At the risk of appearing an anti-pope, erst-while Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI submitted a chapter published in a recent book on the “Priesthood, Celibacy, and the Crisis of the Catholic Church.” Along with African Cardinal Robert Sarah, the retired Pope authored thoughts based on Scripture and his own personal reflections. In fact, the former Pontiff lamented that Scripture as a resource is insufficiently considered in determining the role of celibacy in the life of priest and in the life of the Church. Benedict selected three reference points from the Bible that have led to his personal conclusions on the value of an unmarried clergy throughout history.
Older clergy will recall that day when a welcoming bishop cut a few strands of their hair and accepted them into the clerical life. The verse recited, in Latin, at the time was taken from Psalm 16:5-6: “LORD you are my allotted portion and my cup; you it is who hold fast my lot. For me the measuring lines have fallen on pleasant sites; fair to me indeed is my inheritance (CCD edition).” In ancient Israel, eleven of the twelve tribes were given land in their new country. The tribe of Levi, the Jewish clergy so-to-speak, was not given land. Rather the Lord was their “allotted portion.” The Lord was their “lot” in life. The Lord, not crops and herds, was to occupy all their time. Benedict sees this total dedication of the Levites to the Lord rather than to the land as a foreshadowing of the total dedication symbolized by the celibacy of the Catholic clergy.
Again the retired Pontiff cites the tribe of Levi and their practice of refraining from marital relations during any time that they were actually ministering at Jerusalem’s Temple. While the Levites were certainly married and had families (their ministry was handed from father to son), they abstained from intimacies while at the Temple signifying their total dedication to God, the Word of God, and the rites of God. Their abstinence, although temporary, was clearly a symbol of total dedication, total commitment, and total loyalty, a harbinger of the celibacy of the Catholic priesthood.
Former Pope Benedict pondered deeply some words of Christ spoken at the Last Supper (John 17:16-19). In the midst of Jesus’ profound prayer to his Father, Jesus sets himself and his disciples apart from the world “They do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world.” Like the Levites separated from their landed brethren, the disciples too would be a group set apart. Then Jesus prays that his Father will make this separation tangible: “Consecrate them in the truth.” Pope Benedict actually prefers the reading: “Sanctify them in the truth.” The former Vicar of Christ understands these words — “Consecrate them…Sanctify them” — to be an actual ordination. To this point Jesus himself testifies, “As you sent me into the world, so I send them into the world. And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth.”
Once again, Benedict understands these words found in St. John’s Gospel to be words of total commitment. Just as the Levites were totally dedicated to God with no land to distract them, and just as the Levites abstained from marital relations while in the service of the Temple, so these New Testament disciples are likewise to be fully consecrated, fully dedicated to the Father’s truth. A practical celibacy enables the Catholic clergy fully to live out this consecration, this ordination toward the truth. The former Pope noted that when Temple priests were commissioned their clothes were entirely removed and they were bathed clean before commencing any official ritual. Again the pope understands this cleansing to be a sign of total dedication, a complete shedding of one’s former self and a chaste embrace of a new ministry.
In the mind of Pope Benedict as expressed in this latest book, effective celibacy is a living sign and visible measure of a priest’s commitment to God, to Christ and to the Gospel. For the Bavarian Pope, celibacy is not an arbitrary badge of dedication for a Catholic priest. Benedict understands celibacy to be integral to the nature of the priesthood – some historical and cultural exceptions notwithstanding.
The retired Holy Father touchingly quotes a private prayer recited by priests just before Communion: “…keep me always faithful to your commandments, and never let me be parted from you.” These tender words echo the closeness that a celibate priest enjoys with Christ and with Christ alone. For the priest, total commitment through celibacy engenders total intimacy with the person of Christ.