morning that “whatever the end result, the latest revelations feed the impression that the Vatican under Benedict seems to be lurching from crisis to crisis — from the 2006 speech Benedict gave that offended Muslims and touched off violence, to his repeated clashes with the Jewish community, to his rehabilitation last year of a schismatic right-wing bishop who is also a Holocaust denier. In the end, if Benedict’s papacy becomes known as one that simply goes from misstep to misstep, and crisis to crisis, then that could become its defining dynamic — and one that even the best preaching would find it difficult to overcome.” (For the entire story, see:

The battle to define Benedict’s pontificate has been joined.


Note: For the latest on the Irish scandal, see the interesting article by Gibson with much praise of the outspoken and sometimes controversial Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin:

For the latest on the Legionary founder, see:

For the latest on the Pope’s brother, here is the story posted this afternoon by the Associated Press, written by the American journalist Victor Simpson, whom I have know since the 1980s.

I post the whole story so readers will know what the world’s press is presenting on this topic, especially the phrase at the end of the first line: that Church abuse scandals “are creeping ever closer to the pontiff himself.” The fact that this is being reported in this way is important; readers should be aware of it.


WEDNESDAY MAR 10, 2010 15:46 EST

Church abuse scandal reaches pope’s brother


Church abuse scandals in Germany have reached the older brother of Pope Benedixt XVI and are creeping ever closer to the pontiff himself.

While there has been no suggestion of wrongdoing by Benedict, the launch of an inquiry by German Catholic officials after his brother admitted he slapped children years ago is stirring Vatican fears of a major crisis for the papacy.

Benedict, 82, was archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982 when he was brought to the Vatican to head the body responsible for investigating abuse cases. During that time, he came under criticism for decreeing that even the most serious abuse cases must first be investigated internally.

Since then, Benedict has taken a strong stand against abuse by clerics in the Roman Catholic Church.

Just weeks before he became pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger caused a stir when he denounced “filth” in the church and among priests — a condemnation taken as a reference to clerical sex abuse.

German church officials said Wednesday they will examine what — if anything — Benedict knew about abuse during his time as Munich archbishop.

“We do not know if the pope knew about the abuse cases at the time,” church spokesman Karl Juesten told The Associated Press.

He said the church “assumes” Benedict knew nothing of such cases, but that current Munich Archbishop Reinhard Marx will be “certainly investigating these questions.”

Juesten, the liaison between Roman Catholic bishops and the German government, said the German Bishops Conference had asked parishes and church institutions in the country to examine all allegations of the sexual and physical abuse.

Separately, the Regensburg Diocese told AP it will investigate allegations of physical and sexual abuse that have swirled around a renowned choir led by the Benedict’s brother, the Rev. Georg Ratzinger. So far, the sex abuse allegations predate Georg Ratzinger’s term as choir director.

Vatican officials have been unable to hide their alarm about the possible implications for the papacy.

“There is certainly the suspicion that there are some out there out to damage the church and the pope,” said a Vatican official, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The Vatican has spoken up several times in recent days to defend the church as having acted “promptly and decisively” regarding the German abuse scandal. But it also noted that problems of sex abuse spread across society and are not limited to the Roman Catholic Church.

When Benedict became pope in 2005, the Vatican was reeling from a massive sex abuse scandal in the U.S. church. The new pope promised a policy of zero tolerance as he went on to apologize and pray with some of the victims while traveling in the United States and Australia.

The pope has been working on a letter to be read to Catholics in Ireland, where a government report detailed decades of physical and sexual abuse in church-run schools. The letter is expected to be released shortly.

The pope held his weekly public audience Wednesday but made no mention of the sex abuse scandal.

Georg Ratzinger, 86, said in a newspaper interview published Tuesday that he slapped pupils as punishment after he took over the Regensburger Domspatzen boys choir in the 1964. He also said he was aware of allegations of physical abuse at an elementary school linked to the choir but did nothing about it.

The slapping of students and other forms of corporal punishment were common in Catholic schools in Germany and other countries in that era. Such punishment was later banned.

The Regensburg Diocese has reported two cases of sexual abuse at the choir, stemming from 1958 and 1959. And across Germany, more than 170 students have claimed they were sexually abused at several Catholic high schools.

Ratzinger has repeatedly said the sexual abuse allegations date from before his tenure as choir director. Asked in the interview Tuesday whether he knew of them, Ratzinger insisted he was not aware of the problem.

“These things were never discussed,” Ratzinger told Tuesday’s Passauer Neue Presse German daily. “The problem of sexual abuse that has now come to light was never spoken of.”

Jakob Schoetz, a spokesman for the Regensburg Diocese, told AP that the diocese is appointing an independent investigator — an attorney — to examine allegations of physical and sexual abuse at the choir.

“The independent lawyer will thoroughly go through all existing legal papers, all court decisions and any information available,” Schoetz said. “We expect to publish first results within the next two weeks.”

Franz Wittenbrink, 61, who sang in the Regensburger Domspatzen choir from 1958 to 1967, said he was physically abused on a regular basis by the priests at its boarding school.

“Severe beatings were normal, but Ratzinger did not belong to the group of more sadistic abusers,” Wittenbrink said in a phone interview with the AP from Hamburg. “But I do accuse him of covering up the abuses.”

Wittenbrink said all boys suffered some physical abuse but a “selected group” of students was also abused sexually.

Another former choir boy at Domspatzen told the Bild daily that he and other boys were sexually abused by teachers at the choir’s boarding school in the 1950s. Manfred von Hove was quoted as saying he “finally wants to have answers and find out who was responsible for the cover-up at the time.”

He said he planned to sue the Regensburg Diocese for compensation.

Rudolf Neumaier, a student from 1981 to 1982 at the Etterzhausen elementary school in Pielenhofen — considered a feeder school for the choir — told the AP he was slapped there, witnessed corporal punishment of other boys, and saw then-director Johann Meier hit an 8-year-old boy with a chair.

Neumaier, who went on to join the Domspatzen choir in Regensburg in 1982, stressed he did not witness or hear about any abuse at the choir boarding school itself. But he said he personally told choir director Georg Ratzinger about the violence at the elementary school and Ratzinger did nothing about it. “He chose not to listen,” Neumaier said.

Ratzinger said Tuesday that boys had told him about being mistreated at the Etterzhausen school but he did not understand how bad it was.

Criticism of the Catholic church has been heavy in Germany, whose relations with the Vatican had already been jolted last year when Benedict lifted the excommunication of an ultraconservative British bishop who denied the Holocaust.

The Vatican moved to defuse criticism after German Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger said Monday a Vatican secrecy rule has played a role in a “wall of silence” surrounding sexual abuse of children.

Associated Press writers Kirsten Grieshaber and Verena Schmitt-Roschmann contributed from Berlin and Juergen Baetz contributed from Regensburg.


A Fascinating Address

As all this was happening, Benedict today held his usual Wednesday General Audience.

During the audience, he gave a very thoughtful talk, one which I think is worth reading in its entirety.

Benedict spoke about St. Bonaventure, and about St. Francis of Assisi, and about the Spiritual Franciscans of the mid-1200s, and about Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202) and his theology of history.

But most of all, Benedict spoke about the essence of the Church, and of his vision for ruling and guiding the Church.

One can see in these lines clear elements of Benedict’s vision for his papacy.

The key paragraph is in Point #4 below (the entire text of the address is below; it was sent out today by the Zenit news service; the italics here are my own):

“Thus we see that for St. Bonaventure,” Benedict says, “to govern was not simply a task but was above all to think and to pray. At the base of his government we always find prayer and thought; all his decisions resulted from reflection, from thought illumined by prayer. His profound contact with Christ always accompanied his work of minister-general and that is why he composed a series of theological-mystical writings, which express the spirit of his government and manifest the intention of guiding the order interiorly, of governing, that is, not only through commands and structures, but through guiding and enlightening souls, orienting them to Christ.”

Benedict here is stating publicly the fundamental principle which I believe explains his own papacy.

The essence of his task in governing the Church, he is saying, is to orient souls to Christ, to “win souls for Christ,” as the Protestant evangelicals would say.

Benedict is suggesting that he is guiding the Church just as Bonaventure tried to guide the Franciscan Order in the late 1200s, “not only through commands and structures, but through guiding and enlightening souls, orienting them to Christ.”

This, I submit, is the center of Benedict’s pontificate.

And it is this center that his opponents are trying to conceal, and overshadow, with allegations of scandal.

I say this is the center of this pontificate in part because it is well-known how important St. Bonaventure has always been to this Pope. Father Joseph Ratzinger wrote his “Habilitationshcrift” in the 1950s on the theology of history in Bonaventure’s thought. After studying Augustine in the early 1950s, Ratzinger drank deeply from the writings in Bonaventure in the mid-1950s. (As a side note, when I wrote my own dissertation for Yale University in the 1980s, under Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan, on the influence of the writing of the Abbot Joachim on the early Franciscans, then-Cardinal Ratzinger asked me to let him see a copy of what I had written, and I brought the thesis to him. So I know from personal experience that Ratzinger was deeply interested in Joachim and his influence on Bonaventure.)

Here is this important text in its entirety. As you read through it, you will be able to see how the events of the 1200s — the desire of the early Franciscans to reform the Church, marred by human sin and corruption, and the difficulty of Bonaventure in weaving that passion for reform back into the hierarchical order of the Church’s structure — mirror some of the problems that have troubled the Church since the Second Vatican Council, and still trouble her today.


Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Dear brothers and sisters,

Last week I spoke of the life and personality of St. Bonaventure of Bagnoregio. This morning I would like to continue with the presentation, reflecting on part of his literary work and his doctrine.

As I already said, among various merits, St. Bonaventure had that of interpreting authentically and faithfully the figure of St. Francis of Assisi, whom he venerated and studied with great love. In a particular way, in the times of St. Bonaventure a current of Friars Minor called “spiritual” held that there was a totally new phase of history inaugurated with St. Francis; the “eternal Gospel” had appeared, of which Revelation speaks, which replaced the New Testament. This group affirmed that the Church had now exhausted her historical role, and in her place came a charismatic community of free men guided interiorly by the Spirit, namely, the “spiritual Franciscans.”

At the base of the ideas of this group were the writings of a Cistercian abbot, Joachim of Fiore, who died in 1202. In his works, he affirmed a Trinitarian rhythm of history. He considered the Old Testament as the age of the Father, followed by the time of the Son, the time of the Church. To be awaited yet was the third age, that of the Holy Spirit. The whole of history was thus interpreted as a history of progress: from the severity of the Old Testament to the relative liberty of the time of the Son, in the Church, up to the full liberty of the children of God, in the period of the Holy Spirit, which would have been also the period of peace among men, of the reconciliation of peoples and religions.

Joachim of Fiore aroused the hope that the beginning of the new time would come from a new monasticism. It is thus understandable that a group of Franciscans thought it recognized in St. Francis of Assisi the initiator of the new time and in his order the community of the new period — the community of the time of the Holy Spirit, which left behind it the hierarchical Church, to begin a new Church of the Spirit, no longer connected to the old structures.

There was, hence, the risk of a very serious misunderstanding of the message of St. Francis, of his humble fidelity to the Gospel and to the Church, and such a mistake implied an erroneous vision of Christianity as a whole.

St. Bonaventure, who in 1257 became minister-general of the Franciscans, found himself before serious tension within his own order due, precisely, to those who espoused this current of “spiritual Franciscans,” which aligned itself to Joachim of Fiore. Precisely to respond to this group and to give unity again to the order, St. Bonaventure carefully studied the authentic writings of Joachim of Fiore and those attributed to him and, taking into account the need to present correctly the figure and message of his beloved St. Francis, he wished to show a correct view of the theology of history.

St. Bonaventure addressed the problem in fact in his last work, a collection of conferences to monks of the Paris studio, which remained unfinished and which was completed with the transcriptions of the hearers. It was titled “Hexaemeron,” that is, an allegorical explanation of the six days of creation. The Fathers of the Church considered the six or seven days of the account of creation as a prophecy of the history of the world, of humanity. The seven days represented for them seven periods of history, later interpreted also as seven millennia. With Christ we would have entered the last, namely, the sixth period of history, which would then be followed by the great sabbath of God. St. Bonaventure accounts for this historical interpretation of the relation of the days of creation, but in a very free and innovative way. For him, two phenomena of his time render necessary a new interpretation of the course of history:

The first: the figure of St. Francis, the man totally united to Christ up to communion of the stigmata, almost an alter Christus, and with St. Francis the new community created by him, different from the monasticism known up to then. This phenomenon called for a new interpretation, as a novelty of God which appeared in that moment.

The second: the position of Joachim of Fiore, who announced a new monasticism and a totally new period of history, going beyond the revelation of the New Testament, called for an answer.

As minister-general of the Order of Franciscans, St. Bonaventure had seen immediately that with the spiritualistic conception, inspired by Joachim of Fiore, the order was not governable, but was going logically toward anarchy. For him there were two consequences:

The first: the practical need of structures and of insertion in the reality of the hierarchical Church, of the real Church, needed a theological foundation, also because the others, those who followed the spiritualist conception, showed an apparent theological foundation.

The second: although taking into account the necessary realism, it was not necessary to lose the novelty of the figure of St. Francis.

How did St. Bonaventure respond to the practical and theoretical need? Of his answer I can only give here a very schematic and incomplete summary in some points:

1. St. Bonaventure rejected the idea of the Trinitarian rhythm of history. God is one for the whole of history and he is not divided into three divinities. As a consequence, history is one, even if it is a journey and — according to St. Bonaventure — a journey of progress.

2. Jesus Christ is the last word of God — in him God has said all, giving and expressing himself. More than himself, God cannot express, cannot give. The Holy Spirit is Spirit of the Father and of the Son. Christ himself says of the Holy Spirit: He “…will bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26), “he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:15). Hence, there is not another higher Gospel, there is not another Church to await. Because of this, the Order of St. Francis had also to insert itself in this Church, in her faith, in her hierarchical order.

3. This does not mean that the Church is immobile, fixed in the past and that novelties cannot be exercised in her. “Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt,” the works of Christ do not go backward, do not fail, but progress, says the saint in the letter “De tribus quaestionibus.

Thus St. Bonaventure formulates explicitly the idea of progress, and this is a novelty in comparison with the Fathers of the Church and a great part of his contemporaries. For St. Bonaventure, Christ is no longer, as he was for the Fathers of the Church, the end, but the center of history; history does not end with Christ, but a new period begins. Another consequence is the following: prevailing up to that moment was the idea that the Fathers of the Church were at the absolute summit of theology, all the following generations could only be their disciples. Even St. Bonaventure recognizes the Fathers as teachers for ever, but the phenomenon of St. Francis gave him the certainty that the richness of the word of Christ is inexhaustible and that also new lights can appear in the new generations. The uniqueness of Christ also guarantees novelties and renewal in all the periods of history.

Certainly, the Franciscan Order — so he stresses — belongs to the Church of Jesus Christ, to the Apostolic Church, and cannot build itself on a utopian spiritualism. But, at the same time, the novelty of such an order is valid in comparison with classic monasticism, and St. Bonaventure — as I said in the preceding catechesis — defended this novelty against the attacks of the secular clergy of Paris. The Franciscans do not have a fixed monastery, they can be present everywhere to proclaim the Gospel. Precisely the break with stability, characteristic of monasticism, in favor of a new flexibility, restored to the Church her missionary dynamism.

At this point perhaps it is useful to say that also today there are views according to which the whole history of the Church in the second millennium is a permanent decline; some see the decline already immediately after the New Testament. In reality, “opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt,” the works of Christ do not go backward, but progress. What would the Church be without the new spirituality of the Cistercians, of the Franciscans and Dominicans, of the spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and so on? This affirmation is also valid today: “Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt,” they go forward.

St. Bonaventure teaches us the whole of the necessary discernment, even severe, of the sober realism and of openness to new charisms given by Christ, in the Holy Spirit, to his Church. And while this idea of decline is repeated, there is also the other idea, this “spiritualistic utopianism,” which is repeated.

We know, in fact, how after the Second Vatican Council, some were convinced that everything should be new, that there should be another Church, that the pre-conciliar Church was finished and that we would have another, totally “other” Church. An anarchic utopianism!

And thanks be to God, the wise helmsmen of Peter’s Barque, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II, on one hand defended the novelty of the council and on the other, at the same time, defended the uniqueness and continuity of the Church, which is always a Church of sinners and always a place of grace.

4. In this connection, St. Bonaventure, as minister-general of the Franciscans, took a line of government in which it was very clear that the new order could not, as a community, live at the same “eschatological height” of St. Francis, in which he saw the future world anticipated, but — guided, at the same time, by healthy realism and spiritual courage — had to come as close as possible to the maximum realization of the Sermon on the Mount, which for St. Francis was the rule, though taking into account the limits of man, marked by original sin.

Thus we see that for St. Bonaventure, to govern was not simply a task but was above all to think and to pray. At the base of his government we always find prayer and thought; all his decisions resulted from reflection, from thought illumined by prayer. His profound contact with Christ always accompanied his work of minister-general and that is why he composed a series of theological-mystical writings, which express the spirit of his government and manifest the intention of guiding the order interiorly, of governing, that is, not only through commands and structures, but through guiding and enlightening souls, orienting them to Christ.

Of these his writings, which are the soul of his government and show the way to follow either as an individual or a community, I would like to mention only one, his masterwork, the “Itinerarium mentis in Deum,” (“The Journey of the Mind into God”) which is a “manual” of mystical contemplation.

This book was conceived in a place of profound spirituality: the hill of La Verna, where St. Francis had received the stigmata.

In the introduction, the author illustrates the circumstances that gave origin to his writing: “While I meditated on the possibility of the soul ascending to God, presented to me, among others, was that wondrous event that occurred in that place to Blessed Francis, namely, the vision of the winged seraphim in the form of a crucifix. And meditating on this, immediately I realized that such a vision offered me the contemplative ecstasy of Father Francis himself and at the same time the way that leads to it” (Journey of the Mind in God, Prologue, 2, in Opere di San Bonaventura. Opuscoli Teologici / 1, Rome, 1993, p. 499).

The six wings of the seraphim thus became the symbol of six stages that lead man progressively to the knowledge of God through observation of the world and of creatures and through the exploration of the soul itself with its faculties, up to the satisfying union with the Trinity through Christ, in imitation of St. Francis of Assisi.

The last words of St. Bonaventure’s “Itinerarium,” which respond to the question of how one can reach this mystical communion with God, would make one descend to the depth of the heart: “If you now yearn to know how that happens (mystical communion with God), ask grace, not doctrine; desire, not the intellect; the groaning of prayer, not the study of the letter; the spouse, not the teacher; God, not man; darkness not clarity; not light but the fire that inflames everything and transport to God with strong unctions and ardent affections. … We enter therefore into darkness, we silence worries, the passions and illusions; we pass with Christ Crucified from this world to the Father, so that, after having seen him, we say with Philip: that is enough for me” (Ibid., VII, 6).

Dear friends, let us take up the invitation addressed to us by St. Bonaventure, the Seraphic Doctor, and let us enter the school of the divine Teacher: We listen to his Word of life and truth, which resounds in the depth of our soul. Let us purify our thoughts and actions, so that he can dwell in us, and we can hear his divine voice, which draws us toward true happiness.


“He that takes truth for his guide, and duty for his end, may safely trust to God’s providence to lead him aright.” —Blaise Pascal (French mathematician, philosopher, physicist and writer, 1623-1662)


Note: We filled all place for our Easter pilgrimage to Assisi and Rome (March 30-April 8). We are now beginning to take preliminary requests for our Fall 2010 pilgrimage, which will include visits to Assisi and a discussion of the issues mentioned above in this email. If you would like information about this trip, please email us immediately at:

[email protected].


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