Pope, in Letter, Takes on Celibacy Debate

By Stacy Meichtry
Wall Street Journal
October 18, 2010

Pope, in Letter, Takes On Celibacy Debate

Pope Benedict XVI said on Monday that the Vatican's recent sexual-abuse crisis might prompt aspiring priests to question the Catholic Church's requirement that clergy be celibate, as he publicly waded for the first time into a debate over whether priestly celibacy is partly to blame for the abuse.

In a letter to seminarians world-wide, the pontiff defended the church's celibacy prerequisite as a way for priests to attain "an authentic, pure and mature humanity."

Yet as he addressed the sexual-abuse scandal that has shaken the church over the past year, the pontiff said abusive priests had "disfigured their ministry by sexually abusing children."

"As a result of all this," he continued, "many people, perhaps even some of you, might ask whether it is good to become a priest—whether the choice of celibacy makes any sense as a truly human way of life."

The comments marked the first time Pope Benedict has directly spoken about the church's celibacy policy in the context of the sexual-abuse scandals. As thousands of allegations of children sexually abused by priests have been documented in Ireland over the past year—and other cases reported in Belgium and Germany—Catholic officials in Europe have questioned whether priestly celibacy is partly to blame for the abuse. Some say the two are linked because the celibacy requirement limits the pool of candidates for the priesthood by excluding married men.

Sandro Magister, a longtime Vatican watcher who writes for Italy's L'Espresso magazine, said he couldn't remember Pope Benedict ever mentioning sexual abuse and celibacy in the same breath. With the move, the pope appeared willing to engage in a discussion that previous popes have considered off-limits, he said.

"It's the first time I've seen [the issues] placed together" by the pope, Mr. Magister said, adding that he believes Pope Benedict ultimately aims to "reinforce" the church's celibacy rule by engaging in debate, not to question it.

Since the sexual-abuse crisis exploded in the U.S. a decade ago and resurfaced in Europe this year, the pope has toughened Vatican rules on disciplining abusive priests, met with victims, and accepted the resignation of bishops who covered up abuse. The Vatican, however, has steered clear of any suggestion that the celibacy rule was up for discussion, treating abuse as a separate issue.

In March, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna called on the church to seriously examine potential causes of sexual abuse, including how the church trains new priests. "That includes the issue of celibacy," he wrote in a newsletter. Cardinal Schonborn, a former student of the pope, later clarified that he wasn't placing a question mark over the celibacy requirement.

The debate was rekindled in September when two bishops in Belgium, which has recently been rocked by hundreds of allegations of clerical sexual abuse, questioned whether married men should be excluded from the priesthood.

Pope Benedict has repeatedly described the celibacy requirement as a "gift" from God.

Write to Stacy Meichtry at


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