Benedict and Sarah back Francis’s position on priestly celibacy. Media storm ensues

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The Pope Emeritus and CDW chief are simply re-stating Pope Francis's own position. So why the outcry?

The Vatican’s communications outfit scrambled on Monday to catch up with a media storm surrounding news two priests have written a book defending the Pope’s own stated position on a hot-button issue. Yes, you read that correctly:

“Two priests have written a book defending the Pope’s own stated position on a hot-button issue.”

When you put it just like that, it’s tough to see the reason for the furore that has erupted over the last news cycle, even when one takes into consideration that the particular hot-button issue is very hot, indeed: priestly celibacy. Even when one specifies that the two priests are senior bishops — the Pope Emeritus and a senior official in the current pope’s administration — it doesn’t get much easier see what all the fuss over the volume is about.

Nevertheless, papal cheerleaders in the commentariat were vocal in expressing their consternation with the volume — or rather, the news of it. When one considers that the Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI, promised to go into a quasi-monastic retirement and remain “hidden from the world”, the surprise of many Church watchers begins to explain itself, but only a little.

For one thing, the Pope Emeritus makes no bones about it. He and his co-author, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Cardinal Robert Sarah, together note that it is a departure from a serious undertaking, explain their reasons for the departure, and get about the business.

The Catholic Herald has obtained proofs of the English edition, which contain a reflection — informed by lived experience — on the theological underpinnings (scriptural, sacramental, and ecclesiological) of the long-standing discipline, according to which only men not bound in marriage may receive priestly Orders.

One veteran Vaticanologist, Gerard O’Connell cites unnamed Vatican sources who expressed “surprise” at the news of the book and, “wondered how this book came to be written,” since they have observed the 93-year-old Benedict’s recent flagging strength. The book’s authors, however, explain both the genesis of the project and its mode of completion in the book itself. “Given the lasting crisis that the priesthood has been going through for many years, it seemed to me necessary to get to the deep roots of the problem,” Benedict writes. “I had started a work of theological reflection, but age and a kind of weariness led me to abandon it. My exchanges with Robert Cardinal Sarah gave me the strength to resume it and to bring it to completion.”

One may disagree with the authors — they invite critique — but they haven’t written a political tract.

Nevertheless, the authors frankly note that one of the reasons for their decision to bring out the volume is the often heated — and in their opinion, often ill-informed — discussion of priestly celibacy that accompanied and at times dominated the recent Amazon synod.

On that point, they’re not wrong.

Some reports during the recent synod assembly — and members of the chattering class — often played fast and loose with the frame of the discussion, such as it was — and is — especially concerning the stakes of it. For abundance of clarity: There is not now, nor has there ever been, a proposal “to end priestly celibacy” in the Church.

There is a proposal from the synod fathers, now before the Holy Father, asking him to consider relaxing the very long-standing discipline currently in force for secular (roughly “diocesan”) priests in the Latin Church, which impedes married men from receiving ordination to the priesthood.

Church watchers will imagine that, in addition to the noisy discussion surrounding the late Amazon synod, the authors have at last one eye on Germany, as well. The “synodal process” underway there is considering a whole host of questions the rest of the Church considers definitively resolved.

Even today in the Latin Church, however, the discipline is not exceptionless: men entering the Church, who had priestly Orders in other ecclesial communities, may receive Holy Orders including priestly Orders. There is a special Ordinariate for former Anglicans, served almost entirely by clerics who have come to the Catholic Church in this way, many of whom are married with children.

Still, Pope Francis has taken a strong position in favour of the current discipline. He even made Paul VI’s line on the subject his own: “For the Latin rite,” he offered in January of last year, “I am reminded of a phrase of St. Paul VI: ‘I prefer to give my life before changing the law of celibacy.’ This came to me and I want to say it because it is a courageous phrase,” he told journalists in response to a direct question asked in solicitation of his personal thoughts on the matter.

While the rest of Pope Francis’s answer left the possibility for some relaxation of the discipline open, he concluded his remarks by saying, “I do not say that it should be done — because I have not reflected, I have not prayed sufficiently on this — But the theology should be studied.”

The Pope Emeritus and the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments have offered a theological reflection that will be helpful regardless of any “exception” that Francis may (or may not) make to the rule for secular clergy in the West. In fact, their book is a profound meditation on the priesthood. Their articulation of a strong position regarding celibacy is more a consequence of their general considerations, than it is a motor of them.

The nutshell version of their view is that the priesthood is itself an icon of the constitutive spousal relationship between Christ and the Church, which requires the kind of commitment a husband undertakes when he marries his wife. A man, the practical side of the argument runs, will never fulfil any such commitment perfectly. Nevertheless, he cannot live either commitment adequately, if he is divided between them.

Against this, it will be urged that Christians — even and especially Eastern clerics — will recognise the particular challenges that marriage poses to priestly service, and vice versa.

Married men called to priestly service in whatever Rite must compromise with the realities of daily life. Their peculiar circumstances do not, however, impede one from living both the natural state and the supernatural vocation fruitfully. Those circumstances may offer chances to practice forms of personal sacrifice and abnegation peculiar to the condition, offering unique opportunities for witness that would otherwise be impossible.

In short, From the Depths of our Hearts (the English title of the book, published by Ignatius Press and available for pre-order now) addresses the question of priestly celibacy, explaining why it is a gift to be guarded and cherished. It is not, however, about the Latin discipline of celibacy, sic et simpliciter, nor is it written against the Pope’s own view of the matter. Quite the opposite, actually.

The authors offer their reflections to the whole Church, and, “in a spirit of filial obedience, to Pope Francis.” They do not say whether Francis asked for their opinion specifically, though Francis has encouraged a spirit of frankness — parrhesia — among churchmen and indeed throughout the whole Church, involving men and women of every age and sex and state of life.

Cardinal Sarah does urge Pope Francis not to relax the Western discipline any further, even in exceptional cases. When it comes to the major stable exception in the Latin Church — the Anglican ordinariate — it was Benedict who created it.

Vatican Media’s editorial director, Andrea Tornielli, published a piece shortly after midday, in which he rehearsed the recent history — including Pope Francis’s statements on the matter and Pope Benedict’s promulgation of Anglicanorum coetibus, which created the Anglican ordinariate —  and came to much the same conclusion: “The Synod on the Amazon was held in October 2019, and the topic was debated there,” Tornielli said, noting that the synod fathers asked Pope Francis to consider “ordaining married permanent deacons as priests.” Tornielli went on to note that Francis, in his final address to the participants in the synod assembly, “did not mention in any way the subject of the ordination of married men, not even in passing.”

The director of the Holy See’s press office, Matteo Bruni, issued his own statement in response to journalists’ queries. “The position of the Holy Father on the question of [priestly] celibacy is known,” Bruni said, otherwise rehearsing the same statements of the Holy Father as constitute the bulk of Tornielli’s editorial.

All that leaves several questions unanswered: Did Benedict have permission to write this? Did he tell Francis he was doing this? What about Cardinal Sarah? Also, why release the book now?

Those are questions that will keep journalists in skin for a while, and provide plenty of grist for the inveterate Church watchers’ mill. They will tempt minds desperate for another taste of Roman dietrologia — the story behind the story — but will not be likely to inform public debate of the questions, whenever and however they are answered.