As soon as it was announced that Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah had published a book defending priestly celibacy, they were accused of attacking Pope Francis. On its face, it was a strange charge. Pope Francis has himself defended the norm of celibacy, while wondering whether widened exceptions are possible. And far from criticizing Francis, Benedict and Sarah write “in a spirit of filial obedience, to Pope Francis.”
But in today’s Church, any clear affirmation of orthodoxy is interpreted as a challenge to the authority of Pope Francis. This is a sobering fact, of which Benedict and Sarah are well aware. “We want to remain aloof from everything that could harm the unity of the Church,” they write in the introduction to From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy and the Crisis in the Catholic Church (galleys of the English edition were obtained by First Things). “Personal quarrels, political maneuvering, power plays, ideological manipulations and critiques full of bitterness play the game of the devil—the divider, the father of lies.”
Even as they signal their obedience, both Benedict and Sarah suggest that this extraordinary moment calls for an extraordinary response from the laity. Sarah notes with approval the example of St. Catherine of Siena. “Formerly, speech was freer than it is today,” he writes. “It is good to recollect, by way of example, the admonition sent by Catherine of Siena to Gregory XI. … What bishop, what Pope would let himself be challenged today so vehemently? Today, voices eager for polemics would immediately describe Catherine of Siena as an enemy of the Pope or as a leader of his opponents.”
Benedict and Sarah consider it their “sacred duty to recall the truth about the Catholic priesthood. For through it, the whole beauty of the Church is being called into question.” This solemn duty extends to all Christians. “It is urgent and necessary for everyone—bishops, priests and lay people—to stop letting themselves be intimidated by the wrong-headed pleas, the theatrical productions, the diabolical lies and the fashionable errors that try to put down priestly celibacy,” they write. “Let us speak up boldly to profess the faith without fear of being uncharitable.”
This is nothing less than a call to arms—not to take up worldly weapons, nor to fracture Christian unity with bitter words, but to wield the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. The book is accordingly devoted to a set of theological and pastoral reflections, divided into four parts: a letter from Benedict, a letter from Sarah, and a co-authored introduction and conclusion.
Benedict, in his letter, traces the attack on celibacy to a contempt for the very idea of the priesthood, inseparable from a Marcionite rejection of the Old Testament. In his inimitable lucid prose, he describes how the customs surrounding sexual abstinence in the Aaronic priesthood prefigured the Church’s own understanding of priestly celibacy:
This Old Testament prefiguration is fulfilled in the priests of the Church in a new and deeper way: they must live only by God and for him. Saint Paul clearly spells out what this implies concretely. The apostle lives on what people give him, because he himself gives them the Word of God which is our authentic bread and our true life. In the Old Testament, the Levites renounce the possession of land. In the New Testament, this privation is transformed and renewed: priests, because they are radically consecrated to God, renounce marriage and family.
Benedict also movingly recalls when he received the tonsure. At this moment he ceased to be a layman and became a cleric. As part of the rite, he recited the words Dominus pars hereditatis meae et calicis mei, a reminder that God—not land, not family—is the priest's portion and cup.
Cardinal Sarah, drawing on his own experience of ministering to remote villages that had been deprived of priests under the persecution of Sékou Touré, concludes that “ordaining married men would be a pastoral catastrophe, lead to ecclesiological confusion and obscure our understanding of the priesthood.” He believes that providing underserved villages with priests by ordaining married men would be an act of condescension, depriving them of the radical witness of a man given over entirely to God.
“I imagine what the evangelization of my village would have been like if they had ordained a married man a priest,” he writes. “I certainly would not be a priest today, because the radical character of the missionaries’ life is what attracted me.”
In Sarah’s view, too many Catholic priests “have become specialists in the fields of social, political or economic activity,” providing for the material rather than the spiritual needs of their charges. “I am ashamed to admit it,” he writes, “but the Evangelical Protestants are sometimes more faithful to Christ than we are.”
Sarah points out that in his own country, as in Japan after the missionaries were martyred or expelled, lay catechists preserved the faith. And one element of the faith they preserved was the celibate priesthood. The Japanese Christians were taught to look for three signs by which they would know their priests: “They will be celibate, they will have a statue of Mary, they will obey the Pope of Rome.” This last point is not lost on Sarah, who not only shows respect to Francis but (I can say from experience) urges those who come to him with doubts and concerns to do the same.
Celibacy is under assault. Those who seek to lift the discipline of clerical celibacy cite previous exceptions to the rule as precedents for their demands, but in fact they hope to go much further. Under their scheme, the ordination of married men would be not the exception but the norm. Benedict’s reflections demonstrate that this move lacks theological warrant. Sarah’s reflections show that it lacks pastoral justification. What, then, can be motivating the proposed change?
We live not so much in a non-Christian world as in a post-Christian world, full of men who resent the Church for reminding them of truths they have abandoned. A great many churchmen are embarrassed by this situation and seek occasions to signal their eagerness for the Church to cast off its sexual teaching, its discipline on celibacy, and anything else that offends. Opponents of the discipline of celibacy are meeting not so much a pastoral need as a clerical wish—for peace with the world, on the world’s terms. Because the world wants us to obey its principalities and powers, it hates celibacy, a sign of radical obedience to God.
In different ways, Benedict and Sarah both recognize that clerical celibacy is not an arbitrary discipline. It is a sign that the Church refuses to follow the logic of this world and instead follows the logic of a world where men do not marry. So long as Christians are tempted to idolize earthly powers—party, nation, and market—we cannot dispense with this sign of loyalty to the heavenly city.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things.
Photo of Cardinal Sarah by François-Régis Salefran via Creative Commons. Image cropped.
Photo of Benedict XVI by Peter Nguyen via Creative Commons. Image cropped.