Ratzinger, Rahner, et al. On Celibacy (1970)

Translated by Joseph Bolin from the German text republished in Pipeline 2/2010 under the title "A reminder to the signatories" (Den Unterfertigten zur Erinnerung). Emphasis is from the original text.

Memorandum regarding the discussion of celibacy

The undersigned, who through the trust of the German bishops have been called as theologians into the commission for questions of faith and morals, feel themselves compelled to submit the following considerations to the German bishops.

Our reflections concern the necessity of an urgent examination of and discriminating look at the law of celibacy of the Latin Church for Germany and the universal Church as a whole (since the two points of view cannot be entirely separated from each other). Whether or not one wants to call this renewed examination “discussion” is a secondary, terminological problem. Regarding how this examination could be made, some things shall be said in what follows (see especially section 5).


The urgent call for such an examination in no way prejudices a decision about what the result should be or what in fact turns out to be the case; this petition is no call from opponents of priestly celibacy. The undersigned have until now not agreed on a common point of view regarding what they think particularly about the case. But they are all convinced that such an examination on the highest ecclesial level is appropriate, indeed necessary. In what follows, only this point is addressed, not the concrete content itself of such a “discussion”. The undersigned ask the German bishops in no way to misunderstand the considerations taken up here as a struggle against celibacy itself.

We are convinced that the freely chosen state of remaining unmarried in the sense of Matthew 19 not only presents a meaningful possibility of christian existence, one which is at all times indispensable for the Church as a sign of its eschatological character, but that there are also good theological grounds for the connection of the freely chosen unmarried state and the priestly office, since this office brings the officeholder definitively and completely into the service of Christ and his Church. In this sense we affirm what was recently said in the “Letter of the German Bishops on the Priestly Office” (See n. 45, par 4; n. 53, par 2). And in this sense we are also convinced that whatever the outcome of the discussion, the unmarried priesthood will remain an essential form of the priesthood in the Latin Church. Moreover it is clear that in our Church—in contrast to the protestant practice—also in the psychological and social-public consciousness an unmarried priesthood muss remain for the secular clergy a genuine and real possibility, whereby the unmarried life is absolutely accepted as an commitment to the Church. There is also no doubt that priests who are already ordained could not, of course, simply as a general rule and through a new, possibly modified legislation, however that should turn out, be released from the promise they made at their ordination. The once freely accepted celibacy remains in principle binding and cannot be transformed into a revocable obligation. For these reasons a genuine discussion of the law of celibacy need not increase the confusion in our seminaries to unbearable heights or lead to extensive suspension of all the decisions of young persons. Our plea is therefore not simply to be identified with the kind of discussion or “solution” of the question in Holland, even if the common need of the Church and the urgency of the problem for the whole universal Church may not be disregarded.

The examination we speak of here goes therefore only in the direction of the question whether the former manner in which priestly life was realized can be and must remain the single form of life in the Latin Church. The objections frequently directed against such an examination are well-known: there can concretely be only one form of priestly life; in the event that other forms of life are permitted it may be expected that the unmarried priest would die out. We do not underestimate these arguments. But one who from the very outset therefore considers such a clarification as superfluous seems to us to have little faith in the power of the Gospel's recommendation of this form of life and in God's grace, while in another situation he again maintains that this—so not the mere “law”—effects this special gift of Christ.


Such an examination can take place. Theologically, it is simply incorrect to maintain that in new historical and social situations one cannot examine and in this sense “discuss” what on the one hand is a human law (the command of celibacy) in the Church and what exists as an acknowledged reality in another part of the Church as a real practice (cf. the Eastern Churches). The affirmation of the contrary is supported by no serious theological argument. If it be said that the highest shepherd of the Church forbids such a “discussion” and has at least very good psychological and hence serious reasons for this prohibition (namely that a further discussion would undermine the actual will for celibacy in the Church), to this argumentation at least the following should be said:

a) In the position that the Church teaching of Vatican II assigns the bishops, such a papal declaration cannot discharge the bishops from their own responsibility to themselves newly reassess this question; the pope cannot take this responsibility from them. They are not deputies of the pope or merely executors of the papal will, but as a College (together with the successor of Peter) are themselves bearers of the highest decision-making authority in the Church. As such a College they are also at least counselors of the pope who should be heard (also in cases when the pope makes use of his own primatial authority!), even when such counsel would not be gladly received (cf. Paul and Peter, Gal 2). But to able to fulfill this task, the bishops must, among themselves and collegially, on their own initiative examine such a question. If even a simple subordinate has the right and duty to ask himself if he may and must in important matters bring doubts and warnings to his superiors without being asked, how much more does that apply to the bishops in the Catholic Church, also in relation to the pope. And just this requires their own examination of the affair.

It would have been much better if the responsible church authorities had some years earlier seriously and thoroughly examined the situation that had arisen. Then the necessary considerations would probably have proceeded in an atmosphere more favorable to the matter and that would not have been burdened with so many emotions. But not in the least does this alter the fact that the examination of which we are speaking has today became even more urgent.

b) As is well-known, a discussion is already under way, and it is a fact, with which one must reckon firmly and soberly, that this debate [Auseinandersetzung] will continue. If it is not continued on a higher level, and on the highest level itself, then it will certainly continue at lower levels (quite apart from the mass media). But if it only goes on at these lower levels, we may expect it to take forms that place the bishops in extremely difficult situations, which they cannot lightly allow: e.g., public polls that harm their authority to the highest degree; collective and voiced disobedience; priests leaving their priestly vocation, etc. It is—as already proven by the example of Rehoboam in the Old Testament—also not true that all severity in the upholding of a position leads to victory and every “giving in” leads to defeat (cf. 1 Kings 11-12). Those who resolutely back the law of celibacy as it has been until now should have in the course of the last years also spoken up, in a spirit of courage and personal engagement, by way of practically convincing arguments, i.e., in an “offensive” tactic. Instead of that, persons largely entrenched themselves behind the “law”, and let rectors, spiritual directors, and others fight on the concrete front. This situation now comes to daylight and pushes inexorably for a genuine answer.


Such considerations for the purpose of an examination must be made. It is not true that in this question all is clear or certain and that one must only hold fast with faith in God and confidence to things as they were till now. One must honestly admit that the encyclical “Sacerdotalis Coelibatus” of June 24, 1967, says nothing about many things that must be discussed, and that on some points it even remains behind the theology of the Second Vatican Council (quite apart from the linguistic form chosen to speak about these circumstances). In any case it has remained supremely ineffective and has rather for young priests aroused the impression that here something is defended that will nonetheless fall, just as happened in a number of retreating skirmishes of the official Church (just compare, e.g., the various phases of the reform of the liturgy). Very many things must be more precisely considered in regard to psychological, sociological, legal, spiritual, moral, and theological questions and with a view to the frequently all-too overseen problems of the concrete forms of life of the present-day unmarried priesthood (including the questions about the forms that are still today unworthy, amid which the dispensation from the obligation to celibacy happens).

It is also not true that the whole problem of the lack of priests has no role to play in connection with these considerations. Of course the lack of priests is not conditioned only by the obligation to celibacy, but also has many other roots that go deeper. But it would nonetheless be false to therefore conclude that the two things have nothing to do with each other. If a sufficiently great increase of priests is not to be gained without a modification of the law of celibacy—and this question still remains also for our country dangerously open—then the Church simply has the duty to make a certain modification. The conviction that God will at all times and in every case secure by his grace sufficient unmarried priests is a good and pious hope, but theologically unprovable and cannot in these considerations remain the single, decisive point of view. Precisely the young priests, who still see before them a large portion of their priestly life and an increasing extent of their service for the Church, facing this lack of priests that is becoming acute, ask themselves how these problems in the life of the Church and their own office will still be able to be mastered in some years, when at some point they themselves will have to take on greater responsibility. For them the idealistic look backwards is not enough, even if they themselves hold fast to the form of life they chose.

We must urgently warn against the argument that the number of true Catholics will very soon in the future be so small that a numerically small unmarried clergy will be sufficient. Even if for various reasons we can more or less foresee such a development, such a thing may not be made the foundation of a resigning defeatism or an ideology of the “small remnant”. The Church must have missionary forces for the offensive, wherever such a thing is possible. In any case, the law of celibacy in force till now cannot be made the absolute point of reference of the reflections, with which all other ecclesial and pastoral considerations would have to be brought in conformity. If in the face of the “most serious reservations” the pope himself evidently does not reject the idea of the ordination of older married men (“viri probati”) from the outset and as simply out of the question (it is after all in some cases already practiced), then it is thereby affirmed that new considerations could reassess [überprüfen] the law and practice of celibacy till now. We must also—as we know our students of theology—admit that we very often have the impression that where we are the present rule leads, to a not insignificant degree, not only to a shrinking of the number of candidates for the priesthood, but also to a reduction of talent, and thus effectively of the standards as well as the ability for employment of the priests who will be available in the future; this applies notwithstanding the very small number of highly gifted theologians who not infrequently come to us for a second degree. Those who assure their bishop that they have no difficulties in regard to the acceptance of celibacy are far from having thereby proven that they are suitable for ordination.

At the same time it remains a open question, to what degree such declarations can be truly made without inner reservations and taken seriously by the bishops. Recent experiences almost everywhere substantiate this. The current or to-be-feared results of polls on celibacy among alumni for their part raise very serious concerns. The true situation in most convents and seminaries is most alarming.



When it is a matter of something that is not a dogma in the strict sense, a church legislator is obliged to bear duly in mind the consequences of his legislation (including his holding fast to a law). Thereby one must first consider those effects that are on the one hand foreseeable and on the other hand result in a greater harm (in comparison with the good of his intentions). This also applies when these effects “in themselves” need not result and in a certain sense represent an inappropriate reaction of those who are affected by such a “law”. Even a church legislator cannot merely say: our “law” and our intents are in and of themselves good as far as their content, are formally legitimate, and can have only good effects, insofar as this “law” (as it is supposed to be) is followed. Every legislator must also bear in mind the actual consequences of his orders. This simple, at first sight apparently abstract, but in no way incidental consideration seems not to be everywhere adequately pondered. We have already looked at this question objectively, from the point of view of the fulfillment of the Church's mission and office (priority of the pastoral ministry of salvation, lack of priests, qualitative standards for priests etc.). But we must also reflect on this problem in regard to the realizability of the unmarried life of the present-day young priest (think, e.g., of the question of the tending of the household – “[female] housekeeper”; the increasing isolation and loss of authentic “recognition” of many priests within many parishes; the uncertainty of the priestly image; the weak decision-making ability and psychic instability of many young persons, to be able to live a “healthy” unmarried life in the present-day sexually overheated society). The situation that has thus greatly changed as a whole from the previous situation is in itself not yet a decisive argument against the law of celibacy, but it calls for a very serious examination of the question from very many points of view.


1. The new examination of the question of celibacy must first of all be made by the German bishops among themselves. Of course specialists should be enlisted from all fields relevant to a true clarification of this question. We also cannot see why in this matter impartial, unmanipulated and true representatives of priests and above all of the younger religious could not be enlisted. Otherwise the episcopacy would only arouse the impression that it did not truly believe in the inner power of the Gospel's recommendation of the unmarried life “for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven,” but only in the power of a formal authority. Such a positive stocktaking and working through of the problem must also occur because the reality of celibacy itself in the conditions of present-day publicity and society must be—so far as possible—presented in an understandable and meaningful manner, granting all our knowledge of the very clear limits of this endeavor. It will remain a “scandal,” but this does not excuse one from promoting and recommending it with the best reasons, in the event that an examination is seriously undertaken and can arrive at positive results (see above, section 1). If we know that celibacy is primarily a fruit of spiritual experience, we must still, as representatives of the science of theology, draw attention to this positive, clarifying, and unavoidable function of an examination.

2. We are moreover convinced that the German episcopacy should plead with Paul VI for a serious examination of the law of celibacy and of his own declarations and measures. The bishops have the right to do so, and, in our opinion, a real duty to do so in the present situation. A genuine “discussion,” which should have long ago taken the place of the public gossip, would mean no prejudice in favor of a negative solution to the question. Such an examination should not take place with the presupposition that the Church and the pope simply stand before the dilemma either to “abolish” celibacy or to hold fast without subtlety to the former law and practice. This dilemma does not exist in this form. We are convinced that this question can be clarified by Rome only in a truly genuine and collegial cooperation with the episcopacy of the world. Every further action taken in the manner of the last steps endangers the effective authority of the ecclesial office (of the pope and of the bishops) to the greatest degree. In view of the recent developments in this matter, we ask the German bishops for a speedy intervention in Rome. The experiences made till now with “Humanae vitae” and also in this question of ours (just in the last 10 days) show what happens and how the difficulties tragically increase when this cooperation is lacking. Such an opinion neither contests nor restricts the papal primacy. It is only an application of the self-evident statement that also the pope in his decisions must apply the “apta media” for the finding of a right decision. In the present-day situation such a cooperation with the world episcopacy that is no mere “sham fight” belongs, in practice, for such questions as those named above, to these “apta et – hodie necessaria – media”.

One will perhaps judge our opinion as disjointed or even inconsistent, or ignore it. The actual difficulties, however, lie in the manifold confusion of the objective situation, which is the result of many factors. We wanted to place ourselves in this situation without ignoring the power and the claim of the Gospel. We have made no rules for the German bishops. But we have the right and the duty in this troublesome situation, on the basis of our office as theologians and our task as consultants, to say to the members of the German bishop's conference, in all respect for their high office and position of responsibility, that in the question of celibacy they must take new initiative and consider themselves dispensed neither through the former practice of the Church nor through the declarations of the pope alone.

February 9, 1970

sig. Ludwig Berg, Mainz
sig. Alfons Deissler, Freiburg
sig. Richard Egenter, München
sig. Walter Kasper, Münster
sig. Karl Lehmann, Mainz
sig. Karl Rahner, Münster-München
sig. Joseph Ratzinger, Regensburg
sig. Rudolf Schnackenburg, Würzburg
sig. Otto Semmelroth, Frankfurt

One Response to “Ratzinger, Rahner, et al. On Celibacy (1970)”

  1. Martin Keenan says:

    A fully matured statement of Pope Benedict XVI's thought as to the theological grounding of priestly celibacy in the Latin Church can be found in his Christmas Address to the Roman Curia in 2006 (cited in the passage of his post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, dealing with priestly celibacy, viz., n.24). The key being God and no other as the ground on which the priest stakes his witness of life (cf. the portion that the priestly tribe of Levi received – God Himself).

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