The Priesthood in a Time of Darkness
From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy, and the Crisis of the Catholic Church
By Benedict XVI and Robert Cardinal Sarah
Review Author: Christopher Beiting
The furor surrounding Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Robert Cardinal Sarah’s book From the Depths of Our Hearts arguably eclipses the work itself. The book was composed in response to the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region that took place in October 2019. Many hoped the synod would result in a relaxation of the rule of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church. The publication of From the Depths of Our Hearts was announced on January 12, 2020, and the furor began almost immediately. Two days later, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, private secretary of Benedict XVI, claimed that the Emeritus Pope had not given permission to be listed as co-author of the work, had written only one chapter of it, and had not co-authored the introduction and conclusion that were attributed to him. Benedict’s name should be removed from the book, Gänswein asserted. The reaction from other quarters was downright vicious. Benedict was described by critics as being “incapacitated” or “conscious barely half an hour at a time,” with the implication that his writings should be dismissed as the product of a senile man in his dotage.
Cardinal Sarah, for his part, responded by calling the charges against him and Benedict “defamations of exceptional gravity” and defending the work as it stood. What really went on behind the scenes in Rome during these exchanges will never be known. It is probable that pre-publication manuscripts of From the Depths of Our Hearts began circulating in mid-January; it is certain that a purported draft of Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation regarding the synod, was leaked and published in Corrispondenza Romana on January 30, and that this document appeared to suggest that Francis would support married clergy in the Amazon (and eventually the world). However, on February 12, the official draft of Querida Amazonia was released, and it made no mention of married clergy whatsoever. Was the whole affair a complicated plot and counterplot to change an age-old Church tradition, or was it nothing more than a media-driven tempest in a teacup? From the Depths of Our Hearts was published in the United States in March, so interested readers can now access the work in question.
From the Depths of Our Hearts is similar in many ways to Cardinal Sarah’s earlier works, though it is much shorter and contains no interview. It consists of a short introduction and conclusion, both co-written by Sarah and Benedict, and a lengthier meditation on aspects of the Catholic priesthood by each author. While Sarah is responsible for the lion’s share of the overall page count, the complaints that Benedict should not have co-author status are unsupported. His own chapter amounts to a full quarter of the book, and the introduction is written in the first person plural — viz., “we met together. We exchanged our ideas and our anxieties. We prayed and meditated in silence. Each of our meetings mutually strengthened and calmed us.” Moreover, Benedict notes that he had long meant to write a theological reflection on the nature of the priesthood, but, he said, his exchanges with Cardinal Sarah gave him “the strength to resume it and bring it to completion.”
The Amazon synod — or the “strange media synod that overrode the real synod” — occasioned the book, but the authors’ true reason for writing was something deeper. Both admit their concerns are for the Catholic priesthood itself. “The priesthood is going through a dark time,” they say, in which priests are tempted not just to give up on celibacy but to give up on everything. While Benedict and Sarah are powerful churchmen, they are, at their core, bishops motivated by a pastoral concern for their “brother bishops, priests, and lay faithful.” While both men are ordinarily drawn to silence, here they believe it is not appropriate to maintain silence. Both men stress the need for unity in the Church, as unity is a mark of the Church, and division, ideology, and political maneuvering “play the game of the devil — the divider, the father of lies.”
Benedict’s chapter, “The Catholic Priesthood,” is a short but powerful meditation — Sarah elsewhere calls it a lectio divina — on the history and nature of the Catholic priesthood, to the degree that such a thing can be done in a mere 37 pages. The central problem with the priesthood today, Benedict says, lies in what is basically a protestantized understanding of Scripture, particularly the “abandonment of the Christological interpretation of the Old Testament.” When people fail to read the Old Testament in light of the New, they fall into all kinds of misunderstandings. It is wrong to view the events of the New Testament as a radical break with those of the Old. For example, while it is true that the early Christian Church as reflected in the New Testament was primarily a lay movement, one that developed its own offices of bishop, presbyter, and deacon, that does not mean the Jewish Temple and its priesthood ceased to have meaning. After all, the Pharisees were also primarily a lay movement, but both they and the early Christians existed alongside the established Temple hierarchy of high priests, priests, and Levites. Jesus Himself worshiped in the Temple, as did the Apostles, for as long as they were able to do so. The Catholic understanding has always been that Christ did not come to destroy the Jewish order but to fulfill it — and, in the process, absorb it. That is, after all, how the Old Testament became a part of the Christian Bible.
In the place of the old Temple priesthood would come a new priesthood, with Christ Himself serving as both priest and sacrifice. The most important part of this new sacrifice would not be His death (since He was executed by Roman soldiers, not sacrificed by Jewish priests) so much as the spirit that animated it: Jesus laid down His life as an act of love, self-giving, and, thus, salvation for anyone who wishes to claim it. Christians were not to break from Temple worship; they were to improve it. Henceforth, in Christ there would be a new and better priesthood, not confined to the Temple (since Christians could worship anywhere), not restricted to the tribe of Levi (since Christian priests could come from any background), and not dependent on human actions (since Christian priests could come from anywhere, and there was thus no need to worry about Levite families having enough children to fill the ranks of the Temple priesthood).
While this new Christian practice of priesthood would be much freer than the old, it would have one significant limitation. Under Jewish law, Temple priests only worshiped at set times, during which they were expected to abstain from sexual relations with their wives. Under the new Christian order, worship — centered on the Eucharist — was to be celebrated frequently, often daily. As such, priests could not observe periodic abstinence from sexual relations with their wives; hence the Christian tradition of clerical celibacy. While it is true that many early Christian priests were married, evidence from the end of the first century shows that married men who became Christian priests had to swear oaths of celibacy and live in celibate “Josephite” marriages, as St. Joseph had lived with Mary.
This default understanding of the Catholic priesthood, which prevailed for the first millennium and a half of Christian history, wasn’t substantively questioned until the Protestant Reformation, when the New Testament was severed from the Old, and the priesthood replaced with “ministries.” The conceptions of a cleric-as-minister and a cleric-as-priest proved to be a central dividing issue between Catholics and Protestants. While the Second Vatican Council attempted to deal with this, it did not do so adequately or conclusively. The problem seeped into the Church and is the source for the crisis in the priesthood that persists to this day.
While Benedict’s approach in his chapter is meditative and theological, Sarah’s method is more practical and pastoral. “My bishop’s heart is worried,” he begins, addressing his brother priests, who seem “lost, discouraged, overcome by suffering.” He is motivated by filial compassion and an awareness that the problems of the Catholic priesthood are due to much more than the burden of clerical celibacy. Still, the context of a discussion of the dignity of priestly celibacy offers him the chance to discuss the dignity of the priestly office.
Sarah attended every session of the Amazon synod and had many in-depth talks with its participants. He contends that a married clergy would not only not solve the problems of the Amazonian region in particular and the Church as a whole, it would be a complete disaster. His reasons range from the theoretical to the practical to the deeply personal. I will relate a few of the more interesting ones.
To the point that the Amazon has a shortage of priests, Sarah’s response is of course it does. The Church in some areas of that region is still newly arrived, and places that are still adopting the faith need time to develop clerical vocations — that’s just a given. Moreover, the most important thing for a new Christian community is not clerical vocations but deep faith in and love for Jesus Christ — and, though it’s helpful, people don’t really need priests for that. The cardinal cites the numerous times and places in Christian history when Christian communities have had to sustain themselves while being led by lay catechists and without the sacraments. Furthermore, Sarah reminds us that though it is central to our Catholic life, nobody is owed the Eucharist. He presents the very personal example of the often-arduous journeys he made early in his priestly career, traveling long distances under the blazing African sun to bring the sacraments to isolated villages — and how much more those villagers would appreciate the sacraments when they could get them only infrequently.
To the charge that “because of their culture certain people just don’t understand celibacy,” the cardinal retorts that such an attitude reflects “a contemptuous, neocolonialist, and infantilizing mentality that shocks me.” He reminds us that “when God enters into a culture, He does not leave it intact!” Many things about Christ and His teachings were scandalous to ancient Jews and Greeks, and it is no different now. Based on his own experiences, Sarah contends that newly Christian churches respond best to Gospel radicalism. The Gospel message is best delivered by a man who shows it’s true by giving up everything for it. Clerical celibacy can feel like martyrdom, but let’s recall that martyr also means witness.
To the idea of married clergy as a solution to a priest shortage, Sarah counters that a community’s lack of clerical vocations is not the source of the problem but a sign of it. Where there is real evangelization, priestly vocations will follow, later if not sooner. If we view the priesthood as just a matter of ministry or office (which, in the cardinal’s estimation, is what frequently happens with a married clergy), we wind up “thinking that we are the masters and creators of the Church,” with the inevitable consequences. These days we do a good job of training our missionaries in the fields of social, political, or economic activity, Sarah says, but we often forget the most important thing: “I am ashamed to admit it, but the Evangelical Protestants are sometimes more faithful to Christ than we are.” The real problem the Church faces is our weakness of faith.
The elephant in the room in any discussion of married priests is we already have them, in the Eastern-rite congregations. If you want married clergy, you can find them. The fact that malcontents do not avail themselves of this simple option is a sign that married clergy is not what they are really after.
While I am generally loath to criticize churchmen of the stature of Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah, each man’s effort in From the Depths of Our Hearts has some flaws. On the one hand, it is more than a little ironic that in 2011 Benedict established the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, in effect creating an “Anglican rite” in the Church — and with a married clergy! On the other hand, Cardinal Sarah deals with the issue of married clergy in Eastern-rite Catholicism — and the much bigger issue of married clergy in the various Eastern Orthodox churches — in a mere three pages, which is far too cursory a treatment for a serious and complicated issue.
Overall, though, the biggest problem with the work is its authorship, or at least half of it. Whatever the reasons behind Benedict XVI’s puzzling 2013 resignation, the fact is he resigned. For him to weigh in publicly on what, frankly, should not be — but nevertheless is — a contentious issue these days cannot look like anything but a public rebuke of his successor, and it gives the impression, wrongly or rightly, of a divided Magisterium. To paraphrase Unam Sanctam by Boniface VIII (one of the few popes who also had to contend with a predecessor hanging around), “A thing with two heads is a monster.” Fraternal correction of a pope by a cardinal is one kind of problem; fraternal correction of a pope by an ex-pope is a schism waiting to happen. Having a married clergy might be a bad idea, but having a pope emeritus is a worse one. Boniface VIII could have told us that.
What is to be done? Cardinal Sarah counsels against the creation of a new plan, program, or movement to address the priest problem. The mark of the Church is unity, and new movements, however well-intentioned, tend to work against unity. Rather, faithful Catholics should simply stick to the truth. As both men note in the conclusion: “It is urgent and necessary for everyone — bishops, priests, and lay people — to stop letting themselves be intimidated by the wrong-headed pleas, the theatrical productions, the diabolical lies, and the fashionable errors that try to devalue priestly celibacy.” Moreover, to those priests who find aspects of their priestly life, like celibacy, difficult to bear, the authors offer an interesting take on the age-old practice of uniting ourselves to Christ by contemplating the marks of His suffering. “Our hands, like his, must be pierced so as to keep and hold nothing greedily,” they write. “Our heart, like his, must be open so that everyone finds welcome and refuge there. Therefore, if we no longer understand our own celibacy, let us look at the Cross. It is the only book that will give us the true meaning of it.” A strong prayer life, particularly one involving silence, is necessary. And the most important thing? Holiness.
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