Benedict XVI’s Weak Defense of Priestly Celibacy

January 26, 2020

January 15, 2020 saw the highly publicized publication of the book co-written by Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah entitled Des profondeurs de nos coeurs (From the Depths of Our Hearts).

The book, which presents itself as a defense of priestly celibacy, consists of an introduction and a conclusion signed by the two authors, and a personal text by each of them. This review focuses on the text by Benedict XVI.

A Grave Deviation

The contribution of the former pope is divided into two parts. The first wants to “bring to light the fundamental exegetical structure which makes possible a correct theology of the priesthood.” It is a question of mitigating the “methodological defect in the reception of Scripture as the Word of God,” which is at the origin of the current crisis of the priesthood. The confession is serious, coming from a former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

He condemns “the abandonment of the Christological interpretation of the Old Testament” which “has led many contemporary exegetes to a deficient theology of worship.” So much so that “some have come to reject the need for an authentically religious priesthood.”

The old pope also states he “believed he should present the priest of the New Testament as one who meditates on the Word, and not as an artisan of worship.” To correct this serious deviation, Benedict XVI today defends an exegesis of the Old Testament centered on Christ.=

A Flawed Exegesis

Pope Emeritus’s analysis, which is somewhat difficult to follow, uses historical considerations of the relationship between the New Testament and the priesthood of the Old Testament. It uses the notion of “ministries”—designated by the terms of apostle, bishop, and priest—which has received much attention among modern theologians, following after Protestants, and from an assumed ecumenical perspective.

Benedict XVI describes the replacement of the Temple by the body of Jesus Christ, the institution of a new worship during the Last Supper, and the formation of the hierarchy of the New Covenant, which replaces the priesthood of the Old Covenant .

But, he notes, the old priesthood was hereditary, which is no longer the case for the priesthood of Christ which He passed on to His Church. It is a first difficulty which obliges each generation to pray to receive from God the vocations which the Church needs.

And, he adds with discernment, “another question is directly linked to this problem. Very quickly…the regular and even daily celebration of the Eucharist became essential for the Church. …This had an important consequence which, precisely, haunts the Church today.” It is about the issue of clerical celibacy.

The Pope-emeritus rightly points out that “priests [of the Old Law] were rigorously required to respect sexual abstinence during the periods when they exercised worship and were thus in contact with the divine mystery. The relationship between sexual abstinence and divine worship was absolutely clear in the common conscience of Israel.” He mentions the famous passage from the first book of Samuel [I Kings] where the high priest Achimelech, once assured that David and his men fulfill this condition, agrees to give them the consecrated loaves as food.

But the priests of the Old Testament exercised their priesthood only for a certain time period. Consequently, “marriage and the priesthood were compatible.” However, for the priests of the New Testament, who fulfill their office daily, the thing becomes impossible: “From the daily celebration of the Eucharist, which implies a permanent state of service to God, spontaneously arose the impossibility of a marital bond.”

This explanation, quite correct, is welcome. It has a certain force in favor of priestly celibacy. Benedict XVI also clarified that celibacy is as old as the Church, because “married men could not receive the sacrament of Orders unless they were committed to observe sexual abstinence.” This has been demonstrated by numerous studies.

Worship in Spirit and Truth

The second part of Benedict XVI’s study is devoted to the analysis of three scriptural texts which illustrate the requirement to “worship in spirit and in truth” (cf. Jn 4:23-24). The author presents this part as follows: “The act of worship now passes through an offering of the whole of life in love. The priesthood of Jesus Christ makes us enter into a life that consists of becoming one with him and renouncing all that belongs only to us. This is the foundation of the necessity of celibacy for priests.”

The first text is taken from Psalm 15:5 which, Joseph Ratzinger recalls, “was used before the Second Vatican Council during the tonsure ceremony which marked the entry into the clergy.” Here is the text: “Dóminus pars hæreditátis meæ, et cálicis mei : tu es qui restítues hæreditátem meam mihi,” which every traditional priest knows by heart. “The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and of my cup: it is thou that wilt restore my inheritance to me.”

In the Old Law, this Psalm recalled the fact that the tribe of Levi, from which the priests came, had no territorial possessions in the Promised Land, unlike members of other tribes. The reason was that the tribe was consecrated to God, dedicated to temple service, and that God Himself was their inheritance. Under the New Law, this verse expresses acceptance in the priestly community.

The second text is taken from Eucharistic Prayer II of the Novus Ordo Missae, but is actually a quotation from Deuteronomy 10:8 and 18:5-8. It concerns separating out of the tribe of Levi, “to stand before God and to serve him.” The Pope-emeritus makes a long explanation and applies it to the Catholic priesthood.

The third text is taken from the priestly prayer of Christ, reported in chapter 17 of the Gospel of St. John. Benedict XVI particularly comments on verse 17: “Consecrate them [sanctify them] in truth.” For the pope emeritus, these words particularly illustrate the result of priestly ordination: since Christ is the Truth, by his ordination the priest is immersed in Jesus Christ. This means that the priest must become one with Christ, that he must be purified and engulfed by Him, “so that it is He who speaks and acts” in the priest.

Painting of the Council of Trent

An Erroneous Theology 

In the current circumstances, Benedict XVI has the merit and courage to defend clerical celibacy. He is opposed to all those who would like to do away with this discipline, which is part of the Apostolic tradition and is deeply rooted in the priesthood transmitted by Christ.

However, in the presentation of the first part, the former pope remains dependent on a modern, not to say modernist, approach.

In fact, the theology of the priesthood was admirably brought to light during the Council of Trent to counter Protestantism which attacked it. But the modernists reject this Tridentine doctrine and, in the name of ecumenism, have developed a new theology of the priesthood and the Mass, which was sanctioned by the Second Vatican Council.

The sacramental aspect and the worship aspect, which are constitutive notes of the presbyterate, are henceforth entrusted to all the People of God, clothed in the “common” priesthood. The whole Church being charged with evangelization, the priest must therefore be considered as a minister of this people, and his function is to represent Christ as their head. This is the theology of the New Mass.

Benedict XVI is dependent on this theology, which he developed and lived, which leads him to some absolutely unfortunate assertions. Thus, he refuses to consider the Cross of Jesus as a true sacrifice and thereby as an act of worship. The Pope-emeritus writes: “The crucifixion of Jesus is not in itself an act of worship.” The reason he gives is absurd: “The Roman soldiers who executed him are not priests. They carried out an execution; they absolutely did not think they were carrying out an act relating to worship.”

This assertion forgets that it is Christ—and He alone—who performs this act of worship: He is both the High Priest of the New Law and the Divine Victim, the only One worthy of being approved by God. Anyway, Benedict XVI’s proposal falls under the condemnation of the Council of Trent: “If anyone says that the sacrifice of the Mass is only one of praise and thanksgiving, or that it is a mere commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the Cross…: let him be anathema ”(Session XXII, canon 3, September 17, 1562, Denzinger 950). The death of Jesus Christ on the Cross was a true sacrifice. Now, sacrifice is the main act of worship due to God. On the Cross, therefore, there is a true worship, accomplished by Christ alone.

Another canon (4) says similarly: “If anyone says that blasphemy is cast upon the most holy sacrifice of Christ consummated on the Cross through the sacrifice of the Mass…: let him be anathema” (Dz. 951). To deny that the Cross is an act of worship is incomprehensible.

On the other hand, the modernists claim that the New Testament only ever attributes the priesthood to Christ or to the baptized people, but never to his ministers. In this way, they maintain that this priesthood flows from the Priestly People, that it is a ministry of the People of God.

The former pope adheres to this false conception. After describing the worship aspect of the Last Supper and denying that of the Cross, he writes: “In all this, there is never a direct question of the priesthood.” Once again it goes against the holy Council of Trent which affirms (canon 2): “If anyone says that by these words: ‘Do this for a commemoration of me’ (Lk. 22:19; I Cor 11:24), Christ did not make the apostle priests, or did not ordain that they and other priests might offer His own  Body and Blood: let him be anathema” (Dz. 949).

The Catholic Priesthood

The notion of a “common” priesthood, which was developed at the Second Vatican Council, no longer enables an understanding of the depth of the Catholic priesthood. By relying on a text of Pius XII whose meaning had been distorted, (Lumen gentium, November 21, 1964, no.10), the Council claims the existence of two authentic priesthoods: the ordained priesthood and the priesthood of the faithful, each of which would depend in its way on the unique priesthood of Christ, both while representing Him.

In a way, such a doctrine explains the ever increasing demands of the laity for participation in the liturgy, a sample of which may be found in the working documents of the German synodal path. It also explains the debasement of the ordained priesthood and its tendency towards secularism. It is therefore hardly surprising that priestly celibacy is no longer understood, even by priests.

Benedict XVI’s contribution to Cardinal Sarah’s book undoubtedly provides just explanations by trying to show the intrinsic link that exists between the priesthood and celibacy. But it does not fully achieve its goal due to its attachment to an erroneous doctrine on sacrifice, and therefore of the priest.