One of the most poignant moments in the new Netflix film The Two Popes is a moment of supreme exasperation. The individuals at the center of the film—soon-to-be-retired Pope Benedict XVI and soon-to-be-Pope Jorge Bergolio (now Francis)—have spent the past few minutes disagreeing on every issue facing the Catholic church: homosexuality, divorce, celibacy, the environment and the sexual misconduct of priests. At last, Cardinal Bergolio says, mournfully, “It seems to me that we are no longer a part of this world. We do not belong to it. We are not connected.” Pope Benedict XVI considers this, and then, quoting Anglican priest William Inge, replies, “A church that marries the spirit of this age—” Bergolio interrupts him with the rest of the quotation: “—will be widowed in the next.”
To me, this scene perfectly encapsulates the debate raging around the issue of celibacy in the Catholic Church. To those outside of it, the practice seems archaic and baffling. Why shouldn’t priests be allowed to marry? What good is it doing? Is it actually doing harm? Even to some within Catholicism, it seems like a superfluous practice, especially when stacked against problems with far more impact. And yet, there are those within the Church who believe that this issue cannot and should not be compromised on. To change the practice of celibacy would alter centuries of tradition and the work of generations of God-fearing servants.
Should we change simply because the world says we should?
Pope Benedict XVI believes the Church should not, and he is making his view abundantly clear through a series of arguments in the French newspaper Le Figaro and in a newly published book. In 2013, after becoming the only pope since 1415 to retire, Pope Benedict promised that he would stay “hidden from the world.” However, he has broken his silence to argue for the “great significance” of celibacy and calling it a “truly essential” standard for priesthood. In the book, co-authored with Cardinal Robert Sarah, Pope Benedict states definitively that “the call to follow Jesus is not possible without this sign of freedom and of renunciation of all commitments.”
The sudden outspokenness of the former pope is seen by many as a response to Pope Francis considering a change in the Church’s position on celibacy. Last year, stemming from a shortage of priests in the Amazon region, church leaders from South America requested that married men be allowed to be ordained. Pope Francis is apparently working on a document that tackles this issue, which has made Catholic hardliners nervous. In the past, Pope Francis has expressed a willingness to reconsider the practice of celibacy. In 2014, in a conversation with journalists, Pope Francis admitted that, while he did consider celibacy “a rule of life that I greatly appreciate,” he did not view the practice as “a dogma of faith,” so “the door is always open.”
The Catholic Church, like any political institution, has always been at war with itself, the traditionalists and the reformers duking it out behind closed doors. What is unique about this situation, though, is that each camp has a champion out in the open, and both have sat on the Chair of St. Peter. For some, the real issue at hand is that there are two living popes, commenting on and providing conflicting guidance for Catholics around the world.
In an op-ed for the Telegraph, Catherine Pepinster suggests that Pope Benedict’s sudden reemergence and “intervention really matters because it is harmful to the unity of the church.” How is anything to be accomplished if “someone who was once key to an institution [leaves] their position and rather than keep quiet, [murmurs] from the sidelines?”
Of course, the truth is, this current moment is just a manifestation of a conflict that has been surging through the Catholic Church for years now. Many believe the Church is long overdue for a reckoning, specifically in the area of the priesthood. In a recent article for the Atlantic, James Carroll a former priest, practicing Catholic and reporter who has been covering the Catholic sex scandal for decades, calls for the abolishment of the priesthood. “Clericalism,” he writes, “with its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife, is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction.” Too many popes have looked the other way, Carroll writes. Things must change dramatically. Put the power in the hands of the people.
The presence of two popes is creating a rift, certainly. But maybe that’s exactly what the Church needs. Throughout history, in times of great theological and cultural tumult, Christianity has reconstituted itself. Perhaps the Church is in the midst of another great reconstitution. I personally hope so.
In the scene from The Two Popes, both popes are right, in their own way. Christianity so often seems to exist far away from the lived experiences of human beings in the present day. And yet, we can’t just dismiss the tradition that has guided us to where we are. But we need to land somewhere. And who knows? Maybe it will take two popes to help us settle on where that place should be.