Whether speaking about priestly abuse or the Middle East, in his assessment of the year of 2010 the Pope sees in these things the fruits of "the eclipse of reason", the incapacity to see the essential of a culture of relativism in which "real" is only what is palpable and which, in this way, sees conscience as the private domain of each individual rather than as the search for objective truth. This road leads to the claim that good and bad do not exist in themselves, to the elimination of shared values and, as a consequence, also of morality in society. Giving mnakind the true meaning of "conscience" as the "capacity for seeing the essential, for seeing God and man" is the "responsibility" of the Church, which must "make these criteria audible and intelligible once more for people today as paths of true humanity". The "very future of the world is at stake".
Benedict XVI's long address, which began with "the sense that moral consensus is collapsing, consensus without which juridical and political structures cannot function", focused first on the "great tribulations" provoked by sexual abuse - "to a degree we could not have imagined" -committed by priests "who twist the sacrament into its antithesis, and under the mantle of the sacred profoundly wound people in their infancy, inflicting damage that lasts a whole lifetime".
In this context, the Pope mentioned the vision of St. Hildegard of Bingen who in 1170 described the Church as a beautiful woman, but with torn vestments and sullied features "because of the sins of priests. They tear my robe, since they are violators of the Law, the Gospel and their own priesthood", the saint wrote.
"The way she saw and expressed it is the way we have experienced it this year. 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".
But his remarks on the abuse scandal were also an occasion "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", the Pope said, "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 beauty of the priesthood, a beauty that has not been lost".
"We are well aware of the particular gravity of this sin committed by priests and of our consequent responsibility", the Pope highlighted. "But we cannot 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. The psychological destruction of children, in which human persons are reduced to market commodities, is a terrifying sign of the times. 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". In the same context, Benedict XVI also sees the problem of drugs, a problem which "with increasing force extends its 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 illusory intoxication turns into 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".
"In order to resist these forces, we must turn our attention to their ideological foundations. In the 1970s, paedophilia was theorised 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 the great rational tradition of Christian ethos as the essential and permanent foundation for moral action".
Benedict XVI also referred to these foundations in recalling his apostolic trip to Great Britain, where he beatified Cardinal John Henry Newman. The Pope emphasised that great thinker's "first conversion: 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. What appeared genuinely real to him, as to the men of his and our day, is the empirical, the materially tangible. This is the 'reality' according to which we find our way. The 'real' is what can be grasped, what can be calculated and taken in one's hand. In his conversion, Newman recognised 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".
"The driving force that impelled Newman along the path of conversion was conscience. But what does this mean?" the Pope asked. "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 recognise 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 recognise 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".
Continuing his analysis of the last twelve months, the Pope then turned to highlight the importance of the Middle East Synod, which began with his apostolic trip to Cyprus where "the hospitality of the Orthodox Church was unforgettable, and we experienced it with great gratitude. Even if full communion is not yet granted to us", he said, "we have nevertheless established with joy that the basic form of the ancient Church unites us profoundly with one another: the sacramental office of bishops as the bearer of apostolic tradition, the reading of Scripture according to the hermeneutic of the Regula fidei, the understanding of Scripture in its manifold unity centred on Christ, developed under divine inspiration, and finally, our faith in the central place of the Eucharist in the Church life".
However, Benedict XVI also recalled how in Cyprus "we saw the problem of a divided country. The wrongs and the deep wounds of the past were all too evident, but so too was the desire for the peace and communion that had existed before. Everyone knows that violence does not bring progress; indeed violence is what gave rise to the present situation. Only in a spirit of compromise and mutual understanding can unity be re-established. Preparing the people for this attitude of peace is an essential task of pastoral ministry. During the Synod itself, our gaze was extended over the whole of the Middle East, where the followers of different religions – as well as a variety of traditions and distinct rites – live together", he said.
"In the turmoil of recent years, the tradition of peaceful coexistence has been shattered and tensions and divisions have grown, with the result that we witness with increasing alarm acts of violence in which there is no longer any respect for what the other holds sacred, in which on the contrary the most elementary rules of humanity collapse. In the present situation, Christians are the most oppressed and tormented minority. For centuries they lived peacefully together with their Jewish and Muslim neighbours. During the Synod we listened to wise words from the Counsellor of the Mufti of the Republic of Lebanon against acts of violence targeting Christians. He said: when Christians are wounded, we ourselves are wounded. Unfortunately, though, this and similar voices of reason, for which we are profoundly grateful, are too weak. Here too we come up against an unholy alliance between greed for profit and ideological blindness. On the basis of the spirit of faith and its rationality, the Synod developed a grand concept of dialogue, forgiveness and mutual acceptance, a concept that we now want to proclaim to the world. The human being is one, and humanity is one. Whatever damage is done to another in any one place, ends up by damaging everyone. Thus the words and ideas of the Synod must be a clarion call, addressed to all people with political or religious responsibility, to put a stop to Christianophobia; to rise up in defence of refugees and all who are suffering, and to revitalise the spirit of reconciliation. In the final analysis, healing can only come from deep faith in God's reconciling love. Strengthening this faith, nourishing it and causing it to shine forth is the Church's principal task at this hour".