The Vatican Celibacy Debate

When former Pope Benedict stepped down from his position, he promised to live a quiet life. Instead, he has pushed himself into the center of a new debate about priestly celibacy, sparking fierce division within the church.

By Walter Mayr, Spiegel International, Februaryu 11, 2020

It’s shortly before daybreak and all is quiet inside the Vatican’s walls. The cardinals still seem to be sleeping in their generously apportioned official apartments. Flickering votive candles illuminate an empty Campo Santo Teutonico. In the pope’s quarters, though, the lights are already on.

The first intercession for Thursday mass, read out by a priest in the Santa Maria della Pietà church near Saint Peter’s Square at 7:15 a.m., seems to evoke the scandalous clamor that has been rocking the Vatican for weeks: “Lord, we are asking you for your people, who are suffering under the divide in the church.”

It sounds like a commentary on the fierce current global debate, centered on two men and focused on the future direction of the Catholic Church. They are, in a sense, neighbors: Pope Francis, who lives in the Casa Santa Marta guest house, and his predecessor Benedict XVI, who stepped down in 2013 and lives in a monastery only a few hundred meters away on the hill.

Two successors to the Apostle Peter, both in papal vestments, are simultaneously living in the world’s smallest state in a canonically muddled constellation that has never existed before. The two men’s proximity has become the subject of fascination, and not only for the makers of the recent Netflix film, “The Two Popes.” To an extent seldom seen, Vatican experts have been trying to outdo each other with their eloquence in describing the situation.

Some newspapers are calling it the “War of the Popes” between Francis and Benedict. The German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung argued that the “genie that could ultimately split the church” is now out of the bottle and that the church, with its 1.3 billion followers around the world, is flirting with self-destruction.

The Commotion over Celibacy

To better understand the current commotion, it’s helpful to take a look back in time. The storm broke almost four weeks ago, when the French publishing house Fayard released a book called “From the Depths of Our Hearts.” Featured on the cover are two men: Ex-Pope Benedict and Cardinal Robert Sarah, the arch-conservative Guinean head of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship. In the book, both men argue in favor of the priestly vow of celibacy — the pledge to forego marriage.

Just as the book was published, the Catholic world was awaiting an important announcement from the current pope, an apostolic exhortation. Francis is likely to decide on Feb. 12 whether “proven” men who are married can be chosen to become priests in some remote places like the Amazon region, for example, where the Catholic Church has a severe shortage of priests.

Just as the book was published, the Catholic world was awaiting an important announcement from the current pope, an apostolic exhortation. Francis is likely to decide on Feb. 12 whether “proven” men who are married can be chosen to become priests in some remote places like the Amazon region, for example, where the Catholic Church has a severe shortage of priests.

It would be a small move toward renewal for the church, some argue – a pragmatic step in difficult times. Others claim it would be a disaster, a preliminary step toward the abolition of celibacy, which has been a binding rule for almost a millennium.

Some critics view Benedict’s – apparently carefully timed – contribution to this central issue as an unwelcome intervention. Not least because of a passage in which the book argues that the “bad advocacies, the diabolical lies, the erroneous ways by which they wish to devalue priestly celibacy” need to be resisted.

Almost as soon as the French daily Le Figaro reported advanced details of the book – even though few at that point had actually read it, much less understood it – all hell broke loose in the trench warfare between reformers in the Catholic Church and conservative traditionalists seeking to preserve the status quo.

At the center of the heated dispute is the accusation that Benedict, the nearly 93-year-old, conservative “papa emeritus,” had launched a frontal attack on Francis. Benedict’s later claim that he had had no idea about any joint authorship with Sarah, and that he had not been involved with three of the book’s four chapters, only served to make matters worse, raising as it did questions over whether the former pope has lost control over where his name appears. It has triggered mutterings among church observers of lies, intrigues and insidious motives inside the Vatican.

The Intermediary

Archbishop Georg Gänswein suggests a meeting outside of the Vatican walls, on Italian territory. He arrives punctually and doesn’t seem overly fatigued by the storm that has struck in recent days.

Gänswein is a central figure in this story. Until he was placed on temporary leave by Pope Francis on Feb. 5, Gänswein had been the man between the popes, the intermediary between the former and the current: As the prefect of the papal household, Gänswein had direct access to Francis, but he has also been Joseph Ratzinger’s principal private secretary since 2004.

Gänswein would transition between the two worlds several times a day, celebrating early mass with the frail Benedict in the chapel inside the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery every morning before moving over to the Second Loggia in the Apostolic Palace after breakfast, to the current pope. The process would then repeat itself in the afternoon.

“Should I explain what really happened?” Gänswein asks. “The truth is that Benedict had already begun writing the text about the priesthood that was printed in the book in July.” Cardinal Sarah’s book project only came up in early September, the archbishop says, and Benedict’s chapter had been given to Sarah while the synodal consultations about the possible exceptions to the celibacy rule were taking place. At that point, he says, a book project had not been discussed.

“The cover on which Benedict and Sarah are presented and shown together as authors was never seen by the pope emeritus, and there was never talk of a co-authorship,” Gänswein says. He argues that the impression that the introduction written by Sarah and the final chapter had been written by both men was misleading. “The pope, by which I mean Benedict,” Gänswein says, correcting himself, had read the sections in advance of publication, and thought they were good, but only as manuscripts by Sarah. He adds that Benedict “was never sent galleys.”

Gänswein claims he only learned about the whole project once it was too late. “I didn’t sense any danger,” he says. “Previously, when Benedict wanted to publish something, he always got the pope’s approval, which is to say, Francis. In this case, that did not happen.”

Is it conceivable that this was a scheme carried out by the arch-conservatives exploiting Robert Sarah in order to get the elderly Benedict to take a stand against Francis and his reform attempts? Cardinal Sarah declined to comment when contacted by DER SPIEGEL. On Twitter, he wrote of the “absurd polemics, vulgar lies and horrible humiliations that have followed one after the other against Benedict XVI and myself.” He later tweeted that he met with Benedict on Jan. 17 in the Mater Ecclesiae Monastery and “we have seen how there is no misunderstanding between us.”

Gänswein, for his part, did not wish to comment on the subject.

Setting Off the Scandal

Nicolas Diat is the man who helped set off the scandal. The 44-year-old lives in Paris near the banks of the Seine. A profile of Diat in the French edition of the online magazine Slate describes him as “the most secretive editor in Paris,” a man who allegedly belonged to the circles associated with former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and a favorite of far-right Catholics.

Both a writer and a publisher, Diat is well-connected. He published Sarah’s first three books, and tirelessly touts him as the man who will become the first black pope in history. This has helped the Guinean cardinal to become significantly more famous – especially among Catholics who view Pope Francis as a threat to true Catholicism.

Cardinal Robert Sarah

With the support of the Paris-based publishing house Fayard, whose political spectrum ranges from the far left to the far right, Diat quickly developed the idea of publishing a book about celibacy in advance of the Amazon synod. And what could be more obvious than including ex-Pope Benedict? It was clear that the reformers in the church, including Pope Francis, were ready to pursue a different path on celibacy. Did Diat want to provoke a confrontation? Fayard won’t address that issue, nor will it comment on the question of whether Benedict was left in the dark about the presentation of the book.

Gänswein, meanwhile, is sticking to his depiction of events, arguing that the former pope didn’t find out in writing at least until mid-November that Diat and Sarah wanted to include his highly theological contribution in the book. Gänswein says the publisher never offered Benedict a writer’s contract. In the end, the ex-pope saw his name affixed to chapters that could be interpreted as an open affront to the leadership of the current pope.

Some suspect that the French played their cards close to their chests until Benedict could no longer back out. The German publisher Bernhard Müller, who is releasing the book in German, has to an extent confirmed this. In accordance with Benedict’s wishes, the book’s German title will be “From the Depths of the Heart,” a small, but significant, difference from the French title, “From the Depths of Our Hearts.”

Müller describes the whole affair as a “top-secret” operation. He says his publishing house had to sign a non-disclosure agreement just before Christmas without even knowing what the project would be about. Then, on Jan. 7, he was sent an encrypted email followed, six days later, by an unencrypted version of the document. He says he spent days wrestling with Fayard over the extent to which Benedict’s name and image could disappear from the cover.

Is the former pope losing control?

Gänswein says he underestimated Diat: “I was only warned about him and his shady behavior after the fact.”

But shouldn’t Gänswein have paid closer attention to the correspondence between Benedict and Sarah? As the experienced confidant, isn’t he the one who had witnessed almost all of Benedict’s previous mishaps firsthand?

Like the Regensburg address in 2006, when Benedict quoted from a medieval text that refers to Islam as follows: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman.” The rhetorical attack prompted protests in the Muslim world and even led to the temporary closure of the airspace over Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence, out of fear of a terror attack.

“It’s not out of the question that, as in Regensburg, Benedict was allowed to walk into a trap with the celibacy book,” says Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was the third-ranked leader in the Vatican until 2017.

“I have known Ratzinger for 57 years. He does not want to create a rift – that would be the end of the Catholic Church.”
Cardinal Walter Kasper

In late 2008 came the scandal over the Pius brothers and the lifting of the excommunications of three bishops, including Holocaust-denier Richard Williamson. At the time, Gänswein was bed-ridden with a fever, and the catastrophe unfurled unimpeded – in part because of the failures of the supervisory authorities in the Curia, the Vatican’s governing apparatus.

A further blow came in the form of Vatileaks, the scandal stemming from secret documents about secret papal activities that were smuggled out of the private papal chambers by Paolo Gabriele, the pope’s personal butler. Gabriele was, alongside Gänswein, one of the pope’s closest confidants. The butler managed to remove a total of 82 boxes of documents right under everyone’s noses. The documents – including information about an alleged gay lobby within the Curia – was then leaked in tranches to a shocked public, resulting in significant damage to Benedict’s pontificate.

And the mistakes after his resignation from the papacy? His controversial essay about the theological legitimacy of the state of Israel? Or his contribution in April 2019 to Klerusblatt, the monthly magazine of a German clerical association, in which he argued that the sexual revolution after 1968 was to blame for sexual abuse within the church – only shortly after Francis had identified abuse of power by clerics as the source.

It also seems as though Benedict’s missteps are in some way systemic, as if the retired pope lacked the appropriate staff to hold him back from his constant interference.

An Unwillingness To Part

In his resignation in 2013, Benedict announced that he immediately wanted to live “hidden from the world.” But then, Gänswein says, the theologian’s urge to communicate his views bubbled up. The former pope, he argues, “believes in ‘Quod non est in actis, non est in mundo’.” Something along the lines of: What cannot be read cannot be real.

“A man like Ratzinger needs to publish, he is like a racehorse – even when it is no longer racing at tournaments, it still needs exercise,” says Cardinal Müller. And an essay here or there would probably be of no consequence if Ratzinger had chosen a role that a German TV host had recently described, in a Freudian slip on the term emeritus – that of a “hermited” Pope.

If Ratzinger really did live like a hermit in his monastery, many things would probably be a lot simpler. But the man from the town of Marktl am Inn, in the southern German state of Bavaria, signs his mail insistently with “Papa emeritus,” and continues wearing his white cassock, his papal skullcap and giving his apostolic blessings. A cardinal critical of Ratzinger argues that the former pope’s unwillingness to part with the outward appearance of the papacy is an expression of unprecedented arrogance.

Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, who is on good terms with both the current and the former pope, says, “The situation of having an emeritus pope is not settled in ecclesiastical law. But those claiming that Benedict wants to do anything to hurt Francis don’t know him or are intentionally misunderstanding him.”

The battle over the future direction of the Catholic Church is being fought in the tightest of quarters – in this tiny nation of 0.44 square kilometers (0.17 square miles). Traditionalists and reformers, Ratzingerians and Bergoglianians are brooding next to one another around the Saint Peter’s tomb. These days, this bastion of Catholicism feels like a pressure cooker whose lid could blow at any time.

To understand how the uproar over the celibacy book is linked to much larger issues, only a few steps are necessary, from Saint Peter’s to the Piazza della Città Leonina, where two authoritative representatives of both sides of the dispute live in the same terracotta-colored brick building: Cardinal Walter Kasper, who from time to time advises Francis and lives on the second floor, and Cardinal Müller, the former chief keeper of the faith, who was sidelined by Francis.

Wearing a simple black shirt with a clerical collar, Müller welcomes his visitor in front of walls of books. He says the continuing resistance against Benedict, the willingness to escalate even small events into scandals, is related to the fact that the former pope “is the most obvious opponent of the self-secularization of the church, which is to say, of it cuddling in the warm bed of the zeitgeist.” He argues that Benedict underestimated the consequences of his resignation in 2013: “The pope is the father of Christianity. He cannot behave like an ordinary top official and simply step down.”

Müller sees a “people’s front of believers and non-believers” at work who want to see Benedict and the other traditionalists deviate from their path. The German cardinal says he would like to see the pope refrain from any further exchange of opinions with the faithless founder of the newspaper La Repubblica – while he considers Benedict to be an “infinitely more competent adviser” to the pope.

Cardinal Kasper lives two floors below, in an apartment that contains a menorah placed next to a Madonna with child. Kasper hails from Germany’s Swabia region, and grins whenever he hears criticism of Francis. “If you shake your head long enough over the soup, you will eventually find a hair in it,” he says.

“The Situation Will Arise Again”

Kasper says that matter of dual popes will have “to be addressed again after Benedict’s death because the situation will arise again.” He says it is also not right to speak of any counter-pope. “I have known Ratzinger for 57 years. He does not want to create a rift – that would be the end of the Catholic Church.”

More than ever, the German Bishops’ Conference (DBK) – which, oddly enough, also happens to be the home of the “German pope,” Ratzinger – is viewed as the leading proponent of a reform movement that has been generally well-regarded by Pope Francis. Cardinal Kasper is one of its brainchilds. The so-called “synodal way,” a project initiated by the Germans that was started in reaction to the mass sexual abuse scandal in the church, has been at work since December.

The reform movement is seeking, among other things, a stronger separation of powers within the church and greater roles for the laity and women. The fact that Francis warned against the adoption of a “retouching” process that would “adapt the church to the spirit of the times” in a text he wrote in June, seemed to get lost in the jubilation of the reform-minded Germans.

In the opposing camp, among Ratzinger’s followers, there is massive anger about those supposedly responsible for the “synodal way.” In their view, the strong-willed Cardinal Kasper, together with Cardinal Marx and DBK Secretary Hans Langendörfer have started a process that is akin to taking an axe to the roots of a tree, a kind of revolt against Rome and the teachings of the global church. Kasper denies being involved in the process.

How has Pope Francis reacted amid all this tumult? At first glance, it doesn’t seem to have affected him. Tall, strong, determined, he pushed his way through the crowd of worshippers on a recent Wednesday on his way to his general audience, physically the exact opposite of his predecessor. Bergoglio is a confident gaucho with a soft smile.

These days, this bastion of Catholicism feels like a pressure cooker whose lid could blow at any time.


He isn’t commenting on the scandal sparked by the celibacy book. He makes his decisions carefully like the provincial Jesuit he once was – and it is he who is paving the path for the church’s future course. Two weeks ago Sunday, he summoned two representatives of the church who have been advocates for the poor to Rome: a Uruguayan street preacher who will become his new private secretary, and a Spanish Jesuit leader who will become the new head of Vatican finances.

The current pope has appointed over half of the 124 current cardinal electors, who will vote on his successor at the next conclave. Celibacy dispute or not, he is already busy organizing his legacy.

Francis knows that he has time on his side.

This article first appeared HERE.