Analysis: On celibacy, what Benedict cannot say and Francis mustn't hear

Francis greets Benedict Dec 21 2018 Credit Vatican Media CNA Size Pope Francis greets Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI Dec. 21, 2018. | Vatican Media.

This week, the pope emeritus and Cardinal Robert Sarah will publish a new book in defense of clerical celibacy. 

Reaction to the book has opened up a fault-line among Catholic commentators: some seem to oppose the existence of the book on principle, while others argue that the former pope and cardinal are offering support to Pope Francis' own line of thinking.

Offered apparently as a direct riposte to the recommendation of the final document of the Synod on the Pan-Amazonian region, which called for the ordination of some married men for pastoral service in remote areas, the book has been furiously denounced by some commentators, seemingly before they could read it.

Modern historian and Villanova professor Massimo Faggioli typified a strand of response, suggesting that that for Benedict to co-author a book on an issue currently sitting on the pope's desk "interferes with a synodal process that is still unfolding," and "threatens to limit the freedom of the one pope."

Alongside this and similar reactions, which paint the contribution by the former pope as an implicit subversion of the pope's authority, others have insisted that the pope emeritus is incapable of writing anything because of his age. 

Contrary to the consistent accounts of those who actually see him every day, commentators such as Austen Ivereigh have alleged that Benedict is "conscious for barely half an hour at a time," and called the publication of the book with his name attached "elder abuse."

Their intensity of response to the book's very existence, even leaving its content aside, seems to suggest that anything offered by Benedict will be, de facto, considered by some to undermine his successor's authority, and become, as Faggioli opines, an "illegitimate form of pressure" on Francis.

Other, more official papal commentators have offered a more catholic perspective on the issue.

Holy See Press Office Director Matteo Bruni issued a statement Monday highlighting Pope Francis's own thoughts on clerical celibacy, noting that the pope has called it "a gift to the Church," and that he "does not agree with allowing optional celibacy." 

Bruni also noted the pope has spoken of room to consider exceptions for married clergy in the Latin rite "when there is a pastoral necessity," as suggested during the Amazonian synod, but also restated the pope's commitment to clerical celibacy as the norm in the Latin Church.

Official papal p.r. man Andrea Tornielli made many of the same points in a Monday op-ed.

"Ratzinger and Sarah - who describe themselves as two Bishops 'in filial obedience to Pope Francis' who 'are seeking the truth' in 'a spirit of love for the unity of the Church' - defend the discipline of celibacy and put forth the reasons that they feel counsel against changing it," Tornielli wrote.

There appears then, at least from the official channels, no indication of concern about a subversion of Francis's authority – instead the book seems to have been welcomed for what the authors claim it is: merely a contribution to an ongoing debate in the Church.

Perhaps what the two reactions point to is a fault-line, not for or against Pope Francis, but about the actual terms of the debate he is now weighing.

The final document of the Synod on the Amazon – a text which has in itself no magisterial weight whatsoever – famously called for priestly ordination of proven permanent deacons for service in remote regions. There is a debate to be had on the prudence and effectiveness of such a pastoral exception for a region as sui generis as the Amazon. Those with a wider frame of reference would note that Benedict himself supported a relaxing of the discipline of celibacy in some narrowly drawn cases, like former Anglican clergy.

But could it be that the real substance of the opposition to Benedict and Sarah's new book is aimed not at the exception but the rule itself?

Many in and around the Amazon synod have long signaled their desire to see a wholesale revisiting, if not abandonment, of the universal discipline of clerical celibacy in the Latin Church.

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Ivereigh, for example, acknowledged in the run-up to the Amazonian synod that while a possible exception to clerical celibacy in the region could be important, "the bigger story is the ecclesiological reimagining that allows such a possibility to be considered." He went on to note that papal approval of the idea would hinge on a lack of visible controversy in its presentation. 

"There is little doubt that if the synod reaches a calm consensus behind the proposal to ordain elders in order to promote regular access to the sacraments-which is very likely-Francis will not refuse," Ivereigh wrote in June last year.

Ivereigh seemed to expect that changes at the synod could lead to changes everywhere. He wrote that "The synod will focus resolutely on the Amazon, but if its vision of reform does not have repercussions for the rest of the Church, then, says [REPAM's executive secretary Mauricio] López, an important opportunity will have been wasted-an opportunity to show how the church's peripheries can shape its center."

"But," Ivereigh noted, "it seems unlikely Pope Francis will let that happen." 

Moreover, the matter of clerical celibacy is already being discussed during the "binding synodal path" of the Church in Germany, a process hailed by Faggioli as an important new phase in the Church's post-conciliar development. 

And the desire in some quarters to use an Amazonian exception to end the universal norm on celibacy has been expressed publicly.

In 2018, before the Amazonian synod, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, vice-chairman of the German bishops' conference, said that if the ordination of married men were authorized for the Amazon, German bishops would insist on the same authorization. Bode called the necessity of extending the same dispensation everywhere "obvious."

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Opposition to celibacy, and the desire to see it ended, has not been limited to practical or disciplinary arguments.

During the Amazonian synod itself, retired Bishop Erwin Krautler insisted that "indigenous people do not understand celibacy." Krautler essentially argued that the Church's discipline – which has for centuries been upheld as a witness to eternal life – has no evangelistic value and is something "they cannot understand."

It is the multi-pronged attack on the Church's universal discipline that prompted curial cardinals like Sarah, Ouellet, Filoni, and Turkson, all of whom are known for their intense personal loyalty to Pope Francis, to intervene in favor of the value of priestly celibacy at the time of the synod. 

Set within that context, the more outraged preemptive reactions to the Sarah and Benedict book begin to take a different shape. 

Calling into question the pope emeritus' moral and physical ability to join a conversation in the Church is a marked departure from reaction to previous Benedict interventions. Last year, when the pope emeritus issued a lengthy letter on the sexual abuse crisis ahead of Pope Francis's Feburary summit, Ivereigh called it  "a helpful contribution."

"Both the pope and the pope emeritus are at one in defending the freedom of the Church to be redeemed by God's mercy, and in opposing any attempt at neo-Donatist reform," he wrote for America magazine at the time.

"They are very different men, and very different popes. But on the fundamentals, there seems to be little distance between them."

In this light, it seems probable that it is not really the idea of a filial contribution by Benedict to which they object on principle, but that they cannot abide him - or anyone - mounting a serious argument in favor of priestly celibacy on its own terms.

The desire, it seems, is not to protect Pope Francis's freedom to make up his own mind, but to shield him from those who – like the pope emeritus – might help him resist having his mind made up for him.

The real attempt to limit the freedom of Pope Francis may actually come from those who would only allow him to hear one side of any argument.

Editor's note: This article was updated to correct the spelling of Austen Ivereigh. We regret the error.

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