Cardinal Sarah Calls For End to ‘Sterile Controversy’ Over Celibacy Book

The Vatican cardinal urges the faithful to cease discussing ‘ridiculous side issues’ over the book and to read the ‘essential question’ it covers instead.

Cardinal Robert Sarah
Cardinal Robert Sarah (photo: Paul Badde/CNA)

Cardinal Robert Sarah has given a robust defense of his and Benedict XVI’s book on priestly celibacy, saying it is essential that people read the book rather than talk about it, as “profound historical ignorance” surrounds the subject.

In an interview with the Italian daily Il Foglio Jan. 25 — his first since the furor over the book’s release in French earlier this month — Cardinal Sarah also decried the fact that the book has been surrounded by “completely ridiculous side issues” as well as “absurd controversy, vulgar lies and horrible humiliations.”

“What breaks my heart and hurts me deeply is the brutality, irreverence, lack of consideration and indecency with which Benedict XVI was treated,” he added.

On Jan. 12, the French newspaper Le Figaro broke the news of the book, entitled From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy and the Crisis of the Catholic Church, in which Cardinal Sarah stressed a sacramental link between the priesthood and celibacy and Benedict explained how priestly celibacy has its roots in the Old Testament.

A storm of criticism against the cardinal and the Pope Emeritus ensued, portraying both of them as at odds with Pope Francis, who is currently deciding on whether to allow married priests in the Amazon to help make up for a shortage of priests in the region.

The cardinal was also accused of manipulating Benedict into being listed as co-author of the book and having co-written its introduction and conclusion, allegations he denied by publishing correspondence between him and Benedict.

The book’s Italian publishers, Cantagalli, responded to that controversy Jan. 22 by listing the authors as “Robert Sarah with Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI,” and stating that Benedict XVI had “read and agreed” to the introduction and conclusion written by Cardinal Sarah.  

“Without animosity, without attacking anyone, we offered our reflections with clarity, rigor and fidelity to the truth on an essential question,” the Vatican’s head of liturgy told Il Foglio. “Why then say that I would have opposed Pope Francis? Why? Is there perhaps a single phrase, a single word, a single attitude in the text that expresses such opposition? Why am I constantly showered with slander and humiliation?”


‘Read the Book’

He added: “Benedict XVI has personally confirmed to me that he welcomes this book and is happy with its publication. The entire text therefore remains unchanged, except for the introduction and conclusion, as explained by the publisher Cantagalli. Now I ask that this sterile controversy ends.”

Remarking that the book’s French publishers, Fayard, “will give an adequate response to this defamation,” he went on to say it is “essential” that people pay attention to what Benedict has written. “To continue talking about the rest is a diversion,” he said. “My invitation is to read the book instead of talking about it.”

Asked to explain the essence of the book, Cardinal Sarah said it can be conveyed in one sentence — “The celibacy of priests is not a simple canonical discipline.” If the law of celibacy is weakened, “even for a single region, it opens a breach, a wound in the mystery of the Church,” he said. An “ontological-sacramental link” exists between priesthood and celibacy which “reminds us that the Church is a mystery, a gift from God that does not belong to us.”

The cardinal said it is not possible to “create a priesthood for married men without damaging the priesthood of Jesus Christ and his bride, the Church.”

Priests, he continued, “are really an extension of Jesus Christ. He cannot be a shared man. When he comes home, he is not on vacation. He remains a consecrated person. His whole life belongs to the Church because his whole being is dedicated to Christ.”

The faithful know this “by intuition,” the Guinean cardinal said, and wondered if they would go to confession with a married priest. “If a priest gives himself entirely to the Church, what place will remain for his wife and children? What will we do when we have to deal with a priest's divorce? Why should we expect such cases?”

When interviewer Matteo Matzuzzi put it to him that one argument raised is that celibacy is a recent discipline, Cardinal Sarah replied: “Not at all!” He emphasized that since the Council of Elvira in 305 the Church has ruled that priests should refrain from sexual relations with their wives and if they did not, or had children, they would be “expelled from the ecclesiastical ranks.”

He pointed out that such a discipline was “accepted peacefully,” and that Christians were already aware at that time that a priest must offer himself “with all his body and soul” as he “no longer belongs to himself.” It was only later, when there was a “corruption of the texts,” that the discipline in the East allowing married priests would “evolve” but “without ever giving up the link between priesthood and abstinence.”

“We are victims of profound historical ignorance on this subject,” the cardinal said, adding that priestly celibacy is not about “rejecting sexuality but affirming that the priest is the exclusive spouse of the Church.”

In his contribution in the book, “Benedict XVI clearly shows that from the Old Testament the link between sexual abstinence and the priestly life is established in the Old Testament,” Cardinal Sarah said. He advises all priests to read Benedict’s “moving” contribution, in which the Pope Emeritus writes of a “methodological defect in the reception of Scripture as the Word of God.” It is a “masterful lesson in biblical theology,” Cardinal Sarah said, offering a “profound spiritual meditation on the true meaning of the priesthood.”

Asked what he and Benedict mean by “crisis in the priesthood,” Cardinal Sarah stressed that priests are not “public employees” but rather “consecrated to God” and today he fears a temptation to “build a human Church, according to the times and according to our ideas.”


‘The Church Is Not Ours’

“But the Church is not ours,” he continued. “The priesthood does not belong to us. We cannot do what we want with it.”

He then touches on the subject of women’s ministry, saying he wonders if the calls for women’s ordination derive from “fidelity to God or if we’re following fashion.” He recalled the example of St. Catherine of Siena who “had no ministry and did not want it, but she was not afraid to speak!”

Returning to the issue of priestly celibacy, he rejected the idea that allowing married priests would resolve the vocation crisis, and pointed to the Protestant communities as an example. “The crisis of vocations is a crisis of faith!” he said, adding that where the Gospel is “lived in all its rigor and demands, vocations abound.”

“Why deprive Christians in the Amazon of contact with priests who live their priesthood and their total gift to God and to him alone? Is it because they are poor?” he asked and, quoting from the book, wondered who would be able to explain why the same pastoral need cannot be applied in other areas of the world such as the Pacific Islands or a remote valley in Italy.

He reiterated that to effectively evangelize, people need to meet priests “who have given their whole life to Christ” and wondered if he would be a priest today if a married man from his village in Guinea had been ordained. “I do not think so,” he said. “We need laypeople who are, as Pope Francis says, ‘missionary disciples.’ We need Christians who take baptism seriously. The Church needs the radicality of the Gospel, not to align itself with the lukewarmness of the world.”

He closed the interview by stressing how he and Benedict drew on the “clearest theology of Vatican II, St. Paul VI, St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI” to show what true priesthood means, and to show that “creating a wound in the law of celibacy under the pretext of a shortage of priests” would “cause confusion about the nature of the role of the baptized and priests.”

“I am convinced that we need priests who are saints more than ever,” he said, adding that he has “filially offered this book” to Pope Francis, bishops, priests and lay faithful to support and encourage them rather than be “conditioned by the media campaign” of the Amazon synod that “led to hasty, ideological and purely human solutions.”

Recalling St. Catherine of Siena’s exhortation not to keep silent, he said: “No more talk. Let us read this book. Let us discuss it in peace and charity. Let us bring the Church into prayer and let her shine with holiness in our lives as priests and faithful Christians, in the midst of an increasingly atheistic world, heedless of the reality of God.”