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What Pope Benedict's Letter On The Sex Abuse Scandal Means For Catholics


It has been six years since Pope Benedict XVI became pope emeritus. Having two living men who lay claim to the title Pope, one retired and one active, has not happened in centuries. Nevertheless, that is the current state of play in the Roman Catholic Church, and there have been moments when the retired pope has stepped on the message of the current pope. Just this week, Benedict released a letter weighing in on the church's massive sex abuse scandal.

And to talk more about that letter and what it means for Catholics, we're joined now by Natalia Imperatori-Lee. She is associate professor of religious studies at Manhattan College. Welcome.

NATALIA IMPERATORI-LEE: Thank you very much for having me.

CHANG: So Benedict's letter is seen as controversial because of where he places blame for the church's sex abuse scandals. Can you tell us a little more about exactly what Benedict wrote?

IMPERATORI-LEE: So Pope Benedict wrote a letter that reflects kind of his ideas about what caused the scandal and what threatens the church, which is basically the sexual revolution then uprisings of the 1960s, a sort of libertarianism when it comes to morals and the departure of God from the public square.

CHANG: I mean, we should point out that, you know, it's highly unusual that he's even speaking up. He had originally said he would remain, "hidden to the world" - that's a direct quote. But that no longer seems to be the case. Do we know why he's jumping into the fray now?

IMPERATORI-LEE: No. I think it's most confusing why he would jump into the fray now, particularly with this intervention which, by referring to the sexual revolution or the 1960s, is really stuff that he had talked about while he was the pope. And so it's unclear why he or the people around him felt the need to weigh in once again with the sort of causes of the crisis that we already knew he believed.

CHANG: Right. I mean, how does Pope Benedict's letter conflict with what Pope Francis has said about the clergy abuse crisis?

IMPERATORI-LEE: Well, I think the main problem is that it doesn't mention victims at all. The hallmark of Francis' approach to the sexual abuse crisis has been that he has centered victims' voices. If you look at Benedict's letter, the victim in his letter is the church. And that's a real slap in the face to people who have survived sexual abuse.

CHANG: So what are the implications of this for Catholics? I mean, having two popes - one who is officially in power, one who is not - who are now saying different things about such a critical issue for the church?

IMPERATORI-LEE: Yeah. I don't want to overstate it. I don't think that anybody thinks that Benedict is still the pope. But I do worry that it flirts with a kind of divisiveness that is unhelpful. We all know that not everybody is supportive of Pope Francis centering the voice of victims or Pope Francis' approach to how he runs the church with openness. And so I worry that it encourages people who criticize Pope Francis into looking backward to the pope emeritus as their pontiff, or their shepherd or something like that, which is really dangerous to the unity of the church.

CHANG: Right. And where does that leave Vatican leadership? I mean, is it possible that this conflict between Benedict and Francis could cause a schism among the highest levels in the Vatican?

IMPERATORI-LEE: I don't think that it will. I think that the resistance to Pope Francis is small, even if sometimes it gets loud. I think that it's not even a conflict, probably, between the two men. I think that Francis holds Benedict in high esteem and values his opinion. It's just when that opinion spills out into the public that you have these competing visions, and then forcing Catholics to maybe choose a side is not exactly where we want the church to be.

CHANG: Natalia Imperatori-Lee. She's an associate professor of religious studies at Manhattan College. Thank you very much for joining us today.

IMPERATORI-LEE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.