In surprise, Benedict openly defends clerical celibacy as Francis considers married priests
VATICAN CITY — Retired Pope Benedict XVI has co-authored a new book defending the Catholic Church’s practice of a celibate priesthood, in a shocking move that comes as Pope Francis is considering the possibility of allowing older, married men to be ordained as priests in the Amazon region.
According to excerpts from the volume released Jan. 12 by the conservative French outlet Le Figaro, the ex-pontiff says he could not remain silent on the issue as Francis is contemplating the move, which was requested by the bishops from the nine-nation Amazon region at October’s Vatican synod gathering.
The book is co-written with Cardinal Robert Sarah, the head of the Vatican’s liturgy office. It is to be released in France Jan. 15 and carries the title Des profondeurs de nos cœurs (“From the Depths of Our Hearts).
Although the volume is yet to be seen in full, it appears to signify something as yet unexperienced in the two millennia history of the Catholic Church: a retired pope openly weighing in on something currently under consideration by his successor, the reigning pontiff.
One noted theologian reached shortly after the release of the excerpts called Benedict’s decision to write on the issue a “serious breach.”
“It interferes with a synodal process that is still unfolding after the Amazon synod … and threatens to limit the freedom of the one pope,” said Massimo Faggioli, a historian and theologian at Villanova University.
In a summary accompanying excerpts from the new book, Le Figaro indicates that Benedict and Sarah wrote separate portions of the volume, but co-signed both the introduction and the conclusion.
Benedict, according to the excerpts, claims that priesthood and celibacy are integrally linked together. The former pope, aged 92, also claims that while priests were commonly married in the first millennium of western Christianity, those with spouses were expected to observe abstinence after ordination.
Sarah speaks more directly to Francis, openly asking the pope not to allow for married priests.
“I humbly beg Pope Francis to … veto any weakening of the law of priestly celibacy, even limited to one or the other region,” writes the cardinal.
The 185 members of October’s monthlong synod gathering considered the issue of married priests from the perspective of the pastoral needs of the Amazon region, where some Catholics can go for months or even years without access to the sacraments because of the difficult terrain and a shortage in the number of active ministers.
In their final document, the synod members suggested by a vote of 128-41 that Francis allow for bishops in the region to ordain current married deacons as priests, should circumstances so merit.
The text also prioritized the place of the Eucharist in a Catholic’s life. “There is a right of the community to the celebration, which derives from the essence of the Eucharist and its place in the economy of salvation,” it said.
Francis is known to be working on an apostolic exhortation responding to the synod document, in which he is expected to respond to the bishops’ request to allow for the ordination of married priests.
Celibacy, which has been the norm for priests in the western church for about 800 years, is a practice and not a revealed dogma. The Catholic Church currently allows for the ordination of married priests in a number of different circumstances, such as when a minister from some other Christian denominations decides to become Catholic.
The Vatican press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Benedict and Sarah’s book.
The last time there were two Popes in the Roman Catholic Church, one was at Avignon and the other in Rome. Now we have two living in Rome, seemingly both claiming the moral ascendancy. The Vatican should perhaps have realized that Benedict’s ‘resignation’ didn’t quite mean what it represented. What he really wanted was ‘time out’ from the fray.
And here he is, publicly opposing the apparent desire of his successor, Pope Francis, who has registered his encouragement to those in the Church who believe that celibacy may not be the ‘sine qua none’ of the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. There are some, for instance, who accept the example of some Apostles who, like Saint Peter, were obviously married (according to Holy Writ).
In colluding with Cardinal Sarah, one of the Vatican’s most conservative prelates, whose spirited defence of the status quo of priestly celibacy has marked him out as one of the principal objectors to the reforming zeal of Pope Francis; the former Pope, Benedict, gives a very public indication that he is still hankering after the authority that more properly belongs to the reigning Pontiff. The book that Benedict has co-authored with Cardinal Sarah openly defends the extant Roman rubric that demands celibacy of the ordained clergy of the Roman Catholic Church. (The more recent acceptance of former Anglican married clergy now employed as ordained clergy by the R.C. Church would seem to be just one of the exceptions to this rule – another being that of the ‘Oriental Rite’ clergy in the wider Catholic Church).
“Benedict, according to the excerpts, claims that priesthood and celibacy are integrally linked together. The former pope, aged 92, also claims that while priests were commonly married in the first millennium of western Christianity, those with spouses were expected to observe abstinence after ordination.”
It would seem that this issue alone – of the celibacy of the clergy – could be one good reason for Pope Francis to demand a vow of ‘silence’ from his feisty predecessor. Also, that could be the only way for the Vatican to observe one of its own rules about the supreme authority of the Pope! (One at a time, please!)
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand
STOP PRESS Wed. 15 Jan.2020 (N.Z. time)