Pope Questions Celibacy?

There’s a story that’s been percolating around some quarters for the last few days, but until recently it hasn’t breached the English-speaking news net. It’s likely to.

The nub of the story is this: In 1970 the young(er) theologian Joseph Ratzinger signed a letter to the German conference of bishops suggesting that the Church reconsider the practice of clerical celibacy as the norm for the Latin Church.

Given the MSM’s fixation on the Catholic Church and sex—and particularly its dislike of clerical celibacy—this story could potentially gain traction.

So far, it’s been picked up by the UK-based Catholic Herald, by one of USA Today’s blogs, as well as a number of other outlets, but it hasn’t gotten major airplay yet.

I’ve been holding off covering it for several days in an attempt to unearth a copy of the letter itself, but it isn’t available online, and it appears that the German source which has it may be playing games with it by selectively releasing just parts of it.

This is why it’s always better to read the original documents in their entirety.

In any event, here’s the way the story’s being covered at the moment. The Catholic Herald writes:

Joseph Ratzinger was one of the signatories of a 1970 document calling for an examination of priestly celibacy which was signed by nine theologians.

The memorandum was drawn up in the face of a shortage of priests and other signatories included Karl Rahner and the future cardinals Karl Lehmann and Walter Kasper.

The German newspaper Die Sueddeutsche reported about the document today.

The memorandum, which was sent to the German bishops reads: “Our considerations regard the necessity of a serious investigation and a differentiated inspection of the law of celibacy of the Latin Church for Germany and the whole of the universal Church.”

According to the Sueddeutsche, the document said if there were no such investigation, the bishops’ conference would “awaken the impression that it did not believe in the strength of the Gospel recommendation of a celibate life for the sake of heaven, but rather only in the power of a formal authority”.

If there weren’t enough priests, the document said, then the “Church quite simply has a responsibility to take up certain modifications”.

The signatories who had drawn up the document acted as consultors to the German bishops’ conference in a commission for questions of Faith and Morals.

The document’s release coincides with a renewed debate on priestly celibacy after prominent German politicians called for the Church to change the teaching on priestly celibacy in the face of a serious lack of priests

Since we don’t have the letter itself, I don’t want to comment too much on it, but I will say that I’m not surprised. Throughout his career, Joseph Ratzinger—now Pope Benedict—has displayed an amazing capacity for dialog, discussion, and the calm examination of questions. Even as pope—perhaps especially as pope—when he could exercise his magisterial authority on issue after issue, he has been studiously careful to avoid imposing his personal opinions on matters. If you read his writings and speeches he regularly raises questions for discussion and then does not offer a definitive conclusion. You can generally tell where his own sympathies lie, because after bringing up a topic he will explore a possible solution that he finds “interesting” or “noteworthy,” but then in the end he says something like, “however this may be, let us look at this deeper issue to which the question leads us.” He thus sets aside what is likely his own view, without imposing it on the faithful by his papal authority.

You really gotta admire that. He offers an amazing example of humility and prudence.

Given the serene, open way of approaching controversial questions that has always characterized the man (a habit he may have honed in academia, where detached, scholarly debates are often expected as a matter of professionalism), it isn’t surprising that back in 1970 he and other German theologians would call for a re-examination of the Church’s discipline regarding clerical celibacy.

But a re-examination is just that: a re-examination, not a rejection.

It amounts to proposing the question for study, not leaping straight to the conclusions of that study.

And, such time as we get the actual text of the letter so we can see what was said, we can’t conclude anything more than that: The young Ratzinger and his colleagues suggested that the question of changing the Latin Church’s discipline on celibacy be studied.

This certainly meant that they felt there were sufficient grounds for studying it. But it by no means makes them fire-breathing celibacy haters. One can think a question worth exploring without having pre-determined conclusions in mind.

So we really can’t say what Ratzinger’s mind was at the time, other than that he felt the question should be explored.

Suppose he was, though, of the opinion that the celibacy norm should be changed. What difference does that make?

It would allow some celibacy haters (and associated media types) to score a few rhetorical points (“Why, even the pope used to think this way!”), but this doesn’t add much of a substantive nature to the discussion.

From everything he has said during his pontificate—as well as in recent times before—Pope Benedict seems sold on the value of clerical celibacy in the Latin Church, and not just for utilitarian reasons. That is, not just because it enables priests to devote themselves to full time service of the Gospel. He has specifically articulated the insufficiency of this view, noting also that celibacy conforms one to the eschatological state in which we will be like Christ, for in the next life there will be no marrying and giving in marriage.

On the other hand, Pope Benedict has also been unafraid of having the subject discussed. In the 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist—the first such synod he presided over—Pope Benedict allowed the bishops in attendance to discuss whether the ordination of married men to the clergy should be further explored. The bishops concluded that the answer (at least at this time) was no.

This was notably different than the way the subject was handled during the reign of John Paul II. At that time the subject was pointedly not on the table, and one can understand why. John Paul II was trying to reign in the chaos that followed the Second Vatican Council and re-stabilize the Church. Amid thunderous calls for married clergy, women’s ordination, and changes on the Church’s teaching on birth control, extra-marital sex, and homosexuality (among other subjects), it’s quite understandable that the pope would feel the need for a collective “time out” on all of these issues, just to let the passions settle and expectations moderate.

By the time of Pope Benedict’s reign, it could well be that the new pontiff judged that the situation had cooled down enough that the question of clerical celibacy could be more fruitfully discussed—a conclusion no doubt shaped by his own personal openness to that kind of discussion.

That won’t stop the press, though, from making it sound like Benedict has done some kind of dramatic about face on the subject, or that he is somehow hypocritically masking his true views—should they take note of the story and decide to give it play.

The truth is that was neither a fire-breathing celibacy hater back in 1970, nor is he a dyed-in-the-wool celibacy insister now. He was, and is, a man of thoughtful reflection, intellectual humility, and openness to the discussion of difficult questions.

Or that’s my opinion.

What do you think?