Celibacy Is a Gift to Priests—and the Laity

Few books have caused so much controversy even before they were published than did From the Depths of Our Hearts, a new defense of clerical celibacy in the Roman Church by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Robert Cardinal Sarah.

On January 14, Benedict’s private secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, told the Italian news agency ANSA that, while the Pope Emeritus had consented to Cardinal Sarah’s inclusion of his essay in the book, he did not wish to be named as a co-author. “It was a question of misunderstanding, without casting doubt on the good faith of Cardinal Sarah,” Archbishop Gänswein explained, according to a translation by the Jesuit review America. The book’s publisher, Ignatius Press, agreed to list Cardinal Sarah as the sole author of future editions, and Benedict would be named only as a contributor.

Manuscripts of From the Depths of Our Hearts began circulating in the Vatican before the Holy Father promulgated Querida Amazonia, his exhortation responding to the synod. Before the final document was released, someone in Rome leaked a draft of Querida, which was published in the Corrispondenza Romana on January 30. The draft suggested the Pope would endorse married priests after all. The news was received joyfully by the Church’s small but influential clique of progressives. Francis’s most hardline critics were hardly surprised, though many traditional Catholics were sorely disappointed. Francis had long expressed his reluctance to abandon the rule of celibacy, which has historically been regarded as a tier of Holy Orders—a Sacrament that can only be validly conferred upon men.

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Then, on February 12, the final draft of Querida was released. To progressives’ consternation and conservatives’ relief, it contained no reference to celibacy or female deacons. Nothing had changed.

Did an advance copy of From the Depths of Our Hearts make its way to Pope Francis’s desk? Did the pleas of these holy priests, these towering intellects, inspire him to uphold tradition? We may never know. Yet Archbishop Gänswein’s statement, issued less than a month before Querida was published, certainly suggests that it made a splash in Rome. It’s possible that Benedict and Cardinal Sarah saved the Sacrament of Holy Orders before their defense of it even hit the shelves.

The section of the book that struck me most was Cardinal Sarah’s discussion of his own childhood and early ministry in Africa. His village in French Guinea was certainly what we would call mission territory. He recalls that Christianity was still nascent in his village, and he “lived in a world that had barely emerged from paganism.” Cardinal Sarah’s father was only baptized when His Eminence was two years old, and his grandmother was received into the Church on her deathbed.

It was the “radical character of the missionaries’ life” that attracted Cardinal Sarah to the priesthood. These men had refused all worldly comforts for the love of Christ and the people to whom they ministered. They had sacrificed the joys of family life and conjugal love purely out of zeal for saving men’s souls. The young Robert Sarah and his people saw this for what it was: a mark of holiness—one that no animistic shaman, Protestant pastor, or Muslim imam could ever bear. It inspired a devotion in Cardinal Sarah’s people, and planted the desire in his young heart to share their trials and in their graces.

“How dare we deprive peoples of the joy of such an encounter with Christ?” he thunders. “I consider that a contemptuous attitude… The visit to a community by a missionary priest who has come from a distant land expresses the solicitude of the Universal Church. It is the image of the Word visiting humanity.”

Would he have had the same experience with a married priest? Of course not. (“I certainly wouldn’t be a priest today,” he admits.) And there’s little doubt that his village would not have been transformed into a seedbed for salvation. A married priest could not have impressed upon his new flock the truly radical demands of the Gospel. So he warns: “The ordination of married men in the midst of the community would express the very opposite movement: as if each community were bound to find the means of salvation within itself.”

This discussion of his childhood is also an effective preface to his remarks on the plight of our fellow Christians in the Amazon. Progressives have long insisted that clerical celibacy actually serves as a barrier to evangelization. Think of comments made by one of the Amazon Synod fathers, Bishop Erwin Kräutler, who was born in Austria but served in the Amazonian diocese of Xingu. During a press conference held while the synod was underway, Bishop Kräutler was asked about the possibility of suspending the rule of celibacy in the River Basin. As LifeSiteNews reports, he didn’t beat around the bush. “There is no other option because they don’t understand celibacy,” Bishop Kräutler responded bluntly.

This pessimistic view Cardinal Sarah calls “contemptuous, neo-colonialist, and infantilizing.” “All the people of the world are capable of understanding the Eucharistic logic of priestly celibacy,” he insists. “There is no culture that God’s grace cannot reach and transform.” And this is the crucial point. Bishop Kräutler comes from a culture that’s nominally Christian but has largely ceased to believe. It was transformed long ago; now it’s becoming increasingly deformed. This is the exact opposite of the situation with the peoples of the Amazon, whose souls have yet to be sapped by modern secularism but who haven’t fully embraced the Faith either. He’s giving advice on how to run the maternity ward based on his experience working in a nursing home.

What does Cardinal Sarah have to say, as a missionary nurtured by a missionary Church? “When God enters a culture,” he observes, “he does not leave it intact. He stabilizes and purifies it. He transforms and divinizes it.” This, he notes, has been the case since the apostles first began preaching the Gospel to the Jews and the Greeks. “It is a scandal for the world and will always remain so because it makes present the scandal of the Cross.”

Of course, we can’t expect the peoples of the Amazon to intuitively “understand” celibacy—no more than we can expect them to understand why God would take on human flesh and die a painful and humiliating death by crucifixion. And it is not only futile but cruel to soften the blunt edges of the Faith, as if to trick the unconverted into thinking that Christianity is an easy-going, low-maintenance religion. We’ve tried that in the West, and it has proven a miserable failure.

If the rule of celibacy is lifted in the Amazon, it’s only a matter of time before progressive bishops in Western countries that also suffer from a shortage of priests—Germany, for instance, and even the United States—demand that exceptions be made for their own dioceses. In less than a single generation, we should expect celibacy to become an exception to the norm, rather than the norm itself. Perhaps it will disappear altogether.

This would be a disaster—or, rather, merely a progression of the disaster that has been rapidly unfolding since the middle of the 20th century. The Western Church has become infected with a spirit of accomodationism. We take every opportunity to make the Faith more agreeable to the standards of our secular and materialist culture. It began in earnest following the Second Vatican Council, when the Latin Mass was replaced by the Novus Ordo and high altars were swapped out for Protestant-style “table altars.” We did away with Gregorian chant and began singing vapid, saccharine hymns.

It isn’t only the liturgy that has been corrupted. Priests feel discouraged from delivering homilies on grave moral issues like contraception and pornography. Social justice, though vital, has taken precedence over sound catechesis. Standards for admission to the seminary have relaxed, leading to an influx of active homosexuals to the priesthood.

What has been the result? Vocations plummeted. The pews are empty. Most Catholics don’t know the Church’s moral teachings; those who do largely ignore them. According to an infamous Pew Research Center poll released last August, two-thirds of American Catholics don’t believe in the Real Presence. Another survey published in January by RealClear and EWTN shows that just 47 percent agree with the Magisterium that abortion is intrinsically evil.

The centers of rebirth are found in precisely those parishes that defy the prevailing culture, not those that accommodate them. Never in all my years as a Protestant student in the Catholic school system (grades five through twelve) did I feel seriously inclined to swim the Tiber. Like thousands of other converts, I found my home in the Catholic Church through parishes that celebrate traditional Masses—first at a community of the Anglican Ordinariate, then at a diocesan parish that celebrated the Tridentine Mass. I’m forever in the debt of holy, learned priests who wear a cassock seven days a week and preach the full, scandalous truth of the Catholic faith from the pulpit—they are true Gospel radicals.

These are not merely aesthetic differences. They represent two ways of understanding what it means to be Catholic. One (if I may crib a line from Chesterton) wants a Church that will move with the world; the other wants a Church that will move the world.

My mentor John O’Sullivan was immortalized by a rule of thumb he set down known as O’Sullivan’s First Law: “All organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing.” I would like to borrow from him, too, and coin a new dictum: “All societies that are not actually Christianizing will, over time, revert to paganism.” Whether we’re talking about the Amazon or the United States, Christianity cannot exist amidst any kind of pluralism. There is no middle ground between God and not-God. So, if the Church is not constantly evangelizing a nation—not only its people, but their culture and institutions as well—she will gradually weaken and, perhaps, disappear.

Pope Emeritus Benedict once called celibacy a “sign of freedom and renunciation of any compromise.” In a more fundamental way, all Catholics are called to take these precepts to heart. True freedom from sin, error, and barbarism is only possible by a renunciation of any compromise with sin, error, and barbarism. If the Church is to flourish in the Amazon, and if she is ever to return to her former glory in the West, then we must be prepared to fight for this liberty without giving any quarter. That is the meaning of “Gospel radicalism.”

But we must be led by our priests, their words, and (no less importantly) their examples.

In a 2006 address to the Roman Curia, Pope Benedict warned: “Our world, which has become totally positivistic, in which God appears as at best a hypothesis but not as a concrete reality, needs to rest on God in the most concrete and radical way possible.” By this, he meant the celibate priesthood. And he’s right. Our world has never been more in need of true spiritual fatherhood than it is now.

May the Holy Father safeguard this glorious rule which Our Blessed Lord has entrusted to him. May our dear priests grow in their love for this precious gift He has given them. May they teach us the courage necessary to lead a Christian life, which is a source of constant scandal to our fallen world. And may God’s will be done, in all things, at all times, and throughout all nations.

Image: AFP via Getty Images


  • Michael Warren Davis

    Michael Warren Davis is a contributing editor of The American Conservative and the author of The Reactionary Mind (Regnery, 2021). He previously served as editor of Crisis Magazine and U.S. editor of the Catholic Herald of London. His next book, After Christendom, will be published by Sophia Institute Press. Follow his Substack newsletter, The Common Man.

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