Could HBO have asked for better timing? Just as its two lead actors in their original film The Two Popes got Academy Award nominations, media reports put the two actual popes into a feud over celibacy among priests. A new book co-written by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI breaks his silence on ecclesial matters to put forth a strong argument for the millennium-old tradition at a time when is successor Pope Francis mulls over a recommendation for exceptions.

CNN reports that Benedict “undercuts” Francis on the issue:

Retired Pope Benedict has issued a passionate defense of priestly celibacy, saying he “cannot remain silent” as his successor Pope Francis considers easing the prohibition on married men serving as priests. …

When he retired in 2013, he vowed to remain “hidden from the world.” Reactions to the retired pontiff breaking that silence now are split along largely predictable political lines.

Supporters of Francis, such as British biographer Austen Ivereigh, have suggested it’s inappropriate for a former pope to comment on a decision currently being weighed by the sitting pope.

Critics of Francis, such as Italian commentator Sandro Magister, have said that given the gravity of the issue, Benedict was not only fully in line to speak out, but that he was actually obligated to do so.

After watching initial reactions yesterday, it’s safe to say that CNN is not alone in this Two Popes framing of the story. This might be a compelling narrative, too — if in fact Francis was in favor of ending priestly celibacy. It’s not even clear how much he’s actually considering the synodal advice he got last year on the subject, in which bishops recommended an exception for Amazon-region ordinations, not a change to the rule. The Vatican News took pains to point out that Francis completely ignored the subject in his closing remarks of the synod, while calling Benedict’s essay “in filial obedience to the Pope” (emphases mine):

It is also worth remembering that Pope Francis has also expressed himself several times on the subject. While yet a Cardinal, in the book conversation with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, he explained that he was in favor of maintaining celibacy: “with all the pros and cons entailed, in ten centuries there have been more positive experiences than there have been errors. Tradition has a weight and validity”. In dialogue with journalists on the flight back from Panama last January, the Pope recalled that in the Eastern Catholic Churches the option of either celibacy or marriage before the diaconate is possible; but he added, regarding the Latin Church: “I am reminded of that phrase of Saint Paul VI: ‘I would rather give my life than change the law on celibacy. It came to mind and I want to say it, because it is a courageous phrase, in a more difficult moment than this, 1968 / 1970… Personally, I think that celibacy is a gift for the Church. Second, I don’t agree with allowing optional celibacy, no.” In his reply, he also spoke about the discussion among theologians about the possibility of granting exemptions for some remote regions, such as the Pacific islands. He specified, however, “there’s no decision on my part. My decision is: optional celibacy before the diaconate, no. That’s something for me, something personal, I won’t do it, this remains clear. Am I ‘closed’? Maybe. But I don’t want to appear before God with this decision”.

The Synod on the Amazon was held in October 2019, and the topic was debated there. As can be seen from the final document, there were bishops who asked for the possibility of ordaining married permanent deacons as priests. It is striking, however, that on 26 October, in his concluding speech, the Pope, after having followed all the stages of the speeches and discussion in the hall, did not mention in any way the subject of the ordination of married men, not even in passing. Instead, he recalled the four dimensions of the Synod: that of inculturation; the ecological dimension; the social dimension; and finally the pastoral dimension, which “includes them all”. In that same speech, the Pontiff spoke about creativity in new ministries, and the role of women; and referring to the scarcity of clergy in certain mission areas, he recalled that there are many priests from a certain country who have gone to the first world, for example, the United States and Europe, and “there are not enough of them to send them out to the Amazon region of that same country”.

And at Crux, managing editor Charles Collins rebukes the Twitter-driven reactions for creating a polar rift where there is largely agreement. Not only does Francis oppose “optional celibacy” for the priesthood, Benedict has helped open up exceptions to it for pastoral needs, too:

Francis – and most of the synod fathers – have been clear that celibacy as a rule is not being questioned; but rather, they are looking at possible exceptions to the rule for pastoral necessity.

Of course, Benedict is more than familiar with this idea, since he more than any other previous pontiff has facilitated the reality of married priests in the Western Church (most of the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church allow married men to be ordained.)

Benedict’s 2009 document Anglicanorum Coetibus provided for the establishment of Ordinariates to provide pastoral care for former Anglicans who had become Catholic; including their mostly married clergy. Benedict established three ordinariates – one each in the UK, North America, and Australia – all of which have a large percentage of married priests.

When Benedict made these provisions, he was not wavering on his commitment to priestly celibacy; he was establishing an exception based on pastoral need.

Exactly. Even this synod talked about exceptions rather than rules. So why did Benedict (and Sarah) feel the need to write this tome? Collins concludes that the actual target of their ire isn’t Francis at all, with whom they are in apparent agreement. It’s the media, and perhaps a few bishops and cardinals feeding it:

According to excerpts in America magazine, the authors expressed concern that “the strange mediatic synod had prevailed over the real synod,” and called on the Church “not to be impressed” by “the bad advocacies, the diabolical lies, the erroneous ways by which they wished to devalue priestly celibacy” in the media reporting of the Amazon synod.

To more fully understand Benedict and Sarah’s point, look no further than Deutsche Welle’s report on the new book: “Some believe the more progressive Pope Francis may attempt to remove celibacy as a requirement for all priests” – even though Francis is on record saying the exact opposite.

The “strange mediatic synod” was in evidence in 2014’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family as well, which I covered for Hot Air (with the sponsorship of Catholic Match). That synod was focused mostly on preaching the Gospel effectively to members of broken families and non-traditional households. The media, however, latched onto the idea that the discussion was about approving of same-sex unions and legitimizing divorces, when in fact the idea was to strengthen the church’s teaching on marriage and family life without alienating those who hail from non-traditional households. The most pressing issue at that synod wasn’t same-sex unions as much as it was dealing with polygamy in Africa in a pastoral sense for converts coming to the church in that region.

The Two Popes might win a couple of awards at the Oscars next month. The mainstream media’s reporting on the two actual popes won’t deserve any this year, just as it hasn’t in previous years either.