CNWE Reflects on the Legacy of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

The Catholic Network for Women’s Equality recognizes Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s life of service in the Roman Catholic Church. We pause to reflect upon aspects of his legacy. 

Pope Benedict will be remembered for his decision, due to failing stamina, to resign in 2013, thus breaking with a 600-year precedent of previous Popes who served until death. This marks a beneficial shift away from a more monarchical style of governance in the Catholic church. 

In his tenure as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) (1981-2005), the then Cardinal Ratzinger developed protocols to address the global clergy sexual abuse crisis and he defrocked perpetrator priests. (These sanctions were not as immediate and far-reaching as they needed to be, particularly regarding bishops and cardinals who covered up clergy sexual abuse.) As Pope Benedict XVI, he began reform to curb systemic financial corruption at the Vatican – work that continues under Pope Francis. 

However, for Catholics working for a gender-inclusive, renewing, and less clerically controlled Catholic church, Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict leaves a contested legacy. As Cardinal, he was concerned with what he saw as a “dictatorship of relativism” in society and Church. As such, he moved the focus of the hierarchy’s work away from a Vatican II vision of a listening, collegial church toward a more narrow, rigid and centralized Catholic orthodoxy. This emphasis has further delayed the full participation of women, and the welcoming of LGBTQ2S+ Catholics in the church. 

Regarding women’s ordination, Pope Benedict ‘doubled down’ on his predecessors’ ban on women’s ordination. In 2010, he declared that any such ordinations were a criminal offense under Church law, subject to automatic excommunication and equal in gravity to sexual abuse by clergy. Unfortunately, Pope Francis recently codified this penalty into Canon law (#1379).

As Prefect of the CDF in 1986, Cardinal Ratzinger penned a letter to bishops that described the “tendency” to homosexuality as an “intrinsic moral evil”. His writing has contributed to discrimination against LGBTQ2S+ persons. 

Vatican sanctions against Catholic theologians during Pope Benedict’s tenure restricted academic freedom and hampered the necessary evolution of Church teaching. Similarly, the six-year intrusive ‘assessment’/investigation and oversight of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the United States was a misguided overreach of Vatican power during Pope Benedict’s term of office. Pope Francis ended Vatican interference with the prophetic work of the LCWR in 2015.

Pope Benedict’s papacy also approved revisions to the English language mass. The intent was to restore a more rarified liturgical experience of the Eucharist. The result, however, has been an amplification of patriarchal language for God and humanity, prayers that are less accessible to new English speakers and young people, and has less common ground for liturgical ecumenism. 

CNWE respectfully hopes that the legacy of Pope Benedict will be the recognition that a more centralized, authoritarian, patriarchal model of church governance does not work. As Catholics who have worked for women’s equality in the Catholic Church for over 40 years, we take heart that global voices for change are rising via the Vatican’s synodal process. We hope that the Catholic Church will chart a bold path to share Christ’s gospel of love, justice, hospitality, and care for creation more fully – with a world and planet in urgent need.  

CNWE’s Summary Report to the Vatican Synod on Synodality

Clicking on the link above will connect you to CNWE’s Summary Report to the Vatican Synod on Synodality. It is based on conversations that CNWE members engaged in during the the spring 2022. It was gratefully received by the Vatican Synod Office and the office of Synod Undersecretary Sr. Nathalie Becquart.

CNWE Calls for Lay/Expert Oversight Throughout Vatican Investigations of Allegations of Clergy Sexual Abuse

The Catholic Network for Women’s Equality (CNWE) is dismayed to learn that the Vatican will not be conducting a thorough investigation into the allegation that Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec engaged in unwanted sexual touching, kissing and sexual harassment at public events (2008-2010) with a then 23-year-old woman who was working as a pastoral intern for the archdiocese during Ouellet’s tenure as archbishop. 

The Vatican’s investigation has been dropped based on a claim of “insufficient evidence” of sexual assault according to a spokesperson for Pope Francis (August 18, 2022). The complainant, named “F”, is part of a class-action civil suit against the Archdiocese of Quebec involving 101 allegations of sexual abuse by 88 Catholic clergy and staff that date back to the 1940s. Under Canadian law, the alleged actions of Cardinal Ouellet constitute ‘sexual assault’ and are a criminal offense.

CNWE commends “F” for her courage in coming forward with these allegations. “F” alleges that she realized the actions of Cardinal Ouellet constituted sexual abuse after attending a workshop on sexual abuse in 2020. When she complained to the archdiocese of Quebec (without naming Ouellet initially), they recommended that she write directly to the Pope. 

There are several troubling aspects about the way the Vatican has since handled this complaint.  

Most troubling is the fact that Pope Francis appointed Fr. Jacques Servais, SJ, to conduct a preliminary investigation in 2021, even though Fr. Servais and Cardinal Ouellet have worked together on several publications and events in Rome as members of the Lubac-Balthasar-Speyr Association. According to Canon law, such an association should have disqualified Fr. Servais from conducting the investigation. Furthermore, Fr. Servais has no expertise in adjudicating sexual abuse allegations. 

Pope Francis also has a ‘conflict of interest’ in this case because Cardinal Ouellet is one of his most trusted advisors. Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Ouellet to be Prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, tasked with overseeing the selection and conduct of bishops (including in cases where they are accused of sexual abuse of adults). As such, Cardinal Ouellet must be held to the highest standard and the Vatican should welcome a thorough investigation to be accountable. 

The delay in the Vatican’s decision contravenes recent changes to Church law requiring allegations of sexual abuse against adults be dealt with promptly. It is concerning that only after Cardinal Ouellet was publicly named in the class-action suit, that the Vatican declared their decision not to investigate the case. 

As has been made abundantly clear, ‘clergy policing clergy’ is not a credible process regarding allegations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Until there is a mandatory process that from the outset includes gender-equal committees with lay Catholic review and oversight as well as consultation with experts in clergy sexual abuse, the credibility of the Vatican’s process of investigating allegations of clergy sexual abuse lacks credibility. 

Furthermore, the Vatican’s response in this case highlights the issue of the rights of church workers and interns. Most pastoral associates in the church are women who have few labour rights and little recourse to impartial appeal if they are wrongfully dismissed or come forward with allegations of clergy abuse. It is long past time that the Catholic church be fundamentally restructured at every level to end systemic sexism and a culture of clericalism, and cover-up of sexual abuse that it has permitted. With any allegation of clergy sexual abuse, the Church must be held to the most stringent standards of moral accountability and transparency. Canadian Catholics should expect nothing less and should let their views be known. 


Media Inquiries:

Catholic Network for Women’s Equality (CNWE), Canada, Calls Catholic Bishops of Canada to Facilitate the Request of Indigenous Leaders for Pope Francis to Formally Apologize on Canadian Soil for the Legacy of Catholic-run Residential Schools


Together with Canadians across the country and people around the world, we grieve and stand in solidarity with Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, as the remains of 215 children buried in unmarked sites have been located on the grounds of the former Catholic-run Kamloops Indian Residential School.  

As settlers on this land, we have been slow to learn the history of the devastating impact of colonization, religious coercion, and ongoing systemic racism on First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, despite overwhelming evidence. As Catholics, we have been slow to acknowledge the depth of generational trauma resulting from the ongoing legacy of residential schools run by our own Church.  As individuals, we have been slow to face, and work to dismantle, our own inherited prejudices. 

From a place of listening, mutual respect and humility, members of CNWE are committed to being allies with Indigenous peoples. In recent days, we have listened as First Nations leaders have asked Pope Francis to “issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.” This request, from the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Report Calls to Action (#58) remains unmet. We call on Canadian bishops and cardinals to facilitate Pope Francis coming to Canada when it is safe to do so.

We call on all Catholic entities and dioceses to cooperate fully with the requests of Indigenous peoples to provide all documents related to residential school investigations. We also urge all the bishops of Canada to re-commit to meeting the terms of the Settlement Agreement regarding ongoing education and support (TRC Calls to Action #59-61) and to justly meeting all financial compensation obligations.

Survivors have been telling us for decades of the abuse that occurred in residential ‘schools’ and our hearts break for generations of Indigenous families whose children were not only taken away to these schools, but never returned home. We all have a moral and spiritual responsibility to be allies with First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples in Canada, cooperating in the urgent work of truth, reconciliation, and justice.