Ex-Pope Benedict Speaking Out Against Pope Francis Relaxing Celibacy Rules 'A Serious Breach,' Says Historian

Retired Pope Benedict XVI has been accused of interfering in the office of the current pope by warning against any move to allow married men to serve as priests.

When Benedict, born Joseph Ratzinger, became the first pope in more than 700 years to stand down as head of the Catholic Church in 2013, he vowed that he would remain "hidden from the world."

But in a new book which he co-wrote with Cardinal Robert Sarah, he has broken his silence and brandished his conservative credentials, taking a swipe at relaxing the rules on celibacy for priests.

Pope emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis
Pope emeritus Benedict XVI (L) speaks with Pope Francis during a papal mass for elderly people at St Peter's square on September 28, 2014 at the Vatican. The retired Pope has issued a defence of celibacy for priests in what has been described as an unusual intervention in clerical matters. TIZIANA FABI/Getty Images

This suggestion was mooted in October during a meeting known as a synod among bishops about the future of the Church in remote parts of the Amazon basin, where a shortage of priests meant some members of the faithful can go for years without access to the sacraments.

Celibacy has been a practice in the Church for around 800 years. However the current pontiff Pope Francis has referred to this being a tradition not doctrine, raising the possibility that the Church could consider a way to allow married priests in certain circumstances, the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) noted.

In the book From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy and the Crisis of the Catholic Church, Ratzinger said that in a marriage, a man had to give himself to his family, which was not compatible with the priesthood.

"Since serving the Lord likewise requires the total gift of a man, it does not seem possible to carry on the two vocations simultaneously.

"Thus, the ability to renounce marriage so as to place oneself totally at the Lord's disposition became a criterion for priestly ministry," he wrote, according to an excerpt published by the Associated Press.

"It is urgent and necessary for everyone—bishops, priests and lay people—to stop letting themselves be intimidated by the wrong-headed pleas, the theatrical productions, the diabolical lies and the fashionable errors that try to put down priestly celibacy. For priests, this is the foundation of the necessity of celibacy but also of liturgical prayer, meditation on the Word of God and the renunciation of material goods."

Catholic commentators have expressed surprise at the former pope's comments.

Vatican correspondent for the NCR, Joshua McElwee, noted it was significant that Ratzinger had written the book under his papal name Benedict XVI.

"It appears to signify something as yet unexperienced in the two millennia history of the Catholic Church: a retired pope openly weighing in on something currently under consideration by his successor, the reigning pontiff," he wrote.

Theologian Massimo Faggioli tweeted to his 14,000 followers: "Benedict XVI is really not breaking his silence because he (and his entourage) never felt bound to that promise. But this is a serious breach."

Faggioli separately told NCR that the move by the pope "interferes with a synodal process that is still unfolding after the Amazon synod ... and threatens to limit the freedom of the one pope."

Catholic commentator and writer Peter Williams told Newsweek that nothing the former pope has said is contrary to Pope Francis's own stated position that "optional celibacy" for priests is off the table.

He also said that Ratzinger is not excluding exceptions to the rule ,which have long existed, such as married Catholic men in the "eastern rites" such as Byzantine Rite Ukrainians, becoming priests.

As Pope Benedict, he also allowed Anglicans to become priests in the 'Anglican Ordinariates', despite being married, so that they could continue their previous Anglican clerical ministry, Williams added.

"Emeritus Pope Benedict's reaffirmation of the rule, does not exclude potential exceptions to it, with which he would be entirely familiar.

"He's aiming his fire at those who want to use the discussion over exceptions for pastoral necessity to challenge the rule of priestly celibacy per se, and as such this doesn't necessarily or really affect what Pope Francis is considering for parts of South America," Williams said.

The relationship between the two living pontiffs was explored and partly fictionalized in the Netflix film The Two Popes. However an editorial in the Catholic publication Crux Now disputed that the former pontiff was trying to force the hand of the incumbent.

"Francis—and most of the synod fathers—have been clear that celibacy as a rule is not being questioned; but rather, they are looking at possible exceptions to the rule for pastoral necessity," it said.

Newsweek has contacted the Vatican press office for comment.

This story has been updated to include comment from Catholic commentator Peter Williams.

Ex-Pope Benedict Speaking Out Against Pope Francis Relaxing Celibacy Rules 'A Serious Breach,' Says Historian | World