Earlier this week, Pope Benedict XVI for the first time publicly engaged the issue of the relationship between the Church’s celibacy requirements and the clergy sexual abuse scandals.
In an unusually personal letter to the world’s seminarians Oct. 18, the Pope told them that it is understandable if the scandals have caused them to question their decision to become priests or to choose to live a celibate life.
“Recently we have seen with great dismay that some priests disfigured their ministry by sexually abusing children and young people,” the Pope said.
He added: “As a result of all this, many people, perhaps even some of you, might ask whether it is good to become a priest; whether the choice of celibacy makes any sense as a truly human way of life.”
The Pope’s frank engagement of the question comes after a year of controversies in Europe in which many have publicly questioned whether there might be a link between the celibacy rule and the scandal.
Two bishops in Belgium in September raised the issue of admitting married men to the priesthood in the wake of the scandal that has rocked the Church there. Earlier this year, Cardinal Christoph Schöborn of Vienna suggested the Church needs an “unflinching examination” of the reasons for the crisis, including a discussion of “the issue of priestly celibacy and the issue of personality development.” The cardinal’s words were widely misreported, forcing him to clarify that he in no way was questioning the celibacy rule.
The Church has consistently maintained that there is no evidence of any relationship between celibacy and deviant sexual behavior.
And in his new letter, the Pope again emphasizes that the issue is not the commitment to celibacy but the maturity and personal development of the priest.
"It is important for the priest, who is called to accompany others through the journey of life up to the threshold of death," he wrote, "to have the right balance of heart and mind, reason and feeling, body and soul, and to be humanly integrated.”
"This," he said, "also involves the integration of sexuality into the whole personality. Sexuality is a gift of the Creator yet it is also a task which relates to a person’s growth towards human maturity."
When a man’s sexuality is not properly integrated, it becomes "banal and destructive," he said.
Throughout his pontificate, Pope Benedict has repeatedly spoken of celibacy as a “gift.”
In celebrating the close of the Year for Priests on June 10, he said priests were united with the “unique priest,” Jesus Christ, mysteriously drawn into the reality of Christ's resurrection, to a new life "already beyond marriage."
In this relationship with Christ, he said, "celibacy is anticipation," taking the priest beyond this world and time to the "world of the resurrection." In opening the doors to this "future of God," he said, celibacy is lived as a witness to faith, a testimony of true belief that God exists and is found in one's life.
For this reason it causes such "scandal" in the secular world, he said. Celibacy is a "yes" that implies a type of marriage, he explained. It is a proof of loyalty and trust in God. Celibacy, he said, "confirms the 'yes' of marriage with its 'yes' to the future world" and "is a great sign of faith, of the presence of God.”
The Pope also spoke of the importance of celibacy during a congress for priests organized by the Vatican's Congregation for Clergy on March 12.
Celibacy he said, is "an authentic prophecy of the Kingdom, a sign of consecration with undivided heart to the Lord and to 'the affairs of the Lord', the expression of their gift of self to God and to others."
Concluding the thought in his new letter to seminarians, the Pope thanked God for priests that bear witness to the "authentic, pure and mature humanity" that can be attained in the priesthood -- "specifically in the life of celibacy."