From the Depths of Our Hearts
Priesthood, Celibacy and the Crisis of the Catholic Church
By Benedict XVI and Robert Cardinal Sarah
Ignatius Press, 2020
152 pages, $19.95
To order: ewtnrc.com or (800) 854-6316
About two months ago there was a minor firestorm in the Catholic media over a new book, co-written by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah and published in France. There’s no need to recap the firestorm —it’s yesterday’s news and only a few keyword strokes away for those who somehow missed it the first time around. Today’s news is that From the Depths of Our Hearts is now available in English, and in this writer’s opinion, everyone (clergy and laity) who has been left feeling bruised and deflated by crises and controversies afflicting the priesthood ought to drop their regular reading and read this book now. It’s profound, but not at all difficult. At roughly 150 pages, it can be read in just a few sittings.
Benedict, of course, is the ultimate teacher, with a gift for making complex theology accessible to us ordinary Catholics. And if some of Cardinal Sarah’s more recent tomes were a lot to take in for the average reader, fear not! His contribution to this book is simple, direct and framed in the narrative of his own experiences as a priest, a prelate and participant in the recent Amazonian synod.
Although the book is largely about the whys and wherefores of priestly celibacy, that seemingly narrow topic becomes a prism through which we can understand the priesthood, the Church and the way we worship. Even sacramental marriage and male/female roles in the Church are touched on. It is amazing how much is covered in this short work.
A brief, jointly written introduction is followed by the pope emeritus’ Scripture-based teaching that answers a very basic question: What is a priest, and why do we have priests in the first place? Why not go with the more flexible “minister” model of church leadership used by Protestant communities? The answer, says Benedict, is the same as how “the Old Testament was able to become and remain the Bible of Christians”: continuity.
The early Church took Jesus at his word that he’d come not to abolish, but to fulfill, the Law and the prophets. It interpreted the Old Testament as Christological. Animal sacrifices of atonement were replaced by the one perfect sacrifice of Jesus, but that sacrifice would be offered in perpetuity. The bishop (episkopos) is analogous to the high priest; priests/presbyters to Jewish priests, and diakonos/deacons to Levites. Old Testament priests had to observe sexual abstinence during their periodic terms of duty for making sacrificial offerings — a celibacy of function.
Christian priests, on the other hand, are immersed in the Eucharistic mystery for all of their lives; therefore, celibacy belongs to the very nature of their priesthood, not merely its function. Benedict concludes with meditations on verses from Psalms, Deuteronomy and St. John’s Gospel, concluding that ordination launches a lifelong process “... of becoming one with him and renouncing what belongs only to us, lasts a whole lifetime and continually includes liberations and painful renewals.”
In Part II, Cardinal Sarah describes his personal experience of growing up, answering a call to the priesthood, and ministering to the faithful under circumstances similar to those of the Amazonian region. The African peoples love and respect their priests all the more precisely because they recognize in their celibacy the self-sacrificing love of Christ, Bridegroom of his Church. Cardinal Sarah claims that it was this radical character of the missionaries’ lives that first attracted him to the priesthood as a young man.
Based on this experience, he expresses the conviction that calls for ordaining married men are no more than the obsessions of theologians “who wish to use the distress of the poor as an experimental lab for their clever plans.” The claim of some that the Amazonian people cannot understand or appreciate priestly celibacy strikes Cardinal Sarah as “… a contemptuous, neo-colonialist, and infantilizing mentality that shocks me. All the peoples of the world are capable of understanding the Eucharistic logic of priestly celibacy. Are these people supposedly devoid of the instinct of faith? Is it reasonable to think that God’s grace would be inaccessible to the peoples of Amazonia and that God would deprive them of the grace of priestly celibacy that the Church has guarded for centuries as a precious jewel?”
Remote communities that must rely on sporadic visits by missionary priests remain vibrant because the office of lay catechist is alive and well in those communities. Catholics in the Northern Hemisphere have a weak and diminished picture of the catechist as a weekly instructor of children. In missionary regions, the catechist assumes a role that is of far greater importance. He or she leads weekly and daily prayer services, conducts faith formation for all ages, and administers parish life in conjunction with the priest. A push for ordination of married men would clericalize roles that are being done perfectly well by these catechists, depriving them of their own opportunities to proclaim the Gospel as laypeople. Celibacy issue aside, it seems that Europeans and North Americans might do well to look to the Third World catechist model and apply it to our own needs in the face of clergy shortages.
Cardinal Sarah calls on those promoting a married priesthood to be more honest when they point to the ordination of married men during the first millennium: All historical documents indicate that ordained married men were required to be sexually abstinent from Day One. “Do we want to go back to this state of affairs?” Cardinal Sarah asks. “The esteem in which we hold the sacrament of matrimony and the better understanding we have of it since the Council forbid it. … To ordain a married man a priest would amount to diminishing the dignity of marriage and reducing the priesthood to a job.” Marriage is a recurring theme throughout the book, that is, the spousal relationship of the priest to the Church: A non-celibate priest dealing with two “marriages” will have a difficult time doing justice to both relationships.
It is rumored that From the Depths of Our Hearts influenced Pope Francis in his decision to not move forward in permitting ordination or married men in the Amazon. That wouldn’t be surprising, since its arguments are powerful. On the other hand, Pope Francis has often defended priestly celibacy on other occasions, so perhaps his decision should be no surprise. Since the celibacy issue, the priest shortage and calls for the ordination of women will doubtless be a permanent feature of discussion among Catholics, we shouldn’t ignore what these authors, men of holiness and intellect, have to say. They share the fruits of both experience and of contemplation and come across in this work as genuine prophets.
Daria Sockey writes from Venus, Pennsylvania.