A Sicilian archbishop has reminded Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah that Francis is the pope and as such he makes the decisions on the Church’s discipline of priestly celibacy.

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“Priestly celibacy is not a theological dogma; it is a tradition with pastoral and spiritual utility. A discussion has been opened at the Synod on the Amazon; Pope Francis has the last word, which we must all stick to”, Archbishop Michele Pennisi of the diocese of Monreale told Turin daily La Stampa January 13.

Pennisi was responding to the storm created by Benedict and Cardinal Sarah when excerpts from their new book, From the Depths of Our Hearts, were excerpted Sunday in French newspaper Le Figaro.

In those extracts, the Pope Emeritus and the present Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments argue passionately that, in Benedict’s words, “it doesn’t seem possible to realise both vocations (priesthood and marriage) simultaneously”.

In Sarah’s words, ordaining married men would be “a pastoral catastrophe, an ecclesiological confusion and an obscuring of the understanding of the priesthood”.

Benedict and Sarah said they could not “keep quiet” after the “strange” Amazon Synod last October which voted overwhelmingly to call on Francis to ordain married men priests.

The Pope Emeritus and cardinal said the Synod Fathers were buoyed by “the bad advocacies, the diabolical lies, the erroneous ways by which they wished to devalue priestly celibacy” in the media reporting of the bishops’ summit.

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But responding to Benedict and Sarah, Pennisi recalled the Emeritus Pope’s 2009 apostolic constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, which created new ordinariates for former Anglicans who converted to Catholicism and by which “married Anglican pastors who returned to the Catholic Church… maintained their condition” as ordained men.

That said, “Benedict XVI legitimately expressed his conviction” on the necessity of compulsory priestly celibacy, Pennisi said, adding now “it is up to Francis to keep in mind the universality of the Church and make a decision” on the married priests debate, which in fact predates the Amazon Synod and goes back to at least the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

“The Synod has re-proposed the question and we must wait”, the Sicilian archbishop siad.

“Convictions can be expressed, but then the Pope’s decision applies.

“A scenario in which the reigning Pontiff is corrected or hindered by contrary positions is unrealistic. It is the Pope who makes the synthesis and gives the indication for the good of the Church.

“We will have to see what conditions will be dealt with. It could be a decision that does not concern all the clergy but only certain situations or the possibility of ordaining married men”, Pennisi explained.

Why it matters

Pennisi took pains to point out that his experience of married priests has only been positive.

“Within the territory of my archdiocese, there is the Byzantine rite Catholic enclave of Piana degli Albanesi where married and unmarried priests live together. And it certainly cannot be said that dedication to God and to the Church is inferior in married clergy”, the prelate argued.

Pennisi went on to insist that “priestly celibacy is not a theological dogma” but instead a mere “tradition with pastoral and spiritual utility”.

It is “convenience” that continues to justify the ‘no’ of Church authorities to making the practice optional: “a utility from a spiritual and ecclesial point of view, in the sense that it is traditionally believed that celibacy enables us to give ourselves in an integral way to our mission”.

“But it does not mean that this does not happen also for the married clergy”, Pennisi observed.

The Sicilian archbishop did protest, however, that there’s one argument for married priests that for him doesn’t hold much weight: that of boosting vocations.

That’s because “the lack of priests does not necessarily require ordination. It can be remedied by extending the ministries”, Pennisi explained.

For the record

In the meantime, the fallout from the new pro-celibacy Benedict/Sarah book continued as the Vatican was forced into damage control.

Vatican editorial director Andrea Tornielli said in an explanation published on the official Vatican News website that Benedict and Sarah’s was “a contribution on priestly celibacy in filial obedience to the Pope”.

“Priestly celibacy is not, and has never been, a dogma. It is an ecclesiastical discipline of the Latin Church that represents a precious gift, as all the recent Pontiffs have affirmed”, including Pope Francis, Tornielli explained.

For his part, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni issued a statement saying that “the position of the Holy Father on celibacy is known”.

“In the course of his conversation with journalists on his return from Panama, Pope Francis said: ‘A phrase from Saint Paul VI comes to mind: ‘I prefer to give my life before changing the law of celibacy””, Bruni recalled.

“And he [the Pope] added: ‘Personally I think celibacy is a gift for the Church. I don’t agree to allow optional celibacy, no. Only a few possibilities would remain in the most remote locations – I think of the Pacific Islands … […] when there is pastoral need, there, the pastor must think of the faithful'”, the Vatican spokesman concluded.

Next on Novena:

“Totally disloyal”: Catholic Twitterzens roast Benedict and Cardinal Sarah for new book stifling celibacy debate

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

Austrian theologian presses bishops to find more (married and women) priests instead of closing churches

Vienna auxiliary bishop supports easing compulsory priestly celibacy

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.