Document shows pope once supported relaxing celibacy rules


POPE BENEDICT XVI has been confronted with a powerful opponent in the campaign for the revision of church celibacy rules: himself.

In 1970, Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) and eight other leading theologians signed a memorandum proposing that, to address the shortage of priests, the Catholic Church “quite simply has a responsibility to take up certain modifications” on celibacy.

The document has only just come to light in the magazine Pipeline, which is critical of the church. Extracts were reprinted yesterday by Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitungnewspaper.

Other signatories include Walter Kasper and Karl Lehmann, now senior German cardinals, then acting in a consulting capacity to a commission for questions of faith and morals in the German Bishops’ Conference.

The memorandum states “all its authors” are of the opinion the celibacy rule requires “examination at the highest levels” in the church.

“Our considerations regard the necessity of a serious investigation and a differentiated inspection of the law of celibacy of the Latin church for Germany and the whole of the universal church,” it says.

The document’s authors recognise celibacy as being at the core of the priesthood, but warn that if the church did not investigate the celibacy issue it would “create the impression that it did not believe in the strength of the Gospel recommendation of a celibate life for the sake of heaven, but rather only in the power of a formal authority”.

The Catholic celibacy policy is not a matter of church dogma but church law, the authors say, and suggest this law should be changed to reflect changed times.

They add, however, that “celibacy should not become a fixed point of consideration around which all other church and pastoral considerations must turn”.

The release of the document comes amid a renewed debate in Germany about priestly celibacy. Eight senior members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union have urged the Catholic church to consider relaxing the rule, at least to allow married men into the priesthood.

“It is of urgent importance, in light of the worrying and growing shortage of priests, that Germany’s bishops take on the ordination of viri probati[established men] as their cause,” wrote the authors of an open letter. Signatories include Bundestag president Norbert Lammert, the second highest figure in the German state, and federal education minister Annette Schavan.

The letter added that adhering to the long-standing tradition could no longer be justified “in light of the dire needs of priestless congregations no longer able to hold Sunday Mass”.

The bishops’ conference responded that it did not rule out ordaining married men, but said it was an issue of “global church scope that demands the corresponding formation of opinion and decision on a global church level”.