Charges and countercharges are swirling around the Catholic Church. Newspaper articles have raised questions about how much Pope Benedict XVI knew about particular cases of alleged abuse by priests and the ways in which he himself dealt with abusers. No one can predict what will happen as more cases come to light and more victims tell their stories. But it’s worth stepping back for a moment and remembering that Benedict is probably the greatest scholar to rule the Church since Innocent III, the brilliant jurist who served from 1198 to 1216. He knows how to wield all the tools of historical research and theological and exegetical argument. No one has studied the development and meaning of the Catholic liturgy with more care and precision, or performs Mass more beautifully. His rich sense of the value of tradition—and the way it develops over time—will likely determine his response to the current crisis.
The Pope’s thinking about the Church and its relation to the faithful emerges clearly in his eloquent apostolic letter Summorum Pontificum, issued in 2007, in which he specified the rules for celebrating the Tridentine (Latin) Mass. There he explains that
the sacred liturgy, celebrated according to the Roman use, enriched not only the faith and piety but also the culture of many peoples. It is known, in fact, that the Latin liturgy of the Church in its various forms, in each century of the Christian era, has been a spur to the spiritual life of many saints, has reinforced many peoples in the virtue of religion and made their piety bear fruit.
The Church brings the means of devotion to its people—even to its saints.
As Cardinal Ratzinger, the present pope served as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Holy Office). In this capacity he maintained a strict eye on the orthodoxy of Catholic theologians. He showed notable severity toward Leonardo Boff and other representatives of Latin American Liberation Theology. Among many other duties, he also oversaw the papacy’s dealings with priests accused of sexual abuse. As prefect he cultivated a fierce clarity about what is, and what is not, Catholic doctrine, and what distinguishes Catholicism from other religions and other forms of Christianity.
The Pope is capable of showing equal clarity when dealing with scandalous violations of the rules that govern priestly conduct. For years, accusations of abusing teenage boys swirled around Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legion of Christ and a special favorite of John Paul II. His privileged position, and wads of cash, kept him safe. In 2004, however, then Cardinal Ratzinger reopened an investigation of Maciel and ordered a Vatican official to interview Legionaries and alleged victims of abuse worldwide. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “asked” Maciel “to retire to a private life of penance and prayer, giving up any form…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.