Former pope Benedict XVI has made a rare public plea to warn against opening up the Catholic priesthood to married men, despite vowing to not interfere with the reign of his successor. His words come as Pope Francis is considering a relaxation of the strict celibacy requirement for clergymen.
Benedict reignited debate about the wisdom of having a reigning and retired pope living side-by-side, reaffirming the “necessity" of priestly celibacy at the precise moment that Pope Francis is weighing whether to ordain married men to address the Catholic priest shortage.
Benedict co-authored a bombshell book, From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy and the Crisis of the Catholic Church along with his fellow conservative, Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, who heads the Vatican's liturgy office and has been a quiet critic of Francis.
The French daily Le Figaro published excerpts of the book late Sunday; The Associated Press obtained galleys of the English edition, which is being published Feb. 20 by Ignatius Press.
Benedict's intervention is extraordinary, given he had promised to remain “hidden from the world” when he retired in 2013, and pledged his obedience to the new pope. He has largely held to that pledge, though he penned an odd essay last year on the sexual abuse scandal that blamed the crisis on the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
His reaffirmation of priestly celibacy, however, gets to the heart of a fraught policy issue that Francis is expected to weigh in on in the coming weeks, and could well be considered a public attempt by the former pope to sway the thinking of the current one.
The implications for such an intervention are grave, given the current opposition to Francis by conservatives and traditionalists nostalgic for Benedict's orthodoxy, some of whom even consider his resignation illegitimate.
It is likely to fuel renewed anxiety about the wisdom of Benedict's decision to call himself “emeritus pope," rather than merely a retired bishop, and the unprecedented situation he created by deciding to live in the Vatican gardens and wear the white cassock of the papacy.
In that light, it is significant that the English edition of the book lists the author as “Benedict XVI," with no mention of his emeritus papal status on the cover.
The authors clearly anticipated the potential interpretation of their book as criticism of the current pope, and stressed in their joint introduction that they were penning it “in a spirit of filial obedience, to Pope Francis." But they also said that the current “crisis" in the church required they not remain silent.
Francis has said he would write a document based on the outcome of the October 2019 synod of bishops on the Amazon. A majority of bishops at the meeting called for the ordination of married men to address the priest shortage in the Amazon, where the faithful can go months without having a Mass.
Francis has expressed sympathy with the Amazonian plight, though it is not clear how he would come down on the issue. While he has long reaffirmed the gift of a celibate priesthood in the Latin rite church, he has stressed that celibacy is a tradition, not doctrine, and therefore can change, and that there could be pastoral reasons to allow for an exception in a particular place.