A Contribution on Priestly Celibacy in Filial Obedience to the Pope

Author: Andrea Tornielli

The Pope emeritus and the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship address a theme which Pope Francis has spoken on several times

The Pope emeritus and the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship address a theme which Pope Francis has spoken on several times

A book on priesthood that bears the signatures of the Pope emeritus Joseph Ratzinger and of Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Con­gregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, will be published in France on 15 January. The pre-publication materi­al provided by Le Figaro indicates that, with their contributions, the au­thors enter the debate on celibacy and the possibility of ordaining mar­ried men as priests. Ratzinger and Sarah — who describe themselves as two bishops “in Filial obedience to Pope Francis” who “seek the truth” in “a spirit of love for the unity of the Church” — defend the discipline of celibacy and put forth the reasons that in their opinion would advise against changing it. The question of celibacy occupies 175 pages of the book, with two texts — one by the Pope emeritus and the other by the Cardinal — as well as an introduction and a conclusion signed by both.

In his text, Cardinal Sarah recalls that “there is an ontological-sacramental link between priesthood and celibacy. Any weakening of this link would call into question the Magisterium of the [Second Vatican] Council and of Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I entreat Pope Francis to protect us definitively from such a possibility by veto­ing any weakening of the law of priestly celibacy, even if limited to one region or another”. Cardinal Sarah goes so far as to describe the possibility of ordaining married men as “a pastoral catastrophe, an ecclesiological confusion and an obscuring of the understanding of the priest­hood”. Reflecting on the subject in his brief contribution, Benedict XVI goes back to the Jewish roots of Christianity, affirming that from the beginning of God’s “new covenant” with humanity, which was estab­lished by Jesus, priesthood and cel­ibacy are united. He recalls that already “in the ancient Church”, that is, in the first millennium, “married men could receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders only if they committed themselves to sexual abstinence”.

Priestly celibacy is not, and has never been, a dogma. It is an eccle­siastical discipline of the Latin Church and a precious gift, as defined by all the recent Pontiffs. The Catholic Eastern-Rite Churches allow the possibility of ordaining married men as priests. Exceptions were also admitted in the Latin Church by Benedict XVI in the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, dedicated to Anglican pas­tors who seek communion with the Catholic Church, which provides for “the admission of married men to the order of presbyter on a case by case basis, according to objective cri­teria approved by the Holy See”.

It is worth remembering that Pope Francis too has spoken on the subject several times. While still a Cardinal, in the book conversation with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, he ex­plained that he was in favour of maintaining celibacy “with the pros and the cons that it has, because it has been ten centuries of good ex­periences more often than failure”. “Tradition has weight and validity”. In dialogue with journalists on his return flight from Panama last Janu­ary, the Pope recalled that in the Eastern Catholic Churches the choice of either celibacy or marriage is made before the diaconate; but he added, regarding the Latin Church: “I am reminded of that phrase of Saint Paul VI: ‘I would rather give my life than change the law on cel­ibacy’. It came to mind and I want to say it, because it is a courageous phrase, in a more difficult moment than this, 1968/1970... Personally, I think that celibacy is a gift for the Church. Second, I don’t agree with allowing optional celibacy, no”. In his reply, he also spoke about the discussion among theologians re­garding the possibility of granting exemptions for some remote geo­graphical regions, such as the Pacific Islands. He specified, however, “there’s no decision on my part. My decision is: optional celibacy before the diaconate, no. That’s something for me, something personal, I won’t do it, this remains clear. Am I ‘closed’? Maybe. But I don’t want to appear before God with this de­cision”.

The Synod on the Amazon was held in October 2019, and the topic was debated there. As can be seen in the Final Document, there were bishops who asked for the possibil­ity of ordaining married permanent deacons as priests. It is striking, however, that in his concluding speech on 26 October, the Pope, after having followed all the stages of the interventions and discussions in the hall, did not mention in any way the subject of the ordination of married men, not even in passing. Instead, he recalled the four dimen­sions of the Synod: that of inculturation; the ecological dimension; the social dimension; and finally the pastoral dimension, which “includes them all”. In that same speech, the Pontiff spoke about creativity in new ministries, and the role of women; and referring to the scarcity of clergy in certain mission areas, he recalled that there are many priests from a certain country who have gone to the First World, for example, the United States and Europe, and “there are not enough of them to send out to the Amazon region of that same country”.

Finally, it is significant that Pope Francis, while thanking the media, also asked a favour of them: that in their dissemination of the Final Document, they would focus above all on the diagnosis “which is the more significant part, the part in which the Synod truly expressed it­self best”: the cultural, social, pas­toral and ecological diagnosis. The Pope asked that journalists fall not into the trap of focusing on “what was decided on the disciplinary is­sue, what they decided on another, which party won and which one lost”.

L'Osservatore Romano
17 January 2020, page 2