A German bishop has fired back at Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah for their controversial statements on mandatory priestly celibacy, recalling that the discipline is “not an unchangeable Church law”.

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“I welcome celibacy and think it makes sense to connect this way of life with the priesthood, but it is not an essential connection”, Bishop of Erfurt Ulrich Neymeyr admitted January 19 to the German news agency DPA.

The prelate recalled that there have always been married priests in the Catholic Church, such as the Protestant pastors and Anglican clergymen today who convert to Catholicism and have their holy orders recognised.

“Peter was married too”, Neymeyr observed, referring to the apostle of Jesus and by tradition, the first pope.

The bishop said that he personally would “be happy to be able to ordain married pastoral workers as priests”, especially those who already have experience juggling the demands of parish ministry, marriage and family.

In that way, Neymeyr joined the ranks of other German bishops calling for a revision of compulsory priestly celibacy.

Prelates such as Bishop Peter Kohlgraf of Mainz, for example, who has declared “celibacy is not the more perfect form of following Christ”, or Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, who has stated that “I believe that it does no harm to the Church if priests are free to choose whether they want to live marriage or want to live without marriage”.

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Neymeyr’s statements on the possibility of optional celibacy for priests not only rebut Benedict and Sarah and provide support for Pope Francis, who by all accounts is preparing – in his forthcoming apostolic exhortation on the Amazon Synod – to relax the demand for celibacy in that region and allow married permanent deacons with families to be ordained priests.

The Bishop of Erfurt’s opinion – along with those of the Bishops of Mainz and Limburg – also shows the breadth of understanding in the German Church on the importance of the celibate priesthood, which is one of the four main issues up for debate in the German Church’s “synodal path”.

The other three issues up for discussion in the two-year reform process are the exercise of power and authority in the Church, the role of women and sexual morality.

And to judge by the nearly thousand submissions the German Bishops have received from laypeople ahead of the first synodal assembly January 31-February 1 in Frankfurt, each of those issues excites just as much interest as that of the possibility of married priests in the future.

Why it matters

According to German Catholic news agency KNA, more than 940 suggestions and questions for the “synodal way” had been submitted to the Bishops by early January, though the prelates will continue to accept other comments and observations until January 23.

But although the ‘synodal path’ is a consensuated response to Church failures exposed by the clergy sex abuse crisis – and the synodal assemblies and forums will count on the contributions of both clergy and laypeople, as well as outside experts – there is still debate in the German Church over how far the ‘path’ can and should go.

“It is still unclear what decision-making scope will be granted to individual local Churches and how much regional diversity Catholic unity can take”, Bishop Franz Jung of Würzburg, for example, told attendees at a New Year’s reception in the diocesan curia.

For the record

Other German bishops, such as Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, are eagerly embracing the synodal path as a chance for the Church to turn the page on the pedophilia crisis and become “smaller and more humble”.

In a statement read out in Essen churches in early January, Overbeck said the Church must permit “differentiated, multi-layered answers and refrain from raising itself above other people in a know-all and arrogant manner”.

Overbeck also called for more checks and balances on clergy power, the revision of the heavy burden of obligatory celibacy for priests, and a response to the clamour of many who cannot understand why women are kept out of Church leadership positions.

On this last point, the Bishop of Essen had earlier said in a New Year’s sermon that gender justice is the “issue of the century”, and as such something the Church can’t shy away from.

Not that Overbeck meant, he later clarified, to raise false hopes on the issue of the ordination of women, which was seemingly closed off by a 1994 instruction of Pope John Paul II.

“But I also belong to those bishops who do not want to slam the door shut in that regard”, Overbeck told a mid-January gathering of priests and laypeople of his diocese.

Next on Novena:

Married, secularised Italian priests urge Francis “not to be intimidated” by Benedict-Sarah, push ahead with optional celibacy

Benedict’s personal secretary denies Francis pressure to scratch Emeritus’ name from celibacy book cover

Benedict and Sarah lose out on celibacy: Francis ready to approve married priests

Irish priest weighs into celibacy debate: “Married priests should be the most normal thing in the world”

Sicilian archbishop reminds Benedict, Sarah that Francis is pope: he makes the decisions on celibacy

Belgian cardinal says he “cannot exclude” that married men are called to priesthood

Key German Church figures continue to push for end to compulsory celibacy: “The old days are over”


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.