“The Catholic Priesthood”: Benedict XVI on priestly celibacy

An exclusive excerpt from the forthcoming book From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy, and the Crisis of the Catholic Church

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he leaves his final general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Feb. 27, 2013. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the chapter “The Catholic Priesthood,” by Benedict XVI, as it appears in the book From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy, and the Crisis of the Catholic Church, co-authored by Robert Cardinal Sarah and forthcoming in English from Ignatius Press (which also publishes Catholic World Report). It has been translated by Michael J. Miller.

Given the lasting crisis that the priesthood has been going through for many years, it seemed to me necessary to get to the deep roots of the problem. I had started a work of theological reflection, but age and a kind of weariness led me to abandon it. My exchanges with Robert Cardinal Sarah gave me the strength to resume it and to bring it to completion.

…For the moment, let us examine several stages in the concrete development of the history of the Church.

We can observe a first step in the institution of a new ministry. The Acts of the Apostles mention the excess workload of the apostles, who, in addition to their task of preaching and of leading the Church’s prayer, had to take upon themselves at the same time full responsibility for the care of the poor. One result of this was that the Hellenistic part of the nascent Church felt neglected. The apostles then decided to devote themselves entirely to prayer and the service of the Word. For charitable works, they created the ministry of the Seven, which was later identified with the diaconate. Moreover, the example of Saint Stephen shows that this ministry, too, required not only purely practical work of a charitable nature, but also the Spirit and faith and, therefore, the ability to serve the Word.

One problem, which has remained crucial to this day, emerged from the fact that the new ministries were based, not on familial descent, but on divine election and vocation. Formerly, the continuity of the priestly hierarchy of Israel was assured by God himself, since, in the final analysis, he was the one who gave children to parents. The new ministries, on the other hand, were based, not on membership in a family, but on a vocation given by God. Furthermore, this call must be recognized and accepted by the man to whom it is addressed. This is why, in the New Testament community, the problem of vocations arises from the very beginning: “Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Mt 9:38). In every generation, the Church is moved by the hope and concern of finding those who are called. We know how great a labor and a worry this question still is for the Church.

There is another question that is directly connected with this problem. Very quickly—we do not know exactly when, but in any case very rapidly—the regular and even daily celebration of the Eucharist became essential for the Church. The “supersubstantial” bread is at the same time the “daily” bread of the Church. This had an important consequence, which is precisely what haunts the Church today.[i]

In the common awareness of Israel, priests were strictly obliged to observe sexual abstinence during the times when they led worship and were therefore in contact with the divine mystery. The relation between sexual abstinence and divine worship was absolutely clear in the common awareness of Israel. By way of example, I wish to recall the episode about David, who, while fleeing Saul, asked the priest Ahimelech to give him some bread: “The priest answered David, ‘I have no common bread at hand, but there is holy bread; if only the young men have kept themselves from women.’ And David answered the priest, ‘Of a truth women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition’ ” (1 Sam 21:4–5). Since the priests of the Old Testament had to dedicate themselves to worship only during set times, marriage and the priesthood were compatible.

But because of the regular and often even daily celebration of the Eucharist, the situation of the priests of the Church of Jesus Christ has changed radically. From now on, their entire life is in contact with the divine mystery. This requires on their part exclusivity with regard to God.  Consequently, this excludes other ties that, like marriage, involve one’s whole life. From the daily celebration of the Eucharist, which implies a permanent state of service to God, was born spontaneously the impossibility of a matrimonial bond. We can say that the sexual abstinence that was functional was transformed automatically into an ontological abstinence. Thus, its motivation and its significance were changed from within and profoundly.

Nowadays some scholars too readily make the facile statement that all this was just the result of a contempt for corporeality and sexuality. The critique claiming that priestly celibacy was founded on a Manichaean concept of the world was formulated as early as the fourth century. This critique was immediately rejected, however, in a decisive way by the Fathers of the Church, who put an end to it for a certain time.

Such a judgment [of consecrated celibacy] is wrong. To prove this, it is enough to recall that the Church has always considered marriage as a gift granted by God ever since the earthly paradise. However, the married state involves a man in his totality, and 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.

As for the concrete form of celibacy in the early Church, it is advisable also to emphasize that married men could not receive the sacrament of Holy Orders unless they had pledged to observe sexual abstinence, therefore, to live in a so-called “Josephite” marriage, like the marriage of Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary. Such a situation seems to have been altogether normal over the course of the first centuries. There were a sufficient number of men and women who considered it reasonable and possible to live in this way while together dedicating themselves to the Lord.[ii]



[i] On the topic of the meaning of the word epioúsios (supersubstantialis), see Eckhard Nordhofen, “What Bread Is This? What Bread This Is!”, International Catholic Review Communio 44/1 (2017): 43–71; Gerd Neuhaus, “Möglichkeit und Grenzen einer Gottespräsenz im menschlichen ‘Fleisch’: Anmerkungen zu Eckhard Nordhofens Relektüre der vierten Vaterunser-Bitte” [Possibility and limits of a divine presence in human ‘flesh’; Remarks on Eckhard Nordhofen’s rereading of the fourth petition of the Our Father], Internazionale katholische Zeitschrift Communio 46/1 (2017): 23–32.

[ii] The reader can find extensive information on the history of celibacy in the first centuries in Stefan Heid, Celibacy in the Early Church: The Beginnings of a Discipline of Obligatory Continence for Clerics in East and West, trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000; original German edition 1997).

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About Benedict XVI 1 Article
Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) was pope from 2005-2013. A world-renowned theologian, biblical scholar, and theological expert at Vatican II, he is the author of numerous works, including a trilogy on Jesus of Nazareth, Introduction to Christianity, and The Spirit of the Liturgy. He resides in Vatican City.


  1. It is a real marriage. “From now on, their entire life is in contact with the divine mystery. This requires on their part exclusivity with regard to God. This excludes other ties, like marriage” (Benedict XVI). As Christ is the Spouse of his bride the Church, a priest assumes the identity of Christ at the Last Supper in consecration of the Holy Eucharist. As Alter Christus he offers himself, laying down his life emulating the Divine Majesty. That in itself is a call to mystical union. The priest assumes the role of offering to the Father Christ’s sacrifice himself as participant and real victim. Benedict identifies the theological substrata Cardinal Sarah the emotive. As when Sarah refers to the emotive response of villagers inspired by the Holy Spirit in Guinea to the celibate priest. It is the Spirit of Christ, Love itself that draws to conversion. As distinct from the repugnant caricature “Trophysism’. This is what many priests have largely lost and what Amazonia engineered policy attempts to suffocate. And reason why Cardinal Sarah senses urgency at this moment compelled to write this book and why Benedict contributed. From the Depths of Our Hearts is inspired. A summoning to all priests from the Sacred Heart.

    • Father Morello, thank you so much for this most truthful, most powerful and most beautiful comment! Together with Benedict XVI’s amazing insight, you both knocked it out of the park! Priestly Celibacy is the most powerful beacon of Authentic True Humanity through Jesus’ True Humanity and True Divinity ever on Earth. Not only is Priestly Celibacy not a degrading or devaluing of human sexuality lived in holiness but it is its greatest exaltation and celebration EVER. Holy human sexuality is a dying to self in selfless love, total giving and service to the beloved and so is the Catholic Priesthood in the highest, most powerful and most excellent of ways.

      This dying to self is so true that, even on a pure secular and superficial level, the French call orgasm the “petit mort”, the small death. The selfless death in God-honoring sex is the door to a much higher love and a much higher life. Godless, selfish, self-absorbed sex is utterly dehumanizing, ripping as it were, the soul from the body. It de-corporealizes us and makes us empty shells. Having worked with prison inmates and having met other characters outside of prison that are fixated on lowly lifestyles, I have noticed how the sexually obsessed look like burned up carcasses and even in their most passionate defense of their sexual perversions, their eyes look creepy and totally empty.

      In this context, it is then most striking and spiritually revealing that most common words and phrases related to sex are borrowed from words about food and the Bible’s most frequent theme is… FOOD!! How did Jesus stay with us? As FOOD!! “…now that you have TASTED how sweet is the Lord”, (1 Peter 2:3).

      It is the food of eternity that we are really craving and searching for through sex, and desperately trying to squeeze eternity out of compulsive animal-level sex is the biggest, most pathetic, most insane act of absurd futility ever in all of history. And it happens every day. Priestly Celibacy is the door out of that prison into true eternity, lived here and now in the human body and through the human body into God Himself. Transfigured by Jesus at our resurrection at His Return, our bodies will no longer be limited to or needing mere physical sexual intercourse because every single one of our trillions of transfigured cells will enjoy infinite, total, absolute pleasure in the Beatific Vision of God: “They shall be abundantly satisfied with the abundance of your house. You will make them drink of the river of your pleasures”, (Psalm 36:8). In eternity, we will ALL be priests (Revelation 1:6), men and women, in the House of the Infinite Pleasure of the Infinite Goodness of the Lord!!

  2. These words of the Pope Emer. sound like he is calling the whole Body of The Church too, to more purity , even penance in the area , thus desiring to make up for what he might be perceiving as not enough direct emphasis on this topic in the past .

    The chosen date to announce his resignation also thus makes more sense – Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes – The Immaculate Conception with its connections to healing for the evils of our times too , from the floodwaters in the related areas .
    He very likely thus having intended to give added support to Pope Francis , in this same area ,knowing that such is what would help in many other related areas as well without loads of divisive arguments , without unduly alienating those for whom such an emphasis might have sounded more hurtful , if it came directly from the Holy Father himself .
    The message no less meant for the laity as well – again , the truth of the power of the scent of a butterfly , reaching out as far away as seven miles , our Lord’s words that caution on the power of a look / thought – for good or bad ..
    hope the book would help many to look deep within too, to see what could have been the contributions of each in all these related areas , to help with the intent to make reparations , such as through fasting after midnight for the Holy Mass and ofcourse , fidelity to what The Church advocates for marriages so that it would be the odor of sanctity that pervades the domestic churches as well .

  3. To deny The Unity Of The Holy Ghost (Filioque), Is to deny The Divinity Of The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, and thus deny The Sacramental Nature Of Perfect Complementary Love.
    Love is always rightly ordered to the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the persons existing in a relationship of Love, which is why a man is not Called to Love his wife, in the same manner as he is Called to Love his mother, or his father, or his daughter, or his son, or his friend.
    “The final battle between the Lord and the kingdom of Satan will be about Marriage and the Family. Don’t be afraid because whoever works for the sanctity of Marriage and the Family will always be fought against and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue. Nevertheless, Our Lady has already crushed his head.”
    This s the decisive battle issue because “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost. It Is “Through, With, And In Christ, In The Unity Of The Holy Ghost”, that Holy Mother Church exists.
    Our Lady has already “crushed his head”, through her Fiat, which affirmed The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, and thus the fact that There Is Only One Son Of God, One Word Of God Made Flesh, One Lamb Of God Who Can Taketh Away The Sins Of The World, Our Only Savior, Jesus The Christ, thus there can only be, One Spirit Of Perfect Complementary Love Between The Father And The Son, Who Must Proceed From Both The Father And The Son, In The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity. Although at the end of the Day, it is still a Great Mystery, It is no Mystery, that we exist, because God, The Communion Of Perfect Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Exists. It has always been about The Marriage In Heaven and On Earth. “Blessed are those that are Called to The Marriage Supper Of The Lamb.”

  4. I can (and do) accept that the model of a marriage-excluding, celibate, monastic priesthood is a valid model. But it is not the only one. There is also, separately, the model of a married, chaste (within marriage) but non-celibate one. These are not in contradiction with one another: the Orthodox Church, and in most cases the Byzantine or other eastern rite branches of the Roman Catholic Church, successfully operate both kinds of priesthood. Not only, but Rome has now quite frequently accepted the priestly re-ordination of ex-Anglican married priest converts to Catholicism, and further these married now Catholic priests are on the whole very popular. Further, Benedict XVI, when he was still pope, authorised a particular variant of this in England, viz. the Ordinariate of Walsingham. For all these reasons, I cannot accept his present (Jan. 2020) views on the alleged “ontological necessity” of mandatory celibacy for all Christian priests. If Benedict XVI really knows his theology, he will know that what I have written here is true.

    • Richard Matthews, you should read the book. The Holy Father Benedict XVI commented brilliantly on what you also wrote in your comment. And yes, Benedict XVI surely knows what he wrote about. I have read the book and there is no contradiction in what he and cardinal Sarah wrote. A celibate clergy is not just chaste, but also continent for life.. A Catholic priest, most often offers the Sacrifice of the Mass daily, which is not the case with priests of other rites , such as the Byzantine .Read theTania book, you will, I assure you, be happy to do so.

      • PS. When I typed my name somewho it also appeared in the comment window.The phrase must be read as “Read the book. You will, I assure you, be happy to do so”.

    • the priestly re-ordination(sic) of ex-Anglican married priest converts to Catholicism

      Since Anglican orders are invalid, those men were never ordained to begin with. Thus they must be ordained for the very first time not re-ordained. You also fail to note that the relatively few number of married Anglican converts who have been ordained under the 1980 Pastoral Provision agree, prior to ordination, that if their spouse precedes them in death they will adopt the discipline of celibacy for the remainder of their life.

  5. This Feast Day of St.Sebastian ( and of Pope St.Fabian ) the Roman martyr saint , esp. connected with protection from plagues , surviving the arrows shot against him .
    The article below , the account of an exorcist priest , on the intercession of St.Thomas Beckett , also related , to illustrate the relevance of the power given to saints , for them to continue to have a role in the lives of God’ s children ,as ordained by The Father and with no envy or possessiveness – which is a hallmark of the petty envious ‘gods’ of pagan faiths .

    St.Sebastian , serving in Rome , afflicted by the sexual impurities that plague our times too , thus to help serve against the poisonous lies and arrows aimed at the truth of God given dignity through His graces .
    The Pope Emer. likely had decided that more can be done in that realm , since conflicts in this very area have contributed to the ongoing divisions in The Churches and the laxity among the laity too , in denying the power of the Sacraments , which too is at epidemic levels .
    May the witness and help of the holy saints motivate many , to trust in the power of God , like the lightening and thunder that was at the Vatican on 2/11 /2013 , to live lives that bring honor and blessings to the generations , in the sacrifices asked of all and reiterated in the writings of the Pope Emeritus .

  6. ‘ You go go go ..’ to The Holy Spirit ! – only as the Holy Father can say it , with the goodness of the heart of a loving old Father 🙂
    and to go right along with the topic of the article as well , to include similar attitudes among laity too , esp. with the influence from nonCatholic preachers more so may be , who seem to have given much too much importance to words of St.Paul , about the financial rights of those who preach the word , thus at times seeming to be motivated by that idol alone .
    That account of David and Goliath again today , that one can never tire of , esp. when heard in the context of the liturgy , Holy Father too making reference to same , how David acknowledges God as the source of his strength , as much as , in a later time of luxury and laziness with lust of ‘effeminacy ‘, he forgets same , to fall into the whole tragic saga ..
    The Pharisees getting angry with The Lord , for healing the man with the withered hand , Lord thus doing ‘ the work of The Father ‘ , of redemption and healing on Sabbath . Their anger , possibly from having misused the law to amass wealth , thus having lost sight of the purpose of law as well as any awe and reverence for same , being thus only left with the ( effeminate ) selfish fear that breaking the Sabbath rules could make them loose even more power to the Romans , as in the old days of captivity to other nations .
    Nations too , in our times, having sort of withered hands , passing evil laws promoting the effeminacy of lust and luxury at the cost of violence to the least , in turn , under increasing grips of those who demand all sorts of laws to promote similar effeminacy , for misuse of freedom .
    May there be many who call on the Holy Spirit , to take charge , to be under His Shadow and strength , with The Mother , to thus lead lives of purity of hearts and minds , free of all false idols and their holds .

  7. Richard Matthews, you should read the book. The Holy Father Benedict XVI commented brilliantly on what you also wrote in your comment. And yes, Benedict XVI surely knows what he wrote about. I have read the book and there is no contradiction in what he and cardinal Sarah wrote. A celibate clergy is not just chaste, but also continent for life.. A Catholic priest, most often offers the Sacrifice of the Mass daily, which is not the case with priests of other rites , such as the Byzantine .Read the book, you will, I assure you, be happy to do so.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. “The Catholic Priesthood”: Benedict XVI on priestly celibacy - Catholic Daily
  2. Cardinal Sarah: The priesthood “is in mortal danger … going through a major crisis” – Catholic World Report
  3. Cardinal Sarah: The priesthood “is in mortal danger … going through a major crisis” - Catholic Daily

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