The Decadence of Moral Theology According to Joseph Ratzinger

January 28, 2022

The law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl recently published a report on child abuse in the diocese of Munich-Freising between 1945 and 2019. In this report, Ratzinger, who served as archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1981, is accused of negligence in four cases.

Details and evidence of these allegations have not been made public, but the former pope has dismissed all charges in a written statement.

This is certainly not to accuse or defend Cardinal Ratzinger, but one must be aware of the difficulty of taking for granted the complete reliability of these kinds of reports and their timing.

Nor is it a question of thinking that the Archbishop of Munich at the time wanted to be complicit in these very serious evils, nor of judging the extent or gravity of the negligence of which he is accused.

The commentary aims to echo what the Bavarian theologian asserted in his famous April 2019 letter published in the Klerusblatt, where he sought to examine the causes of the moral decay of the clergy in recent decades.

Many have praised the denunciation of the globalization of ecclesiastical thought that took place in the post-conciliar climate of 1968, when everything became licit.

The climate of sexual freedom, says the former pope in this letter, has done damage in the ranks of the clergy, precisely because the old framework of moral theology had been rejected at the same time, without it being known yet how to replace it.

The former Archbishop of Munich refers to the various attempts to replace the concept of “natural law” with a uniquely biblical morality or other systems, which came to nothing. But fortunately, according to him, we are emerging from this theological fog thanks to the new moral theology developed under John Paul II and the interventions of Pope Francis.

Until now, the aged Bavarian theologian has posed the problem in correct terms, and his analysis certainly constituted an extremely authoritative internal testimony of the ecclesial situation in the post-conciliar period.

The conservative and even traditionalist front may find its thinking confirmed by these first-hand elements. The decline of moral theology has certainly contributed—though it is not the only factor—to the abuse crisis.

The problem, however, lies in the analysis that follows and in the remedies the author believes he has found to put morality back on its feet.

The first striking thing that appears on reading the analysis is how foreign the pope emeritus seems to the events he recounts: yet, when he speaks of a doctrinal crisis, Ratzinger should remember that, for almost three decades, he was the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then pope for eight years.

But the things that bring surprise are quite different. The fundamental thesis can be summarized as follows: before the Council, there existed a morality of the naturalist (sic) type, which he wanted to reform according to the requirements of contemporary mentality and philosophy. A period of chaos ensued, with various failed attempts – such as that of reforming morality solely on the Holy Scriptures.

Finally, John Paul II recast Catholic morality from a new perspective with the encyclical Veritatis splendor. What this new perspective is, Ratzinger had already said in Seewald's book-interview Ultime conversazioni (Last Conversations): it is personalization, which surpassed what Ratzinger at the time called the previous “naturalistic” vision, which was still present – according to him – in Humanae vitae.

It goes to show, without insisting on the fact, that Joseph Ratzinger calls traditional Catholic morality “natural law,” reducing it almost to one school among others, as well as the discussion on the relevance of such a term.

The statements of Benedict XVI highlight the key principle of his modernism, according to which revelation must (re)take shape according to the recipient, in this case modern man and his philosophies, or else it will no longer be adequate.

Much has been written about the implications and consequences of this personalism; it suffices to see here what tremendous help his predecessor gives to Francis, saying that Humanae vitae is not yet up to date with the new system.

The Pope-emeritus goes on to explain that, in the very serious moral theology crisis after the Council, some have gone so far as to say that the Church does not have infallible magisterial authority on questions of morality, but only on matters of faith. This is to say that the Church does not have the authority to define correct behavior.

But the Guardian of the Faith does not condemn this view, directly contrary to Vatican I. Ratzinger simply says that “there is certainly something right in this thesis which deserves to be discussed and explored further.”

It is not perfect, but there is something right: indeed, for Ratzinger, it must be said that “there is a moral minimum which is inseparably linked to the fundamental decision of faith and which must be defended, if we do not want to reduce faith to a theory and recognize, on the contrary, the claim it has in relation to concrete life.” A minimum.

If the Church can infallibly define only a minimum of morality, it implies that there are human actions that are unrelated to the eternal purpose.

Ratzinger's minimalist approach sheds a dark light on the famous expression “non-negotiable values,” so dear to moral conservative. It would in fact mean that apart from this minimum, everything else is negotiable. And the minimum, it seems, is established on a case-by-case basis.