Friday, April 17, 2020

A Reflection on “From the Depths of Our Hearts”

Back when there were all sorts of nonsense being spread against the Amazonian Synod, the Church was rocked by the news that Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah were publishing a book on the issue of priestly celibacy. Since the synod was considering whether or not we needed to considered ordaining married men, this was seen as a possible attack on the Pope. At the time that the news was announced, I wrote:

This book isn’t even out yet. We have a few excerpts coming from the French version and some claiming access to the galleys of the Ignatius Press translation. We have no sense of context. Secular media and Catholic media hostile to the Pope are portraying it as a rift. Other Catholics, supportive of the Pope, are portraying it as a betrayal. But right now, any speculation is exactly that. Speculation.

The book has been out for a while now and I thought it would be time to read it, apart from the controversies of the time that no doubt would have colored my interpretation of it if I read it in the middle of the chaos. 

It should be noted that, after the publication of Querida Amazonia, the book is largely a moot point. Pope Francis decided against proposals for a limited married priesthood (and based on his previous comments, it probably wasn’t even remotely a possibility).


Contrary to the controversy, this book doesn’t read like an anti-Francis attack. I think the book was aimed at a certain mindset within the Church that sought to hijack the synod for their own views. Unfortunately, anti-Francis Catholics hijacked the book, and some parts of the book itself were written in an unnecessarily abrasive tone that probably cost the two some goodwill among the defenders of Pope Francis.


I would describe the book as two articles with a preface and a prologue. Benedict XVI wrote a short chapter on the important meaning of celibacy. I think Archbishop Gaswein’s claim about Benedict’s intended role as a contributor, not a co-author, seems plausible. The piece is good but short. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been written before the synod was announced. Cardinal Sarah’s chapter is longer and deals directly with the synod. His chapter was clearly written while it was in progress.


Benedict XVI has a solid, logical article that would be good as an emphasis of the general importance of celibacy as a Latin Rite discipline as a total commitment to God. Published alone as an article, and making clear it was addressing the Latin Rite, there probably would have been no controversy about it. 


Unfortunately, Cardinal Sarah’s article would have been controversial regardless of how it was published. At his highest points, he makes good comments about the patronizing attitudes over “primitive” people being unable to grasp Catholic teaching. Unfortunately, much of his chapter involves a rather emotional argumentation that borders on the disrespectful to people with a different but legitimate view… sometimes reaching the level of the ad hominem attack. That’s too bad because the bad elements managed to bury the good points that could have effectively shown why we shouldn’t make changes without a very good reason. 


Cardinal Sarah does call celibacy a “doctrine#,” which causes some problems, unless it was a mistranslation. Personally, I can’t find any Church documents that call priestly celibacy a doctrine. The closest I can find is Pius XII, in Sacra Virginitas 31-32 where he refers to the superiority of the virginal state as a doctrine. (Rightly. Our Lord Himself said that it in Matthew 19:12)


He considers the married priesthood in the East as a late seventh century innovation, based on an Eastern mistranslation of a council. I find that interesting, because the Eastern Orthodox think the Catholics are the innovators. I don’t say this to promote a “truth is relative” view. I say that because this is an East-West divide that needs to continue being addressed by the Church officially.  Moreover, if celibacy is doctrine, did the Church err in permitting Eastern Rite Catholics to retain a married priesthood? And if it did, what does that say about the Church claim of being protected from teaching error? 


Even though I don’t personally support the ordination of married men without grave reason, I found his arguments disappointing. While Benedict XVI wrote a short but logical chapter, Cardinal Sarah’s turn struck me as making assumptions that were not so much refuting a view he disagreed with as he was merely being dismissive. For example, when he wrote: 


I am persuaded that the Christian communities of Amazonia themselves do not think along the lines of Eucharistic demands. I think, rather, that these topics are obsessions that stem from theological milieus at universities. We are dealing with ideologies developed by a few theologians, or rather sorcerer’s apprentices, who wish to utilize the distress of poor peoples as an experimental laboratory for their clever plans.

I don’t doubt that some of those suggesting the viri probati do so as a sort of trojan horse, and that needs to be opposed. But by speaking so broadly, he risks alienating the faithful who do recognize that the Church has called celibacy a discipline. A serious discipline that ought not to be changed without a serious reason, but not a doctrine.

It does seem that he is neglecting the fact of the limited nature of the proposal. He cites an interview with an Eastern Orthodox priest who talked about the decline of the married priesthood there. What he doesn’t discuss, however, is whether the problems of the married priesthood there is because of the absence of celibacy, or is because of the growth of materialism that keeps people away from a religious vocation—married or not. Unfortunately, society is changing for the worse.

As for the case of rare admissions of married men to the Latin Rite priesthood, he makes a case that—while it might work in rare and transitory circumstances—making it a general practice would be wrong. The problem is, the whole proposal of the viri probati is not a case of making a general practice. If it is ever implemented, it would address a need that we pray is transitory.

I was disappointed by the book overall. This is a subject that needs a tome to explore and establish. One can’t satisfactorily discuss concerns raised in a 152-page book (and I think a third of the Kindle version included an excerpt from another of the Cardinal’s books, footnotes and bibliography). It needs to be handled in a calm manner (Benedict XVI succeeded there), and not written in a manner that gave the impression to many Pope-bashers and Pope defenders that it was a “rebuke.” 

That leads us to ask what was the point of releasing the book at all? After all, since the synod ended with the Pope ruling that simply boosting the number of the ordained was the wrong way to approach the issue, the book was ultimately unnecessary. Of course, that’s easy to say in hindsight.

But even though the Pope emeritus and the Cardinal no doubt acted out of concern for the Church, the message of the book was hijacked despite their intentions. The results were that some Catholics became more disrespectful of the Pope, while others began to think of Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah as “the enemy.”

Regular readers of my blog will know that I defend the Pope. But you should know I don’t see the authors of this book as “enemies” of the Pope. Unfortunately, I think how the book was viewed was largely on account of how the individual viewed the Pope. That’s the problem that needs to be combatted at this time.

Maybe Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah could write a book on that? 




(†) It should be noticed that both authors were respectful to the Pope. I don’t think one could legitimately accuse them of supporting the calumny used by his detractors, even though those detractors miscite the Pope-emeritus and the cardinal as being on “their side.”

(#) The only sources I could find that call priestly celibacy a doctrine were anti-Catholic sources who try to tie this discipline to a misapplication of 1 Timothy 4:3.

(‡) The division between Catholic and Eastern Orthodox is one of almost a thousand years. This division is not going to end soon.

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