Benedict XVI’s grim “state of the union” (Christmas) address to the Roman Curia

The Holy Father’s 2005 Christmas greetings address to the Roman Curia was one of the most important of his still short pontificate.

He has now delivered his 2010 address. It serves, among other things, as a kind of “state of the union” address.

It was a hard and grim assessment of the state of the Church and the world. At one point he says:

“The very future of the world is at stake.”

Merry Christmas, everyone.

He spoke of the suffering that came from the continuing clerical sexual abuse scandal and the Year for Priests. He even used some statistics. At one point he spoke of the Book of the Apocalypse and the sins of Babylon. Don’t miss the quote from the visions of St. Hildegard. He cites Alexis de Tocqueville. He speaks of Bl. John Henry Newman’s beatification, what it means, and compares Newman’s conversion to the Copernican Revolution. He even brings up Newman’s Toast about “conscience” and explains it.  He brings up proportionalism as a cause of many of the Church’s problems.

Let’s have a look, with my emphases and comments. It is about 3800 words uncut, but I will edit. This is long, but it is worthwhile to look at this together carefully.

The Vicar of Christ is painting a grim and challenging picture.

Pope Benedict XVIDear Cardinals,

Brother Bishops and Priests,

Dear Brothers and Sisters,


Excita, Domine, potentiam tuam, et veni. [Stir up Your might, O Lord, and come!] Repeatedly during the season of Advent the Church’s liturgy prays in these or similar words. They [are] invocations that were probably formulated as the Roman Empire was in decline. [Is Western civilization is in its sunset?] The disintegration of the key principles of law and of the fundamental moral attitudes underpinning them burst open the dams which until that time had protected peaceful coexistence among peoples. [Speaking of sunset…] The sun was setting over an entire world. Frequent natural disasters further increased this sense of insecurity. There was no power in sight that could put a stop to this decline. All the more insistent, then, was the invocation of the power of God: the plea that he might come and protect his people from all these threats.

Excita, Domine, potentiam tuam, et veni. Today too, we have many reasons to associate ourselves with this Advent prayer of the Church. For all its new hopes and possibilities, our world is at the same time troubled by the sense that moral consensus is collapsing, consensus without which juridical and political structures cannot function. Consequently the forces mobilized for the defence of such structures seem doomed to failure. [I must here remind the reader that Catholics used to pray the “Leonine Prayers” after low Masses.]

Excita – the prayer recalls the cry addressed to the Lord who was sleeping in the disciples’ storm-tossed boat as it was close to sinking. [Benedict used this image just before his election in his 2005 Good Friday Stations of the Cross for the Ninth Station. He was clearly talking about the clerical crisis: “Lord, your Church often seems like a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side. In your field we see more weeds than wheat. The soiled garments and face of your Church throw us into confusion. Yet it is we ourselves who have soiled them! It is we who betray you time and time again, after all our lofty words and grand gestures. Have mercy on your Church; within her too, Adam continues to fall. When we fall, we drag you down to earth, and Satan laughs, for he hopes that you will not be able to rise from that fall; he hopes that being dragged down in the fall of your Church, you will remain prostrate and overpowered. But you will rise again. You stood up, you arose and you can also raise us up. Save and sanctify your Church. Save and sanctify us all.”] When his powerful word had calmed the storm, he rebuked the disciples for their little faith (cf. Mt 8:26 et par.). He wanted to say: it was your faith that was sleeping. He will say the same thing to us. Our faith too is often asleep. Let us ask him, then, to wake us from the sleep of a faith grown tired, and to restore to that faith the power to move mountains – that is, to order justly the affairs of the world. [In their State of the Union addresses American Presidents usually come out of the blocks with the declaration that “The state of the Union is strong!” That is not what Benedict XVI is doing, at least insofar as the human dimension is concerned.]

Excita, Domine, potentiam tuam, et veni: amid the great tribulations to which we have been exposed during the past year, this Advent prayer has frequently been in my mind and on my lips. We had begun the Year for Priests with great joy and, thank God, we were also able to conclude it with great gratitude, despite the fact that it unfolded so differently from the way we had expected. Among us priests and among the lay faithful, especially the young, there was a renewed awareness of what a great gift the Lord has entrusted to us in the priesthood of the Catholic Church. We realized afresh how beautiful it is that human beings are fully authorized to pronounce in God’s name the word of forgiveness, and are thus able to change the world, to change life; we realized how beautiful it is that human beings may utter the words of consecration, through which the Lord draws a part of the world into himself, and so transforms it at one point in its very substance; we realized how beautiful it is to be able, with the Lord’s strength, to be close to people in their joys and sufferings, in the important moments of their lives and in their dark times; how beautiful it is to have as one’s life task not this or that, but simply human life itself – helping people to open themselves to God and to live from God. We were all the more dismayed, then, when in this year of all years and to a degree we could not have imagined, we came to know of abuse of minors committed by priests who twist the sacrament into its antithesis, and under the mantle of the sacred profoundly wound human persons in their childhood, damaging them for a whole lifetime.

In this context, a vision of Saint Hildegard of Bingen came to my mind, a vision which describes in a shocking way what we have lived through this past year. “In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 1170, I had been lying on my sick-bed for a long time when, fully conscious in body and in mind, I had a vision of a woman of such beauty that the human mind is unable to comprehend. She stretched in height from earth to heaven. Her face shone with exceeding brightness and her gaze was fixed on heaven. She was dressed in a dazzling robe of white silk and draped in a cloak, adorned with stones of great price. On her feet she wore shoes of onyx. But her face was stained with dust, her robe was ripped down the right side, her cloak had lost its sheen of beauty and her shoes had been blackened. And she herself, in a voice loud with sorrow, was calling to the heights of heaven, saying, ‘Hear, heaven, how my face is sullied; mourn, earth, that my robe is torn; tremble, abyss, because my shoes are blackened!

And she continued: ‘I lay hidden in the heart of the Father until the Son of Man, who was conceived and born in virginity, poured out his blood. With that same blood as his dowry, he made me his betrothed.

For my Bridegroom’s wounds remain fresh and open as long as the wounds of men’s sins continue to gape. And Christ’s wounds remain open because of the sins of priests. [May God have mercy on me, a sinner.] They tear my robe, since they are violators of the Law, the Gospel and their own priesthood; they darken my cloak by neglecting, in every way, the precepts which they are meant to uphold; my shoes too are blackened, since priests do not keep to the straight paths of justice, which are hard and rugged, or set good examples to those beneath them. Nevertheless, in some of them I find the splendour of truth.’

And I heard a voice from heaven which said: ‘This image represents the Church. For this reason, O you who see all this and who listen to the word of lament, proclaim it to the priests who are destined to offer guidance and instruction to God’s people and to whom, as to the apostles, it was said: go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation’ (Mk 16:15)” (Letter to Werner von Kirchheim and his Priestly Community: PL 197, 269ff.).

In the vision of Saint Hildegard, the face of the Church is stained with dust, and this is how we have seen it. Her garment is torn – by the sins of priests. The way she saw and expressed it is the way we have experienced it this year. [Remember: this is a “state of the union” address.] We must accept this humiliation as an exhortation to truth and a call to renewal. Only the truth saves. We must ask ourselves what we can do to repair as much as possible the injustice that has occurred. We must ask ourselves what was wrong in our proclamation, in our whole way of living the Christian life, to allow such a thing to happen. We must discover a new resoluteness in faith and in doing good. We must be capable of doing penance. We must be determined to make every possible effort in priestly formation to prevent anything of the kind from happening again. [Priestly formation… indeed.] This is also the moment to offer heartfelt thanks to all those who work to help victims and to restore their trust in the Church, their capacity to believe her message. In my meetings with victims of this sin, I have also always found people who, with great dedication, stand alongside those who suffer and have been damaged. This is also the occasion to thank the many good priests who act as channels of the Lord’s goodness in humility and fidelity and, amid the devastations, bear witness to the [un-forfeited] beauty of the priesthood.

We are well aware of the particular gravity of this sin committed by priests and of our corresponding responsibility. [This is not the Pontifical We.] But neither can we remain silent regarding the context of these times in which these events have come to light. There is a market in child pornography that seems in some way to be considered more and more normal by society. [He has spoken of the Church. Now he speaks about the world around us.] The psychological destruction of children, in which human persons are reduced to articles of merchandise, is a terrifying sign of the times. [At the top he spoke of the “sunset”.]The Book of Revelation includes among the great sins of Babylon – the symbol of the world’s great irreligious cities – the fact that it trades with bodies and souls and treats them as commodities (cf. Rev 18:13). In this context, the problem of drugs also rears its head, and with increasing force extends its octopus tentacles around the entire world – an eloquent expression of the tyranny of mammon which perverts mankind. No pleasure is ever enough, and the excess of deceiving intoxication becomes a violence that tears whole regions apart – and all this in the name of a fatal misunderstanding of freedom which actually undermines man’s freedom and ultimately destroys it. [Echoing his Message for the World Day of Peace.] From Bishops of developing countries I hear again and again how sexual tourism threatens an entire generation and damages its freedom and its human dignity.

[He has not been holding back. But now we get to some classic Ratzinger…] In order to resist these forces, we must turn our attention to their ideological foundations. In the 1970s, paedophilia was theorized as something fully in conformity with man and even with children. This, however, was part of a fundamental perversion of the concept of ethos. It was maintained – even within the realm of Catholic theology – that there is no such thing as evil in itself or good in itself. There is only a “better than” and a “worse than”. Nothing is good or bad in itself. Everything depends on the circumstances and on the end in view. Anything can be good or also bad, depending upon purposes and circumstances. Morality is replaced by a calculus of consequences, and in the process it ceases to exist. The effects of such theories are evident today. Against them, Pope John Paul II, in his 1993 Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor, indicated with prophetic force in the great rational tradition of Christian ethos the essential and permanent foundations of moral action. [In a state of the union address, you must also give direction…] Today, attention must be focused anew on this text as a path in the formation of conscience. It is our responsibility to make these criteria audible and intelligible once more for people today as paths of true humanity, in the context of our paramount concern for mankind. [Spoken with some urgency. Dust off your copy of Veritatis splendor.   The Pope is talking about the moral problems that have been caused by proprtionalism. He is saying that to correct our paths, we have to return to a proper moral theology.  No wonder he speaks of formation of priests.]

[… His second point concerns the Synod on the Middle East and the situation of Christians, ecumenical relations, etc. …]
I would willingly speak in some detail of my unforgettable journey to the United Kingdom, but I will limit myself to two points that are connected with the theme of the responsibility of Christians at this time and with the Church’s task to proclaim the Gospel. [A common theme for this pontificate: our voice in the public square.] My thoughts go first of all to the encounter with the world of culture in Westminster Hall, an encounter in which awareness of shared responsibility at this moment in history created great attention which, in the final analysis, was directed to the question of truth and faith itself. It was evident to all that the Church has to make her own contribution to this debate. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his day, observed that democracy in America had become possible and had worked because there existed a fundamental moral consensus which, transcending individual denominations, united everyone. Only if there is such a consensus on the essentials can constitutions and law function. This fundamental consensus derived from the Christian heritage is at risk wherever its place, the place of moral reasoning, [NB: derived from the Christian heritage…] is taken by the purely instrumental rationality of which I spoke earlier. In reality, this makes reason blind to what is essential. To resist this eclipse of reason and to preserve its capacity for seeing the essential, for seeing God and man, for seeing what is good and what is true, is the common interest that must unite all people of good will. [NOTA BENE…] The very future of the world is at stake.

Finally I should like to recall once more the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman. Why was he beatified? [Not a few have asked that.] What does he have to say to us? Many responses could be given to these questions, which were explored in the context of the beatification. I would like to highlight just two aspects which belong together and which, in the final analysis, express the same thing. The first is that we must learn from Newman’s three conversions, because they were steps along a spiritual path that concerns us all. Here I would like to emphasize just the first conversion [Classic Ratzinger!]: to faith in the living God. Until that moment, Newman thought like the average men of his time and indeed like the average men of today, who do not simply exclude the existence of God, but consider it as something uncertain, something with no essential role to play in their lives. [This is a fruit of the Immanentism-Lite which most of society is mired in.] What appeared genuinely real to him, as to the men of his and our day, is the empirical, matter that can be grasped. This is the “reality” according to which one finds one’s bearings. The “real” is what can be grasped, it is the things that can be calculated and taken in one’s hand. In his conversion, Newman recognized that it is exactly the other way round: that God and the soul, man’s spiritual identity, constitute what is genuinely real, what counts. These are much more real than objects that can be grasped. This conversion was a Copernican revolution. What had previously seemed unreal and secondary was now revealed to be the genuinely decisive element. Where such a conversion takes place, it is not just a person’s theory that changes: the fundamental shape of life changes. We are all in constant need of such conversion: then we are on the right path.

[More classic Ratzinger. Very often in his long career he has dealt with the issue of the faith and reason, authority and intellect.] The driving force that impelled Newman along the path of conversion was conscience. But what does this mean? In modern thinking, the word “conscience” signifies that for moral and religious questions, it is the subjective dimension, the individual, that constitutes the final authority for decision. The world is divided into the realms of the objective and the subjective. To the objective realm belong things that can be calculated and verified by experiment. Religion and morals fall outside the scope of these methods and are therefore considered to lie within the subjective realm. Here, it is said, there are in the final analysis no objective criteria. The ultimate instance that can decide here is therefore the subject alone, and precisely this is what the word “conscience” expresses: in this realm only the individual, with his intuitions and experiences, can decide. Newman’s understanding of conscience is diametrically opposed to this. For him, “conscience” means man’s capacity for truth: the capacity to recognize precisely in the decision-making areas of his life – religion and morals – a truth, the truth. At the same time, conscience – man’s capacity to recognize truth – thereby imposes on him the obligation to set out along the path towards truth, to seek it and to submit to it wherever he finds it. Conscience is both capacity for truth and obedience to the truth which manifests itself to anyone who seeks it with an open heart. The path of Newman’s conversions is a path of conscience – not a path of self-asserting subjectivity but, on the contrary, a path of obedience to the truth that was gradually opening up to him. [The Pope of Christian Unity adds this…] His third conversion, to Catholicism, required him to give up almost everything that was dear and precious to him: possessions, profession, academic rank, family ties and many friends. The sacrifice demanded of him by obedience to the truth, by his conscience, went further still. Newman had always been aware of having a mission for England. But in the Catholic theology of his time, his voice could hardly make itself heard. It was too foreign in the context of the prevailing form of theological thought and devotion. In January 1863 he wrote in his diary these distressing words: “As a Protestant, I felt my religion dreary, but not my life – but, as a Catholic, my life dreary, not my religion”. He had not yet arrived at the hour when he would be an influential figure. In the humility and darkness of obedience, he had to wait until his message was taken up and understood. [We are, perhaps, still waiting.] In support of the claim that Newman’s concept of conscience matched the modern subjective understanding, people often quote a letter in which he said – should he have to propose a toast – that he would drink first to conscience and then to the Pope. But in this statement, “conscience” does not signify the ultimately binding quality of subjective intuition. It is an expression of the accessibility and the binding force of truth: on this its primacy is based. The second toast can be dedicated to the Pope because it is his task to demand obedience to the truth.


Excita, Domine, potentiam tuam, et veni.

We set out from this plea for the presence of God’s power in our time and from the experience of his apparent absence. [Ah yes… the apophatic.] If we keep our eyes open as we look back over the year that is coming to an end, we can see clearly that God’s power and goodness are also present today in many different ways. So we all have reason to thank him. Along with thanks to the Lord I renew my thanks to all my co-workers. May God grant to all of us a holy Christmas and may he accompany us with his blessings in the coming year.

I entrust these prayerful sentiments to the intercession of the Holy Virgin, Mother of the Redeemer, and I impart to all of you and to the great family of the Roman Curia a heartfelt Apostolic Blessing. Happy Christmas!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. It’s like a call to arms, except that it’s more like a call to our knees and our hearts.

  2. teomatteo says:

    I can’t help but place our Pope’s SOTU address as you have outlined and the coming lunar eclipse together. His message to the curia fills me with such emotions like that of experiencing an eclipse. I have had the blessing of traveling to a total* solar* eclipse and the anticipation (like advent) is overwhelming…. just awe-full… I pray for our Pope of Christian Unity.

  3. Joseph-Mary says:

    Incredible! I truly believe we have a saint at the helm.

    Reading this gave me a little chill.

    I am reading “Light of the World” now; I recommend it for your Christmas reading too.

  4. The second toast can be dedicated to the Pope because it is his task to demand obedience to the truth

    He just gave us one more reason to look at Cardinal Burke as a serious choice for the next Pope. Who has drawn more attention to the subject of obedience to truth through the Church than he?

  5. spesalvi23 says:

    Can we limit the papabile talk to the time when we are actually in the horrible situation of having to engage in that talk?

    I can’t stand ‘next Pope’ speculations! They are utterly disrespectful!!

  6. rakesvines says:

    Re: “The very future of the world is at stake.” Dire like sinking into another dark age – probably under the tyranny of Islam or Socialism or a nuclear winter with nothing left but the remnants of civilization. Despite all that, the church in Her martyrs and confessors will endure forever – albeit in a remnant, the poor of Yahweh.

  7. irishgirl says:

    As I read this, I thought to myself, ‘Wow…just…wow!’
    Made me think of St. John the Baptist crying out in the desert!
    Long live our Holy Father!

  8. traditionalorganist says:

    From one of my favorite Christmas Carols: A Christmas Day is Come! (for best rendition, check out the CD “Baroque Christmas” by Masques).

    If we would then rejoice, let’s cancel the old score,
    And purposing amendment, resolve to sin no more –
    For mirth can ne’er content us, without a conscience clear;
    And thus we’ll find true pleasure in all the usual cheer,
    In dancing, sporting, reveling, with masquerade and drum,
    So let our Christmas merry be, as Christmas doth become.

    I am reminding of this when reading the Holy Father’s address.

  9. anna 6 says:

    A very powerful address indeed…of course National Catholic Reporter is freaking out over Benedict’s comments on proportionalism….as if he blames the entire crisis on it. As usual, their comments are distressing.

  10. anna 6 says:

    The link to the NCR article: “On the crisis, does the pope have it right?”

  11. Jason Keener says:

    I’ve been somewhat critical of Pope Benedict’s speeches because he has sometimes spoken about how the natural moral law is to form the basis of debate about public policy without saying much about how Christianity is to also inform that debate. It is good to see that the Pope clearly reaffirmed the role of the “Christian heritage” in forming public policy and moral arguments. As Pope Pius XI taught in his “Quas Primas,” Christ is the salvation of both the individual and of society [i.e., the public square].

    Also, I don’t think we should underestimate how nearly impossible it is to build a just and flourishing political order and culture on reason alone without reference to the clear light of Christ and the Catholic Faith. People today want to talk about the great benefits of pluralism to a civil society; however, I am not so optimistic. We can see the clash between the worldviews of Catholics and Muslims starting to take place even here in the United States where some Muslims want to use Sharia law in our civil courts. Of course, Islam contains many errors about the nature of faith and reason, the nature of God, and the nature of the human person, among other things. Catholics should work for the conversion of non-Catholics for both the individual salvation of souls and for the flourishing of true politics and culture, which can only be built on the foundation of Christ and the Catholic Faith.

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  13. Rob Cartusciello says:

    I have long said that the greatest flaw in modern Catholic moral theory was the shift from conscience being the moral guide to behavior to the conscience being the license for immoral behavior. Pope Benedict describes this de-evolution with great precision.

    The Pope cites a number of good sources. I need to dust off my reading list.

  14. wchoag says:

    I found the Holy Father’s address poignant and challenging–and dead-on accurate. It is one of the best of his Pontificate

    But when I went over Traditio to read the spin that Father Moderator put on this address, my head nearly exploded when it saw the blatant falsifications and twistings of the speech written over there!

    Thank you, Fr. Z, for hosting the BEST news and views forum for matters Catholic anywhere in the blogosphere.

    Happy Christmas and many graces in the New Year!

  15. K_Suzanne says:

    If anyone is interested in reading or re-reading Veritatis Splendor, this is a good place to download it from:

    Veritatis Splendor

  16. Long live the Holy Father…he doesn’t hold back any punches. I find this to be very encouraging.

  17. spesalvi23: I can’t stand ‘next Pope’ speculations! They are utterly disrespectful!!

    Point well taken.

    No disrespect was intended and I, as much as anyone here, desire to see Pope Benedict XVI here for a very long time.

    But, I do thank you for bringing to my attention how it came across.

  18. oldCatholigirl says:

    God bless the Holy Father, and God bless you, too, Father Z, for bringing us his words in a sympathetic forum. Will the media go on accusing him of being silent ? Probably, because he does not say what the world wants to hear. The extent of his learning has always awed me, but even more am I awed by the depth of his understanding. When I read his words, I am reminded of Blessed Cardinal Newman’s motto, “Cor ad cor loquitur” and I cannot help but weep for his suffering,

  19. Young Canadian RC Male says:

    Well, the Pope has indeed spoken. I too, as a young man, feel our world is heading down a dark path. The Holy Father is correct to mention there are ways to turn this around. However, he forgot to mention (unless I missed it in his speech) one crucial new strategy “The New Evangelization”

    Paul VI alluded to this is in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi:
    “21. Above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness. Take a Christian or a handful of Christians who, in the midst of their own community, show their capacity for understanding and acceptance, their sharing of life and destiny with other people, their solidarity with the efforts of all for whatever is noble and good …. All Christians are called to this witness, and in this way they can be real evangelizers. We are thinking especially of the responsibility incumbent on immigrants in the country that receives them.”

    The other popes continued to stress this with John Paul II in the encyclical Redemptoris Missio and our B16 in Verbum Domini. B16 has taken it further by the institution of the Pontifical Council for New Evangelization (Motu Proprio Ubicumque et Semper) and had even made the next General Bishops Synod in 2012 devoted to the New Evangelization.

    In general, the new evangelization entails: “a new type of mission work, for it is directed toward historically Christian countries and people who have heard the Gospel but have not fully responded to it. The message to be proclaimed is not new, for it is still the never changing Gospel of Jesus Christ … In large part, this is a missionary effort directed toward the baptized … baptized Catholics who no longer practice the faith, who have joined sects or other religions, and even some who, while still practicing the faith, have never made a full and generous adult response to the loving invitation of Christ.”

    So while we have to spread the Good News to those who haven’t heard/accepted it, we also should be working on caretaking of those in our own “house.” Thankfully it is starting to take effect already before the synod with ministries like Mission of the Redeemer. I wouldn’t be putting that up unless I can vouch for its work (which I got to experience as a weekend retreat at U of T’s Newman Center).

  20. webpoppy8 says:

    Where’s the link direct to the piece? Guess I’ll have to look it up…

  21. benedetta says:

    Still mulling over much of this and expect to be doing so for a good while…just noting that the Holy Father is placing himself here in deep sympathy with the very heart of the Church. He is absolutely living in the immediate reality. I feel sorry for those pundits and Catholic media types and those in positions of Church leadership who will ignore or be tempted to distort this to serve their own alternate realities. The message is indeed at the service of unity and takes stock of what we are currently facing, as well as a hopeful way forward.

  22. JMody says:

    Good stuff – I still wonder what some people seem to think happened between the death of St. John the Apostle and the pontificate of John Paul II, though. He was hardly the first to notice this trend or to write on it.
    Reading the writings of Pius XI and Pius XII, one sees a lot of similar discussion. Or Leo XIII, or Gregory XVI or Clement XIV — this is very good stuff, but it is the same stuff that popes have been screaming from the rooftops, or smuggling out of hidden chambers, for centuries now. If we can conform to God, we will be “complying” with the wishes of our Father — until then, we are “defying” the wishes of our Father. He doesn’t need to get it, WE do. It truly is a joy to hear this from Rome again.

    Oh, BTW, has there been a reaction yet from Sr. Chittiser or Ian Paisley?

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