HONG KONG (SE): A new book by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah titled From the Depths of Our Hearts, a defense of priestly celibacy is in the eye of a storm in the Church circles since the news of its publication was announced on January 12. The controversy arose as the media around the world picked up the story as signs of disagreements between Pope Francis and the pope emeritus.
When the authenticity of the book as co-authored by the pope emeritus was questioned, Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, came strong on critics and said the allegation amounted to “defamation of exceptional gravity.” He further disclosed the letters written by the pope emeritus to prove that Benedict indeed co-authored the book on priestly celebacy.
First response to the controversy came from the director of the Holy See Press Office, Matteo Bruni. Although the response did not include any new comment from the pope, Bruni quoted Pope Francis of his earlier statements on the issue of priestly celibacy:
“The position of the Holy Father on celibacy is known. In the course of his conversation with journalists on his return from Panama, Pope Francis said: “A phrase from Saint Paul VI comes to mind: ‘I prefer to give my life before changing the law of celibacy’”. And he added: “Personally I think celibacy is a gift for the Church. I don’t agree to allow optional celibacy, no. Only a few possibilities would remain in the most remote locations – I think of the Pacific Islands … […] when there is pastoral need, there, the pastor must think of the faithful.”’
While talking to the Sunday Examiner, Monsignor Javier Herrera Corona, Head of the Holy See Study Mission in Hong Kong remarked that the controversy is unfair because the issue of the ordination of viri probati was only a proposal for consideration under exceptional circumstances. Even if it is accepted, it would not be a universal norm, but an exception.
A better clarification was published by Archbishop Georg Ganswein, the private secretary of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The statement said that the former pontiff was not informed he would be presented as co-author of a new book on priestly celibacy and that Benedict has asked Cardinal Sarah and the publisher for his name and photo to be removed from the cover. According to the German-language news agency KNA, Ganswein said that the chapter in the main part of the book is, however, “100 per cent Benedict.”
In the book, Pope Emeritus Benedict and Cardinal Sarah argue that priestly celibacy is not merely an optional feature of Church life today, but an ontological necessity for the priesthood. The book resulted from an exchange of “ideas and our concerns,” particularly related to the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon, which discussed the ordination of viri probati: middle-aged married men of proven virtue to serve far-flung communities and provide greater access to the Eucharist and other sacraments.
The discussions to accommodate exceptions are nothing new in the synod of bishops in the past. During the time of Pope Benedict XVI’s pontificate, the Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist in 2005 discussed the possibility of ordaining men of proven virtue as a way to provide priests for areas of the world where Catholics have very limited access to Mass and the sacraments. “Some participants made reference to viri probati, but in the end the small discussion groups evaluated this hypothesis as a road not to follow,” a proposition from the synod stated.
Eight years before he was elected pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had said that while married priests in the Catholic Church weren’t on the horizon in “the foreseeable future,” it wasn’t an entirely a closed subject. In Salt of the Earth, an interview-book with Peter Seewald published in 1997, the future Pope Benedict stated, “One ought not to declare that any custom of the Church’s life, no matter how deeply anchored and well founded, is wholly absolute.”