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A Book Review . . . Filled With Timeless Material On Priestly Celibacy

May 11, 2020 Featured Today No Comments

By JAMES BARESEL

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. Available in hardback and as an eBook at ignatius.com.

Few books receive as much pre-publication attention as did Benedict XVI’s and Cardinal Sarah’s defense of priestly celibacy From the Depths of Our Hearts. With the push to ordain married men centered on this past fall’s Amazon Synod ignored by a post-synodal exhortation promulgated prior to publication of the English-language edition of From the Depths of Our Hearts, few books are likely to have had such a superficial appearance of being old news by the time they were available to the public.
The truth, however, is that, like many of the great and of the good apologetic works from past ages, From the Depths of Our Hearts is primarily filled with timeless material, despite being motivated by historical circumstances of brief duration. This provides further proof for the old truism that the best theological reflection often occurs not when theologians can pursue their studies at leisure, but when attacks on Catholic doctrine and the principles behind its discipline create an urgent need.
As is now well known, From the Depths of Our Hearts is, aside from a brief introduction and conclusion, not a single work written jointly by two authors but two briefer texts, one by Benedict and one by Cardinal Sarah, either of which could stand on its own but published in a single volume as each serves as a good complement to the other.
Benedict’s text particularly emphasizes the link between celibacy and the ritualistic, liturgically formal, and, in his words, “cultic” nature of the Mass and sacraments. Priests, through their Ordination, are ontologically changed and set apart from the laity in order to offer sacrifice to God and to transmit God’s grace through administration of the sacraments rather than merely mediators of Christ’s message. Both in the Old Testament and throughout Church history ritualistic, “cultic” worship has been associated some form of at least temporary sexual abstinence. Contemporary attacks on celibacy are, conversely, linked to attacks on the nature of the priesthood.
The continuity between the Old and New Testaments — a point of biblical theology carrying much weight with many contemporary clergymen — is at the core of Benedict’s defense of the Catholic theology of the priesthood, a defense which demonstrates how the Catholic priesthood builds on the Old Testament, how its sacrificial, cultic, and hierarchical nature was foreshadowed by the priesthood of the Old Testament.
He even drives his point home by showing how elements of Eucharistic Prayer II in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite (often the preferred Eucharistic Prayer of modernists and a favorite whipping boy of extreme traditionalists) stress the parallel between the Old and New Testament priesthoods by including language which is taken from Deuteronomy and, in that book of the Old Testament, refer to the liturgical, “cultic” role of the Jewish priests.
This approach highlights the fact that the orthodox Catholic doctrine presupposes the Old Testament priesthood — and, by extension, Old Testament Judaism — that was, in its nature, fundamentally positive, regardless of instances of priestly corruption and infidelity, regardless of the language used by the prophets to emphasize the necessity for external ritual to be joined to right internal dispositions, regardless of the fact that it existed as a preparation for something greater.
It is those who see a cultic and hierarchical priesthood as something inherently negative, and as something Christ rejected in favor of a purely lay movement, who see Old Testament Judaism as negative, even if they vehemently and frequently call Jews their “older brothers in faith” and profess that acceptance of Christ is unnecessary.
Cardinal Sarah’s text takes a different approach, focusing primarily on the more practical and what might be called the more “timely” aspects of the celibacy issue. Many of these are probably familiar to most readers and include that celibate priests have an ability to travel to missionary areas in ways married priests cannot, that non-Catholics in remote regions are often inspired and influenced by the way in which celibate priests give their entire lives to them, and that there is considerable evidence to suggest that ordaining married men will not attract greater overall numbers of men to the priesthood.
The cardinal also contrasts contemporary efforts to ordain married men to previous cases in which the discipline of celibacy was mitigated. The first formal, and regional, mitigation of an existing formal requirement of celibacy was introduced in part because of an erroneous transcription of a fourth-century document, yet still stipulated that priests were required to temporarily abstain from sexual relations prior to celebrating Mass.
Today married Protestant ministers who convert can receive a dispensation allowing them to be ordained, a discipline intended to facilitate entry into the Church.
Attracting men to the priesthood was never at issue. Undermining a strong orientation toward clerical celibacy was never intended. In contrast to this, those who wish to weaken or even to destroy that orientation used conditions in the Amazon not just as a transparent but as an all but professed stalking horse, with which to further an agenda to which they were brazenly committed.

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