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Celibacy rumblings in Rome

A new book, reportedly co-authored by Joseph Ratzinger and Cardinal Robert Sarah, cautions against calls to re-examine the law of priestly celibacy. Anthony Egan SJ explores what may be behind the timing of the book and the larger issues at play in a Church that is divided on a number of theological issues and pastoral approaches.

Josef Ratzinger, former Pope Benedict, has just weighed in and then backed out of the debate surrounding the partial relaxation of celibacy for Catholic diocesan clergy in Amazonia.  

In a new book From the Depths of Our Hearts, to be released in French on Wednesday 15 January, which he apparently co-authored with Cardinal Robert Sarah, he spoke out against relaxing the rule of celibacy for diocesan priests in the Latin-rite Catholic Church. According to various reports, the retired pope expressly stated that Pope Francis should resist considering any change to the religious discipline.

“I humbly beg Pope Francis to … veto any weakening of the law of priestly celibacy, even limited to one or the other region,” he is recorded as saying, the latter a reference to the recommendation of the recent Amazonian Synod to ordain to the priesthood married deacons and mature married men of good standing in local communities where celibate clergy are not present.

Shortly before publication, Ratzinger asked that his name and signature be removed from the book. His secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein claimed that he had not approved being named as co-author, but had simply contributed a text that his ‘co-author’ Cardinal Robert Sarah could do with as he wished. Sarah has denied this.

Poor timing and signs of dissent

What are we to make of this?

As parts of the book were published in the French newspaper Le Figaro earlier this week, a storm erupted, less about Ratzinger’s contribution – which seems consistent with his previous stand on celibacy – than its timing and possible political ramifications.

As church historian Massimo Faggioli of Villanova University in the United States observed, “It interferes with a synodal process that is still unfolding after the Amazon synod … and threatens to limit the freedom of the one pope.” This seems to Faggioli (and many of us) an attempt to influence Pope Francis, who has the final right to make decisions on what to do with the Amazonian Synod.

“It interferes with a synodal process that is still unfolding after the Amazon synod … and threatens to limit the freedom of the one pope.”

massimo Faggioli

Now, one might argue that expressing an opinion or advising Francis is itself innocuous, indeed a duty of any theologian who feels strongly about an issue and wishes to examine it systematically and responsibly. The problem is that by Ratzinger or others around him invoking the title of Pope Emeritus there is a risk of implicitly claiming more than this.

While I’m sure it was not his overt intention, it could be read by some as a challenge to Francis’ authority. Those familiar with the turbulent history of the late medieval papacy – of popes and anti-popes – might even detect a whiff of schism. At very least it suggested that Ratzinger had (I hope inadvertently) set himself up as a focus of unity for the anti-Francis faction in the Church.  

The latter part of Faggioli’s comment is possibly a reminder that the concept of a pope emeritus is at best an anomaly, at worst theological nonsense. There is no such thing as a pope emeritus in Canon Law. At best it might be kind of religious ‘journalistic shorthand’, a term that has become associated with the former pope. When other popes have resigned in the past (so long ago that perhaps we have forgotten the historical details of such processes, few as they are), there was no question of such an idea – ex-popes returned to their earlier clerical state, whether cardinal, bishop or priest.

It is possible that in making such a statement as pope emeritus, Ratzinger recognised that he had  (once again I qualify this with words like ‘perhaps inadvertently’ or ‘unintentionally’) potentially undermined the very governance process of the Church that he himself upheld so strongly as both Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and later as Pope.

To his credit, he has intervened to correct this.

Fear of change is the real issue

Though in doing this he has done the right thing, I suspect the ramifications of the affair will persist. It highlights the divisions in the hierarchy over celibacy (which is not news) but suggests the extent to which sections of it opposed to Francis are prepared to go to undermine a papal authority which recently so many had studiously upheld. If, as the reports have suggested to observers, Ratzinger was himself manipulated, even deceived, it raises questions about the integrity of some of the anti-Francis faction.

It suggests the extent to which sections of [the church hierarchy] opposed to Francis are prepared to go to undermine a papal authority which recently so many had studiously upheld.

It may also hint at a division between those cautious about Francis’ reform of the Church and those who are willing to use any means to block them. Could this be a hint of dissent among the dissenters?

It is also ironic because it is by no means an open and shut case that Pope Francis will relax the discipline of celibacy in Amazonia – or anywhere. From what I’ve observed of him, there is no evidence on Francis’ part of a strong personal desire to end celibacy. What is there, manifested in the proposal’s inclusion in an approved synodal final report, is a willingness to engage with the question from a variety of angles – and an openness, however cautious, to a more synodal style of governance. It is perhaps the latter, more than the issue of celibacy, that Francis’ opponents fear more. 

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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