A new book on the value of priestly celibacy asks Pope Francis not to begin the process of ending it in the Latin-rite Church. The surprise: that the book’s co-author is Pope Emeritus Benedict
By Robert Moynihan
“The priesthood is going through a dark time. Wounded by the revelation of so many scandals, disconcerted by the constant questioning of their consecrated celibacy, many priests are tempted by the thought of giving up and abandoning everything.” —Pope Emeritus Benedict and Cardinal Robert Sarah, in their new book, From the Depths of Our Hearts (2020) “A phrase from St. Paul VI comes to mind: ‘I prefer to give my life before changing the law of celibacy.’” —Pope Francis, in a press conference on his return trip from Panama, 2019 “The life of celibacy is an expression of triumph over this world — which is our faith.” —Fr. Vincent Miceli, review of Celibacy and the Crisis of Faith by Dietrich von Hildebrand
As this issue of Inside the Vatican was going to press, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah announced that they were publishing a book on the question of priestly celibacy. They argue that priestly celibacy is a great gift to the Church which ought not to be undervalued. The book includes a plea to Pope Francis not to take any action which would suggest priestly celibacy might be set aside. The book stunned many in Rome, since it suggests Emeritus Pope Benedict may be willing to make his voice heard on other matters which would potentially create a conflict between him and Pope Francis, confusing the faithful and damaging the unity of the Church. Benedict will turn 93 in April. Cardinal Sarah, Prefect for the Congregation on the Liturgy, is from Guinea in West Africa. He has been a prolific author recently on the spiritual value of silence and on the need for a relationship with God for human happiness (God or Nothing). The two seem to recognize the potential for some sort of division, and therefore present themselves “as bishops” in “filial obedience to Pope Francis” who “seek the truth” in “a spirit of love of the unity of the Church,” far from “the ideologies that divide” and far from “political maneuvers or power games or ideological manipulations.”
Still, they said it was not possible for them “to keep quiet” after “the strange Synod of the media” in October.
The two men “exchanged ideas and concerns, we prayed and we meditated in silence,” they write. “Each of our meetings consoled us and calmed us mutually,” they said.
So during 2019, an unusual collaboration emerged between Benedict and Cardinal Sarah, as they met, prayed together, and came to understand that there was a need for a book about the priesthood, and about how celibacy offers a powerful sign to the Church and the world, and ought not to be abandoned or diminished in the Latin rite.
The 175-page book, written in French, is entitled Des profoundeurs de nos couers (“From the depths of our hearts”) and was published in France on January 15. Jean-Marie Guenois, chief religion correspondent for Le Figaro, France’s oldest and second most-read daily, broke the news on January 13 and presented some brief excerpts from the book together with background. Guenois sent an announcement of the work to more than 40 journalists from different countries.
News of the book’s imminent publication took the Vatican by surprise. As of press time, is was not known whether the authors had informed Pope Francis in advance of their project.
In Rome, some suggested that Benedict had not actually written the book himself, but had been persuaded to lend his name to a book written by others. America magazine quoted an unidentified Vatican source as saying that he had visited the Pope Emeritus in recent months and noted that, while Benedict’s mind is clear, it is nonetheless “difficult for him to engage in a conversation that lasts longer than 15 minutes.” So there was some controversy over how this book came to be written.
As Pope from 2005 to 2013, Benedict XVI did often stress “the great significance of priestly celibacy” as a sign of the total commitment of the priest to the Church. At the same time, Benedict opened the door to the entry of many married Anglican priests into the Roman Catholic Church.
The book comes on the eve of the publication of Pope Francis’ exhortation following the Amazonian Synod, which is expected to be released by mid-February. Some in Rome have suggested that the book is intended to put pressure on Pope Francis not to open the door, even in a very limited way, to the ordination of mature married men to the priesthood for communities in isolated areas (such as in parts of Amazonia) which are often without the Eucharist for weeks at a time. Yet Pope Francis stated categorically in January 2019, in an airborne press conference, that he believes celibacy is “a gift for the Church” and that he will not introduce optional celibacy. He said that he only saw the possibility of ordination of married men as an “extreme measure” to provide the Eucharist to people in remote areas who would otherwise remain without it for long periods.
It is particularly striking that this new book is coauthored by Benedict. When he resigned from the papacy seven years ago in February 2013, he committed himself to remaining totally silent from then on. Vatican officials and cardinals have said Benedict’s intervention raises serious questions regarding the role of a Pope Emeritus, and have expressed concern that such interventions risk undermining Pope Francis.
Matthew Schmitz of First Things immediately argued that the book is an eloquent defense of celibacy, not an attack on Francis. Andrea Tornielli, head of Vatican communications, argued on the Vatican’s own website, that the book is a useful contribution to the discussion of priestly celibacy “in filial obedience to the Pope.” Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, in 2019, just before the October Synod, published a book strongly defending celibacy, and indicating Francis agrees with him. In the book, Benedict says he began writing this a while ago, put it aside, but then resumed it, inspired after his talk with Cardinal Sarah. Strikingly, Benedict’s contribution is dated September 2019, before the Amazon Synod even began. All Catholics will wish to offer prayers that Pope Francis may be guided by the Holy Spirit as he now makes his momentous decision on this topic.