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Sin and Evil in the Church: Some Reflections Originating from Pope Emeritus Benedict’s Recent Letter

Keywords: Sexual abuse, Catholic Church, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, Church structures, dignity, human rights

„Yes, there is sin in the Church and evil.”[1] This sentence captured my attention in Pope emeritus Benedict’s recent letter about the sexual abuse crisis. By admitting that evil and sin not only exist outside the Catholic Church, but also within, he made us seemingly understand that there is no clear-cut division between a Holy Church and a sinful environment. His explanation that the Church can be regarded as a field in which grain and weeds grow next to each other, that will be separated by God in his final judgment, apparently underlines this.

Order and love

Yet, this conclusion seems to be premature, for on the question “Why is it possible that evil and sin can dwell in the Church?,” Pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s approach to the problem of sexual abuse within the Church seems to follow the line of St. Augustine. Augustine’s order of love offers a pyramid-like structure that directs all human endeavour to the love of God. Sin, accordingly, is a neglect of faith, a disrespect for the ordered structure and, above all, an offence to God – a result of human beings turning entirely towards themselves, gazing at earth instead of heaven. The Pope emeritus suggests in his letter that evil comes into the Church because some individual persons refuse to respect this structure and lapse into sin. In spite of this, as Pope emeritus Benedict reminds us, the Holy Church, as the pure structure that leads to God, remains unaffected. Sin that is committed within the Church’s historically lived form does not corrode the Church’s essence. 

Many would express a similar thought but word it differently, e.g. by affirming that the gospel of Jesus Christ remains valid and is more important than failure in the Church. Envisaging the situation, however, in terms of a pure Church that remains and of attributing failure solely to the individual has its drawbacks. These became obvious[2] when the Pope emeritus expressed his concern as “to protect the gift of the Holy Eucharist from abuse” without adding the same concern for protecting the woman he referred to, and others, from sexual abuse. The implicitly expressed hierarchy reminded me immediately of medieval sources in which one can find the argument that, from a metaphysical point of view, God, as the highest good, has more dignity and is preferable to a human being. Yet, one could also find other aspects, and, therefore, I would like to return for a moment to the idea of the pyramidal structure.

A pyramid is a wonderful piece of architecture. Its clear-cut surface, harmony and simplicity is simply impressive and draws our view upwards, to the pointed summit scratching the sky. By doing so, however, it makes us forget the ground on which it is built, the many stones that need to be carved for constructing it and on which the forces exert their weight. A pyramid reflects the ascent from shadow to light, from earth to heaven, but also from the governed to the governor, the powerless to the one being in power. This is the sore spot, on which I would like to put my finger. What if we close our eyes for a moment, hide the beauty of this hierarchical system from our view by turning slowly our back to the pyramid, open our eyes again and draw our attention to a neglected stable, small and not very impressive, in which God, as we believe, became man?

Incarnation and love

The turn to the paradigm of incarnation makes God visible not as the end of a hierarchical structure, but directly as a person we can encounter, in prayer, but also through every person we meet – a child, a young person, an adult, an aged person, whoever comes across on our way. Whatever good or evil we will do to this person, we will do it to Christ. This is why personal dignity and human rights have an unquestionable place in the Church. There is no way that we can dismiss the dignity of a person in order to serve God. If we accept this as a consequence of our belief in incarnation, the structure of the Church cannot be seen any longer as something self-sufficient. Rather it is nothing but a means of communication between people and God. As we know, insufficiently reflected structures can serve to justify suppression, to satisfy personal longing for power, to hide evil commitments, and they can hinder persons from feeling who they are, who they want to be; it can cut them from their inner sources of life. Structures fit for purpose, however, help to strengthen those who seek to find God in a communion of Saints.

Structures serving God through serving persons

The structure of the Church and structures within the Church must fit to serve God by serving human beings. Shaping the Church responsibly includes fostering the capacity of its ministers and its members to empathetically understand other persons, and to be able to see the worth and dignity of oneself and of others, to love and encounter God who is loving and just. It entails also the capacity to reflect on structures and to change those that are suppressing persons and hindering them from developing morally and personally.

The Church is a structured culture of encounter, both with the word of God and with the flesh of God, in the Eucharist and in the concrete encounter with persons. In our times in which reports of sexual abuses continue to emerge, it is clear that there is no way for the Church to live up to this entrusted task without continuously analysing the stones and the ground of the pyramid, with the indispensable help of continually turning round to seek inspiration in the shabby stable.

[1] Pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s letter titled “The Church and the Scandal of Sexual Abuse” was pre-published on the internet portal kathnet on April 12, 2019. It was written for publication in the April issue of the Bavarian „Klerusblatt“ and translated into English by Anian Christoph Wimmer, [April 28, 2019].

[2] See Hans Pock’s remark in the report „Kritik an Benedikt-Text: ‚Eines Ratzinger nicht würdig‘“ (April 12, 2019), Further a collection of reactions see the homepage of the University of Münster, [April 28, 2019]. The representatives of the German moral theologians have criticised the Pope emeritus’ portrait of the development of moral theology in their text “Prisoner of prejudice” (14.4.2019); German version: [April 28, 2019]; Italian version: Further reactions are collected at the homepage of the University of Münster, see: