Benedict and the Repair of the Vineyard


I have been waiting seventeen years for this.


Since the sex scandal in the Church became a major issue in 2002, no bishop or pope has addressed the situation with candor, and no bishop or pope has looked at the underlying issues.  


Until now.


“Pope Emeritus” Benedict XVI has written an essay which was published this week, “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse”.  The general reaction to this essay from news sources seems to be, “Benedict blames the 1960’s for abusive priests!”  Others are angry at things Benedict did not say, but I would like to focus on things Benedict did say, which I think are rather remarkable – because, for a long time now, it had begun to seem that the Church was not the Church.  


In Isaiah 5:5, God tells the Prophet, “Now I will tell you what I am about to do to My vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be consumed; I will tear down its wall, and it will be trampled.”  When a hedge or any boundary is taken down, a vineyard is no longer a vineyard. It becomes indistinguishable from the wild lands around it, as briars and nettles take it over. God says to Isaiah that He will do this to His vineyard (Israel) because they have borne wild grapes, not cultivated ones.  In other words, Israel’s fruit has been indistinguishable from that of the nations around them. And God’s punishment is to give them more of what they themselves want and have produced.


And this has happened to the Catholic Church – or so it seemed.  It appeared that the Church had become as worldly as anything else in the world – only worse.  CEOs of secular corporations would never have gotten by with the negligence and mismanagement that our bishops have burdened us with over the past fifty years.


And Benedict is frank about this.  He is not so much blaming the 1960s for abusive priests as he is pointing out that the sea change in our culture at large affected the Church as well – a Church that tore down its own hedges.  People have always sinned sexually – in the Church and out of it. But with the so-called sexual revolution, we began to worship our desires and to look at license as salvation. It’s not Christ that saves us, it’s indulgence.  R. R. Reno, in writing on Benedict’s essay refers to this as the “culture of release”. St. Paul, roughly 2,000 years ago, was more blunt. “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Phil. 3:19).


Coincidentally or not, it was in this post-concilliar age of “sexual revolution”, it was in this “Culture of Release”, beginning in the late 1960s, that the hedges were torn down.  The vineyard was infested with the worst kind of weeds – especially in the seminaries, which were given over to the cultivation of various forms wild grapes – and poisonous grapes at that.


Consider one example Benedict gives.


One bishop, who had previously been seminary rector, had arranged for the seminarians to be shown pornographic films, allegedly with the intention of thus making them resistant to behavior contrary to the faith.


In the very next paragraph, Benedict says


Perhaps it is worth mentioning that in not a few seminaries, students caught reading my books were considered unsuitable for the priesthood. My books were hidden away, like bad literature, and only read under the desk.


Let that sink in.


Seminarians were shown porn and prohibited from reading Ratzinger. They hid orthodox theology and read it on the sly as if it were porn; and consumed porn in class as if it were orthodox theology.


This is nothing short of a demonic inversion.


And the rector who showed these young men sex films was made a bishop!


Leon Podles identifies this man.  It was the late Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Michigan (a diocese famous for the complete meltdown of the Catholic Faith under his charge).


Naturally, what remains unsaid in Benedict’s essay is how his predecessor John Paul II could have promoted someone like this to the episcopacy.  Certainly, the problem was not just the “removal of the hedge”, but appallingly bad administration by the various gardeners. In fact, the heart of the scandal has always been not the horrific abuse perpetrated by a significant number of clergy, but the sometimes criminal behavior of the bishops in facilitating the ongoing abuse and in covering it up.  


Benedict points out that canon law was largely to blame, a situation he tried to work around when he convinced the Vatican that the CDF, which he was leading at the time, should have jurisdiction over these matters.  But regardless of the point Benedict makes concerning canon law, it is in the midst of his explanation of the canonical issues that Benedict says what, for me, is the most perceptive thing in the essay.


Allow me a brief excursus at this point. In light of the scale of pedophilic misconduct, a word of Jesus has again come to attention which says: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea” (Mark 9:42).


When reading this, one would think, “Of course.  This is the central verse that condemns anyone who would abuse a child,” but Benedict goes further.  


The phrase “the little ones” in the language of Jesus means the common believers who can be confounded in their faith by the intellectual arrogance of those who think they are clever. So here Jesus protects the deposit of the faith with an emphatic threat of punishment to those who do it harm.


This is astonishing.  This is an admission that the abuse was not just sexual.  “The little ones” led astray include any of us who have been “confounded” in our faith “by the intellectual arrogance of those who think they are clever”.  


A seminary rector who exposes his charges to pornography is leading the little ones astray – even if the little ones are adult seminarians who, in their innocence, are eager to serve God.


Priests, authors and theologians who twist the teaching of the Church to convince us that our god is our belly (or that part of us that’s a few inches below our belly) are leading the little ones astray, even if the little ones are middle aged folks who faithfully go to Sunday Mass.


In fact, the theologians Benedict refers to in his essay (some of whom he names) who are intent on denying the objectivity of Goodness; who insist that morality is whatever works best for us in any given situation; who become indignant at any check on the culture of “release” – these theologians are leading the little ones astray.  And this includes such armchair theologians as (perhaps) your music minister, your “liturgist”, your CCD teacher, and any other heterodox Catholics who proudly bear wild grapes in what used to be a vineyard but is now a mixture of briar patch and trash heap. In fact, chances are you are being led astray by your pastor and your bishop, as well.


But we have a right to the Faith!  And canon law should protect this right.  Benedict insists upon this. “Canon law that corresponds to the whole of Jesus’ message must therefore … also protect the Faith, which is also an important legal asset.”


However …


In the general awareness of the law, the Faith no longer appears to have the rank of a good requiring protection. This is an alarming situation which must be considered and taken seriously by the pastors of the Church.


What astonishes me about this essay is that Benedict is speaking with the voice of the Church – a voice that has been silent on this matter for at least seventeen years.  


The Abuse Scandal grew up in a clerical culture that was antichristian.  That’s a fact. That’s obviously not the whole explanation for the Scandal, and it is certainly not an excuse, as some are portraying it – and orthodox and traditionalist clergy have been abusers as have heterodox and liberal ones.  But the encouragement of indulgence is a problem. Such an atmosphere does not breed saints.


The gardeners were deliberately destroying the garden.  They were sowing and cultivating weeds. They still are, many of them.


And yet Benedict, in this essay, has at least repaired the hedge – if only by pointing out where it once stood – and where (with our hard work and with God’s grace) it will stand again.


Kevin O'Brien
Kevin O'Brien is the founder and artistic director of the Theater of the Word Incorporated, which tours the world evangelizing through drama. He and his actors appear on several EWTN television programs, with video clips featured on O'Brien's website, Kevin teaches many online classes for Homeschool Connections and writes a regular column for the St. Austin Review. His autobiography, A Bad Actor's Guide to the Meaning of Life, will be published soon by ACS Press.

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  1. You were surely inspired in these remarks, Kevin. Charity must be understood, confirmed and practiced in the light of truth.

    I shared your astonishment and appreciation of Benedict’s broad definition of little ones! “The little ones” led astray include any of us who have been “confounded” in our faith “by the intellectual arrogance of those who think they are clever”. Defining our terms is the first step in any logical discussion. The “poor” is another term which must be more broadly defined, as well. Saint Mother Teresa stated that the material poor she served were not nearly as poor as those in the West who suffer from spiritual poverty.

    THIS IS THE foundational problem which has avoided analysis for over a half-century while we have been harvesting crop after crop of rotten fruit! The need for mitigating the suffering in the world would dramatically decrease if we spent as much of our resources on spreading orthodox teaching and factual information as we do in empowering the social welfare bureaucracy.

    It is my responsibility to provide for and protect the needy and the weak. If our bishops would get out of the social welfare business and get back to the vocation of truth-telling, there would be more hands inspired to join in the harvest and fewer weeds to pull!

    Have a beautiful Holy Week