Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah Defend Priestly Celibacy

Publication controversies aside, what does From the Depths of Our Hearts have to say about this “brilliant jewel” of the Church?

Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, celebrates the ordination of transitional deacons from the Pontifical North American College Sept. 29, 2016, at St. Peter’s Basilica.
Cardinal Seán Patrick O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, celebrates the ordination of transitional deacons from the Pontifical North American College Sept. 29, 2016, at St. Peter’s Basilica. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

The Catholic internet erupted last week after news broke of a new book on priestly celibacy, with sections written by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah.

From the Depths of Our Hearts was released first in France by the French publisher Fayard. Fayard shared the text with Ignatius Press, which plans to release an English-language edition in February.

Despite the back-and-forth engendered by From the Depths of Our Hearts, both Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah shared the viewpoint in the book that abandoning the Church’s longstanding practice of clerical celibacy would be harmful — even disastrous.

Each brings his own perspective to the issue. Although it would be too strong to call their divergent presentations a matter of “good cop/bad cop,” their styles and messages differ. Together they present a consistent theology of the priesthood, but Benedict seems often softer in his approach, whereas Cardinal Sarah is direct and sometimes confrontational.

Benedict, in his chapter on “The Catholic Priesthood,” showed how in the Old Tes­tament, priests led worship only on certain occasions, so priesthood and marriage were not mutually exclusive. In the Church today, however, priests celebrate Mass regularly and even daily; their entire life is in contact with the divine mystery.

This, Benedict explains in the book, requires exclusivity with regard to God. The priest's nearness to God makes it impossible for him to at the same time commit himself totally to a woman, as is expected in a Christian marriage. The sexual abstinence that is merely functional in the Old Testament takes on an ontological significance in the New Testament, as the priest gives of himself totally to serve in the person of Christ.

A particularly delightful part of the book is Benedict’s reminiscences from early life, such as his recollection of the years following the close of the Second Vatican Council and, even more, his recollection of his personal spiritual insights following his own priestly ordination.

Cardinal Sarah in his chapter “Loving to the End: An Ecclesiological and Pastoral Look at Priestly Celibacy” points out another profound issue: the pastoral and missionary urgency of priestly celibacy.

Cardinal Sarah believes that the people of the Amazon need to see celibate priests. The ordination of married men, he believes, would “deprive the young churches, in the process of evangelization, of this experience of the presence and the visit of Christ delivered and given in the person of the celibate priest.”

Unlike Benedict, whose family nurtured a strong faith from early childhood, Cardinal Sarah had personally experienced a world that had, in his words, “barely escaped paganism.” His parents had not come to know anything about Christianity until they were adults, and his father was baptized when the future cardinal was 2 years old.

Through his familial roots, Cardinal Sarah came to understand animism and pagan religions. The beauty of priestly life was an important part of his awareness; he recognized that for him and for others in his African village, evangelization would have been much less effective if a married man had been ordained a priest there.

“The thought of it wrenches my heart!” he explains. “What sadness!” Cardinal Sarah firmly believes that he would not be a priest today, had there been married priests in the Amazon region, because the radical character of the missionaries’ life is what attracted him.

Cardinal Sarah teaches that well before the witness of priestly celibacy in the African communities, the tradition extended back to the earliest days of the Church. In the early years, many married men were ordained to the priesthood, but Cardinal Sarah points to strong evidence that from the day of their ordination, they were expected to abstain from the marital act. To claim otherwise, he insists, is a matter of “terrible intellectual dishonesty.” At the beginning of the fourth century, the Council of Elvira forced out of ministry all bishops, priests and deacons who were suspected of engaging in sexual activity with their wives.

Cardinal Sarah continues to find Scriptural and historical support for what Pope Benedict once called the “theocentricity of priestly existence,” drawing on the writings of St. John Paul II, St. Paul VI, St. Josemaría Escrivá and others.

Then with conviction, he addresses his brother priests directly. He regrets the scandal of clerical abuse and the pain it has caused, but he warns against any secular attempts to resolve the abuse problem by relaxing celibacy requirements. Celibacy, he assures his readers, reveals the very essence of the priesthood, and to speak about it as though it were a mere accessory is hurtful to all the priests in the world. Relativizing priestly celibacy, Cardinal Sarah warns, reduces the priesthood to a mere function and not, as it truly is, a state of life.

Cardinal Sarah calls all priests and seminarians, faced with the challenge of widespread religious indifference and the crisis of doctrine, to nourish their faith with prayer – to be models and masters of prayer. And he quotes Pope Francis, who in turn quoted his predecessor St. Paul VI saying, “I would rather give my life than change the law on celibacy. … Personally, I think that celibacy is a gift for the Church. Second, I don’t agree with allowing optional celibacy, no.”

Evident in the text is the admiration and affection that Pope Emeritus Benedict and Cardinal Sarah have for one another. Benedict thanks Cardinal Sarah for prompting him to finish the project he'd begun, and expresses his deep-seated respect for his friend. Cardinal Sarah frequently, in making his case for continued celibacy, quotes Benedict's earlier writings on the subject.

From the Depths of Our Hearts will be released in February, and is available now for pre-order through Ignatius Press.