Pope Francis and Benedict XVI in December 2018 

There has been a flurry of reports in the media this week about celibacy in the Catholic Church. Let’s see how good a Vaticanologist you really are. Who said: “I prefer to give my life before changing the law of celibacy”?

(a) Pope Pius XII    
(b) Pope Paul VI   
(c) Pope John Paul II   
(d) Pope Benedict XVI  
(e) Pope Francis

For $64,000 the answer is … Pope Francis! Well, actually, it’s Pope Francis quoting his predecessor Pope Paul VI.

The question arises because 92-year-old Benedict XVI, who retired in 2013, is again making headlines. He has published a short book on the Catholic priesthood, together with Cardinal Robert Sarah, a Vatican heavy from Guinea who heads the department in charge of liturgy.

From the Depths of Our Hearts will be released in French this week and in English in late February (from Ignatius Press). There has been some confusion about whether Benedict is a co-author or a “contributor”, or even whether he is really the author of the essay. It turns out that he prefers to be described a contributor to the book and that he did write the essay. 

According to media reports, the emeritus Pope insists strongly that the Catholic Church’s stand on priests and celibacy must not be changed. He writes:

“The married state involves a man in his totality, and since serving the Lord likewise requires the total gift of a man, it does not seem possible to carry on the two vocations simultaneously. Thus, the ability to renounce marriage so as to place oneself totally at the Lord’s disposition became a criterion for priestly ministry.”

This is the centuries-old rule in the Latin rite of the Catholic Church, to which most of the world’s Catholics belong. Catholics are a diverse lot, though, and there are a number of Eastern rites which permit married priests, though not married bishops. But the celibate priesthood has been regarded as the ideal state.

This has always had its critics, from Martin Luther to more recent schematic churches like the Old Catholics and the Philippine Independent Church. But since the 60s and 70s pressure has become more intense within the Church to permit a married clergy. The number of men entering the priesthood has fallen – for a variety of reasons – and it is said that the possibility of being married might make the job more attractive.

At last year’s Synod on the Amazon a number of participants argued forcefully for ordaining married men to minister to isolated communities in the Amazon region. Otherwise they might never see a priest and be deprived of the sacraments.

It’s Pope Francis who has the last word on this, though. He is studying the matter and will probably release his decision soon in the form of an apostolic exhortation, a long reflection on the issues raised by the synod.

The consensus of journalists about the book is that Benedict is throwing down the gauntlet to Francis and doing his damnedest to protect the Church’s traditional discipline on the matter. It’s as if the media are using the recent film The Two Popes as a frame for interpreting Benedict’s unexpected intervention. “The real relationship between Francis and Benedict is becoming increasingly troubling and, for the incumbent pope, destabilising,” according to The Guardian.

However, Francis has stated his mind unambiguously on the issue. Here’s the Vatican press release:

The position of the Holy Father on celibacy is known. In the course of his conversation with journalists on his return from Panama, Pope Francis said: “A phrase from Saint Paul VI comes to mind: ‘I prefer to give my life before changing the law of celibacy’”. And he added: “Personally I think celibacy is a gift for the Church. I don’t agree to allow optional celibacy, no. Only a few possibilities would remain in the most remote locations – I think of the Pacific Islands … […] when there is pastoral need, there, the pastor must think of the faithful “.

Regarding the way in which this topic fits into the more general work of the recent Synod on the Pan-Amazon region and its evangelization, during the final session the Holy Father said: “I was very pleased that we did not fall prisoners of these selective groups who of the Synod want to see only what has been decided on this or that other intra-ecclesiastical point, and deny the body of the Synod which are the diagnoses we have made in the four dimensions (pastoral, cultural, social and ecological).”

As Pope, Benedict allowed a number of married Anglican priests to enter the Catholic Church and to be ordained as Catholic priests. He even set up an “ordinariate”, a special structure within Church law to accommodate Anglican traditions.

In short, Francis and Benedict seem to be on the same page: Catholic priests should be celibate for theological and practical reasons, but there can be exceptions.

Admittedly, Benedict’s intervention is surprising. When he resigned in 2013, he promised to remain “hidden from the world”. Evidently the topic is so dear to his heart that he felt compelled to contribute to the debate. But from the fragments of his contribution which have been leaked to the media, he seems to be defending the “precious gift of priestly celibacy” not against Francis, but against the media. In a jointly written chapter, Benedict and Sarah say that over the past few months, they saw that “the strange mediatic [sic] synod had prevailed over the real synod”.

We’ll have to wait for the release of From the Depths of Our Hearts to find out exactly what Benedict has said and for the release of the apostolic exhortation to find out what Francis has decided. In the end, this may all prove to be a storm in a teacup.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet  

Michael Cook

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet