By Andrea Tornielli
A book on the priesthood that bears the signatures of Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, with a contribution from the Pope emeritus Benedict XVI (updated following a statement by the Prefect of the Papal Household, Archbishop Georg Ganswein), will be published in France on 15 January. The pre-publication material provided by Le Figaro indicates that, with their contributions, the authors enter into 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 — together with 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 put into question the Magisterium of the [Second Vatican] Council and Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. I implore 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 that represents a precious gift, as all the recent Pontiffs have affirmed. 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 himself in the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, dedicated to Anglican priests 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 expressed himself several times on the subject. While still a Cardinal, in the book conversation with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, he explained that he was in favor of maintaining celibacy: “with all the pros and cons entailed, in ten centuries there have been more positive experiences than there have been errors. Tradition has a weight and validity”. In dialogue with journalists on the flight back from Panama last January, the Pope recalled that in the Eastern Catholic Churches the option of either celibacy or marriage before the diaconate is possible; 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 about the possibility of granting exemptions for some remote 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 from the final document, there were bishops who asked for the possibility of ordaining married permanent deacons as priests. It is striking, however, that on 26 October, in his concluding speech, the Pope, after having followed all the stages of the speeches and discussion 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 at the same time: 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. This point was also stressed by the Director of the Vatican Press Office, Matteo Bruni, in his communiquè responding to journalists' questions on the issue. The Pope asked that journalists not fall into the danger of focusing on “which party won and which one lost”, when looking at what was decided concerning disciplinary issues.