Sins of the Swinging Sixties

On Current Affairs

Pope Benedict blames the swinging sixties for sexual abuse and can’t seem to remember his own church’s history, writes Subhuti in this well-researched piece.


At the ripe old age of 92, Joseph Ratzinger, formerly Pope Benedict XVI, has emerged from retirement to declare that the Catholic Church’s abuse scandals are due to the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

According to Ratzinger, it was the appearance of sex in films and the newly permissive trend in 1960s popular culture that encouraged homosexuality in the priesthood, as well as a general “absence of God” that initiated the church’s paedophilia epidemic.

As a result of his statement, Ratzinger has been criticized for interfering with the efforts of his successor, Pope Francis, to deal with sexual abuse in the church, and also for appearing to link homosexuality with paedophilia, instead of treating them as separate issues.

But, leaving that aside, one wonders if Ratzinger has forgotten his own church’s history, with its long chronicle of abuses, dating back more than a thousand years. In particular, Ratzinger might do well to recall a small matter called The Reformation, in the 16th century, which gave birth to the Protestant faith as a reaction against the Catholic Church’s excesses.

For example, Martin Luther, the German professor of theology who began the Reformation movement, criticized Pope Leo X for vetoing a resolution of the Lateran Council, which had recommended that “a cardinal should not keep as many boys in the future.”

Luther remarked: “Pope Leo commanded that this be deleted; otherwise it would have been spread throughout the whole world how openly and shamelessly the pope and the cardinals in Rome practice sodomy.”

Luther may have exaggerated the church’s abuses, but he had some interesting insights, such the impossibility of suppressing sex through vows of celibacy. Luther singled out masturbation as the most likely outlet. “Nature never lets up,” he warned, “We are all driven to the secret sin. To say it crudely but honestly, if it doesn’t go into a woman, it goes into your shirt.”

Those were also the days of the Borgia Popes, about whom Ratzinger surely must have heard, with their infamous reputation for mistresses, murders and mayhem.

But if the former pontiff really wishes to understand the chronic problem of sexual abuse in the church, he should study a remarkable book titled Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy, by Peter de Rosa. The book is all the more powerful because its author remains a devout Catholic himself and draws his facts from authentic historical documents. His scope goes much wider than the deeds of the popes themselves and spans many countries, including England:

In the year 1414, King Henry V asked the University of Oxford to prepare articles for the reform of the church. Article 39 began: “Because the carnal and sinful life of priests today scandalizes the entire church and their public fornication goes completely unpunished …”

In the parish of St John Zachary in London, there was a church service of a very remarkable kind. It provided a brothel exclusively for priests and nuns…

St Alban’s Abbey, for instance, was nothing but a den of prostitutes serving the local monks. Nuns were regularly raped therein and the entire place, in a phrase worth of Shakespeare, was “riot of seed and blood”…

The overall report (in England) said that 144 religious houses were equal in viciousness to Sodom; countless convents, served by “lewd confessors”, were full of children; clergy – abbots, monks and friars – were carrying on not merely with whores but with married women…

After six centuries of strenuous efforts to impose celibacy, the clergy were a menace to the wives and young women of parishes to which they were sent.

Peter de Rosa’s critics accuse him of overkill, but one thing is obvious: The Catholic Church’s history of sexual abuse goes way, way further back than the 1960s. In fact, it is as old as the church itself. This being the case, Joseph Ratzinger might benefit from viewing the 1960s sexual revolution in a very different light:

Rather than being the cause of abuse, the 1960s could be the beginning of the end of it. Why? Because for the first time, in our modern era, a large number of people – mostly young, of course – started being open about sex. Couples started living together without being married. Love was valued above legal union. The pill gave women independence and freedom from the fear of pregnancy. Social hypocrisy was discarded in favour of honesty.

All this, in turn, gradually affected mainstream attitudes. For example, the global scandal of paedophile priests is surfacing now, because unpalatable truths that society once agreed to hide are no longer tolerated. The #MeToo movement against the sexual harassment of women is another product of the same shift. The decriminalizing of homosexuality and giving equal rights to gays is another.

It’s a messy process, for sure, and we have a long way to go, but these are symptoms of a fundamental change in public attitudes. They all arise from the courage to be more open and honest about sex.

We have many reasons to be grateful to the 1960s sexual revolution.

Herr Ratzinger, please note.

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SubhutiSubhuti is a regular contributor

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