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Shock at Pope Emeritus’ intervention on celibacy

By Sarah Mac Donald - 14 January, 2020

Commenting on the retired pope’s new book, Dr Austin Ivereigh, Vatican expert and biographer of Pope Francis said, “It’s a totally imprudent and ill thought-out intervention which has the effect of undermining Francis’s authority.”

Pope Francis shakes hands with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI at the Mater Ecclesiae monastery at the Vatican, December 23, 2013. Photo: REUTERS/Osservatore Romano

In his first book since his resignation from the papacy, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has defended mandatory priestly celibacy in an intervention which appears to have caught the Vatican and catholic commentators by surprise.

The book, ‘From the Depths of our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy and the Crisis of the Catholic Church’ is co-written by the 92-year-old former pontiff with Cardinal Robert Sarah, a member of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute.

Excerpts from the book were published on Sunday by the French newspaper Le Figaro. The book is due to be published in English on 20 February by Ignatius Press.

However, some commentators have raised questions over the timing of the pope emeritus’ intervention in defending priestly celibacy with some suggesting it is an attempt to sway Pope Francis in his deliberations on the call at the recent Synod on the Amazon for married men to be ordained priests.

The recommendation was put forward as a possible solution to the shortage of priests in the Latin American region of Amazonia, where some of the faithful see a priest as infrequently as once a year.

On Monday, the Vatican issued a statement stressing that Pope Francis supports celibacy as “a gift for the Church”, a church discipline which only became mandatory in the 12th century.

A number of eastern churches in communion with Rome allow their priests to marry while married Anglican clergymen, who became Catholics under Pope Benedict XVI’s Ordinariate, have been ordained priests.

In the book, the pope emeritus and Cardinal Sarah acknowledge that the early Church allowed married men to be ordained, but they claim that these married priests abstained from sex.

In extracts of the book published by Le Figaro, Benedict writes, “I cannot keep silent”.

74-year-old Cardinal Sarah appeals to Pope Francis to “veto any weakening of the law of priestly celibacy, even limited to one or the other region.”

He says that any weakening of the link between priesthood and celibacy “would constitute a questioning of the magisterium of the council and of Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI”.

The cardinal adds that the Amazon has a right to be served by celibate clergy saying they should not be given “second class” priests.

The two prelates implore the Church not to be swayed by “bad pleas, theatrics”, while urging the Church not to be drawn into the “diabolical lies” and “fashionable errors that want to devalue priestly celibacy”.

They say it is urgent that bishops, priests and laity “let themselves be guided once more by faith as they look upon the Church and on priestly celibacy that protects her mystery”.

In a chapter jointly signed by Benedict and Cardinal Sarah, they explain that their book is a response to the “strange media synod that has taken precedence over the real synod” last October.

“The similarity of our concerns and the convergence of our conclusions made us place the fruit of our work and our spiritual friendship at the disposal of all the faithful, following the example of St Augustine”, they state.

Commentators expressed surprise that the pope emeritus, who in 2013 pledged to remain “hidden from the world” in a life dedicated to prayer, would become so publicly embroiled in this debate.

Well known theologian, Professor Massimo Faggioli of Villanova University in the US described the retired pope’s intervention as “a serious breach” and stressed “Benedict XVI never retired really”.

The high-profile canon lawyer Professor Kurt Martens of the Catholic University of America in Washington commented, “A former pope should not speak in public about anything at all. He had his chance when he was in office. Now it belongs to his successor to govern.”

Gerard O’Connell, Vatican correspondent at America magazine, quoted one source claiming that Benedict is no longer physically able to write and a second source as stating he cannot hold a conversation for longer than 15 minutes. “These sources wondered how this book came to be written,” he wrote in America magazine.

Elsewhere, Dr Austin Ivereigh, Vatican expert and the author of ‘Wounded Shepherd: Pope Francis and His Struggle to Convert the Catholic Church’ commented, “It’s a totally imprudent and ill thought-out intervention which has the effect of undermining Francis’s authority.”

He said the pope emeritus’ input must have been “put together on his behalf.”

He also hit out at a “hyperactive parallel court linked to conservative critics” around Benedict, managed by the ex-pope’s secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, hinting that this is where responsibility for Benedict’s input lay.

In 2016, Archbishop Gänswein claimed that while Francis was pope, there was “de facto an expanded ministry — with an active member and a contemplative member”, a reference to Benedict.

“This is why Benedict XVI has not given up either his name, or the white cassock,” he said.

This new book credits the retired pope as Benedict XVI without mentioning his status as pope emeritus.

According to Austin Ivereigh, the debacle shows that the concept of a pope emeritus “has not been thought through properly”, and he added, “There can only be one pope.”

“If and when Francis retires, I am sure he will dress in plain clerical clothes and lead a contemplative life, which is what Benedict promised to do,” he said.

He also told the Telegraph, “The effect has been to create around Benedict an alternative papacy, a focus of opposition to Francis. That’s a tragedy for the Church,” he said.

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