On Sunday, the French newspaper Le Figaro made a startling announcement. The Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had contributed to a book defending priestly celibacy alongside Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship. The 175-page work, which was due to be published in France on January 15, is entitled Des profondeurs de nos cœurs (“From the Depths of Our Hearts”).
An Italian commentator immediately hailed the work as a “un libro bomba” – a bombshell book. Why? Because Pope Francis will soon release his apostolic exhortation following last October’s Amazon synod. The synod fathers appealed to the Pope to permit married permanent deacons to be ordained as priests so they can administer the sacraments in “the most remote areas of the Amazonian region”. Francis had encouraged discussion of married priests at the synod, but it was unclear whether he favoured the final proposal. With the new book, Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah are making a powerful last-minute contribution to the debate.
The book’s introduction anticipates an obvious objection: is it right for a retired pope and a Vatican official to address a hot-button issue just as the current Pope is about to tackle it?
According to a translation published by the website One Peter Five, the book says: “Like Augustine we can say: ‘I cannot be silent! I know indeed how pernicious silence would be for me … It is to Christ that I will have to account for the sheep entrusted to my care. I can’t keep quiet or pretend ignorance.’
“We do it in a spirit of love for the unity of the Church,” it continues. “If ideology divides, the truth unites hearts.”
There is a further objection in the case of Benedict XVI. As he prepared to step down as pope in 2013, he said that he would remain “hidden from the world” in retirement. Many assumed that he was laying down his pen after decades of engagement in theological controversies. This proved to be a mistaken assumption. He began, tentatively at first, to comment on the prolonged crisis within the Church, culminating in a lengthy essay on abuse published last April. At every point his opponents have accused him of unfairly using his influence to sway debates within the Church.
Benedict’s supporters, however, argue that he, like any other member of the Church, has a right to speak out on matters of grave concern. They note that Pope Francis has repeatedly urged churchmen to speak their minds without fear of the consequences, and that Francis has often expressed gratitude for Benedict’s observations.
This prolonged debate about the role of the Pope Emeritus often drowns out what Benedict XVI actually says. His essay last year, for example, did not lead to a profound discussion of the roots of the abuse crisis. It would be a pity if the new book were judged by anything other than the merits of its arguments.
On Monday and Tuesday there were startling new developments: the book’s critics claimed that Benedict could not have co-authored the book because, at the age of 92, he is physically incapable of writing. In response, Cardinal Sarah published correspondence between himself and the Pope Emeritus, dismissing the allegations as “defamations of exceptional gravity”. Then an Austrian Catholic news agency reported that Benedict’s personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, had asked the publisher to to make it clear that the Pope Emeritus was a contributor to the book rather than a co-author.
This back and forth served only to distract Catholics further from the contents of the book. But nothing should dissuade the faithful from reading this profound apologia for priestly celibacy.
This book, after all, does not simply concern the Amazon synod. In Benedict’s native Germany, the Church has launched a “synodal process” that openly questions the value of clerical celibacy. Some bishops have said that if the Pope permits a relaxation of the discipline in the Amazon, they will request the same in Germany. In the post-conciliar Church we have often seen exceptions turn into norms, and it is legitimate to fear that this might also be the case with priestly celibacy.
In his essay, Benedict XVI argues that clerical celibacy is not simply an arbitrary discipline, but a theologically rich calling with deep biblical roots. All this would be lost if the Church were to abandon the requirement. His critics should spend less time attacking him and more time thinking through the consequences of their own ideas.