Popes are supposed to be infallible. They communicate through carefully worded speeches, apostolic letters, or encyclicals that are often the fruit of slow collaboration with doctrinal experts inside the Vatican. So what are we to make of the strange text that Benedict XVI, the pope emeritus, unleashed on the world this week, in which he effectively blamed the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church on the freewheeling sexual revolution of 1968?
Before we get into the contents of Benedict's letter—which is informal, not Church doctrine—let us pause for a moment to consider the utter weirdness of the situation. In 2013, Benedict, who turns 92 next week, became the first pope in modern history to resign. It was a brave and rather beautiful act that defined his life and the modern history of the Church. Since then, he's lived in retirement inside Vatican City—reading, writing, playing a little piano.
Benedict pledged to stay in the background and lead a life of quiet contemplation, and to not meddle in the affairs of his successor, Francis. Instead, he has weighed in on one of the most fraught issues of both their papacies, in a way that's bumbling, tone-deaf, and theologically problematic. (Theologians have also pointed out that this kind of document isn't subject to the doctrine of papal infallibility.)