Sex, Celibacy, and the Latest Curiosity From Rome

Published January 15, 2020

First Things

Author’s note: On January 14, in the latest curiosity from Rome, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI asked through a spokesman that his name be removed from a pending book on priestly celibacy, in which he and Cardinal Robert Sarah were listed as coauthors. While acknowledging that the pope emeritus had collaborated with Sarah, the spokesman stated Benedict had never agreed to be named coauthor. Cardinal Sarah, for his part, stressed that Benedict had been fully aware of the book project, and following “several exchanges in order to develop the book,” he had sent a “complete manuscript” to the pope emeritus in November: “as we had jointly decided, the cover, a common introduction and conclusion, the text of Benedict XVI and my own text.” In an alternate, more tranquil (and healthier) reality, one with less frenzied media and less toxic ecclesial politics, the book with its shared concerns might proceed to public consumption. If it did, a review, based on the actual, advance-copy text, would go like this:

In the wake of the recent Amazon Synod, Catholics are living through another conflict on the matter of priestly celibacy. Happily, From the Depths of Our Hearts, by Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah, serves our obligation to honesty and clarity exceptionally well in any discussions of a married priesthood.

Mandatory priestly celibacy has been a source of controversy since Vatican II. Among the arguments advanced against it are today’s obvious need for more priests, as well as the centuries-long tradition of a married priesthood in Eastern Orthodox and various Eastern Catholic communities. If priestly celibacy is merely a discipline of the Western Church, then disciplines can be changed. Moreover, a married presbyterate—so the reasoning goes—would have practical advantages: Mission cultures often see celibacy as an alien and negative value; more men would be willing to consider the priesthood if they could marry; and incidents of clerical sex abuse might thereby be reduced.

The Amazon Synod seemed to offer hope that a married priesthood, initially limited in scope and restricted to narrowly defined circumstances, might finally be possible for the Latin Church. Ordaining viri probati, or men of proven virtue, to serve as priests in mission territories would set the necessary precedent for a gradual reexamination of celibacy’s theology and utility.

In From the Depths of Our Hearts, Benedict and Sarah dismember such reasoning in a brief but brilliant defense of priestly celibacy. And they achieve it in a genuine spirit of fidelity both to Pope Francis and to the historic corpus of the faith. The two men differ stylistically in their approach to the subject matter, but the book mirrors their extended, private exchange of concerns out of which the text emerged. Benedict deals with the history and theology of priestly celibacy. Sarah focuses on the pastoral significance of a celibate priesthood, and the destructive implications of undermining it.

Benedict is among the premier Christian theologians and intellectuals of the last 100 years. A master of biblical exegesis and historical evidence, he makes his case for celibacy with clear, articulate, and persuasive logic. Sarah, a native son and former pastor of African mission territory, argues with elegant passion from direct experience. The result of their collaboration is complementary and compelling.

Benedict notes:

In the common awareness of Israel, priests were strictly obliged to observe sexual abstinence during the times when they led worship and were therefore in contact with the divine mystery. . . . Given that the priests of the Old Testament had to dedicate themselves to worship only during set times, marriage and the priesthood were compatible.

But because of the regular and often daily celebration of the Eucharist, the situation of the priests of the Church of Jesus Christ has changed radically. From now on their entire life is in contact with the divine mystery. This requires on their part exclusivity with regard to God. Consequently this excludes other ties which, like marriage, involve one’s whole life.

Benedict in no way diminishes the dignity of marriage; quite the opposite. Both marriage and the priesthood require a radical and exclusive gift of self. Thus, while each is essential to Christian life and each complements the other, they cannot be integrated without jeopardizing both. As Sarah explains, “the priest’s capacity for spousal love is entirely given to and reserved for the Church. The logic of the priesthood excludes any ‘other spouse’ than the Church.”

Sarah’s contribution is especially powerful and zealous. “The priesthood,” he writes, “to repeat the words of the Curé of Ars, is the love of the heart of Jesus. We must not make it a subject of polemics, of ideological battle or of political maneuvering. Nor can we reduce it to a question of discipline or of pastoral organization.”

He is uncompromisingly frank in arguing that “he who has not given himself totally to God is not given perfectly to his brethren,” and that many of the current attacks on the value of priestly celibacy “show a terrible intellectual dishonesty.” He adds, “I am convinced that if a large number of Western priests or bishops are willing to relativize the greatness and importance of celibacy, it is because they have never had the concrete experience of the gratitude of a Christian community.”

In the end, both Benedict and Sarah see priestly celibacy, and the sacrifices (but also the joy—the tangible joy) it entails, as vital to the life of the Church. Efforts to diminish or abolish it are, in effect, a surrender to a confused and hypersexualized wider culture. Matters sacramental and supernatural cannot be reduced to the pragmatic, the functional, and the utility-driven. But, as the authors forcefully show, critics of priestly celibacy—however good their intentions—inevitably do exactly that, to the detriment of the believing community they seek to serve.

Francis X. Maier writes from Philadelphia.

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