It’s impossible to mix priesthood, marriage, Pope Benedict warns Pope Francis

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Former Pope Benedict XVI has publicly urged his successor Pope Francis not to open the Catholic priesthood up to married men, in a plea that Sunday stunned Vatican experts.

Pope Benedict made the appeal in a book co-authored with Cardinal Robert Sarah.

Francis is currently considering allowing it in remote locations, such as the Amazon, where communities seldom have Mass due to a lack of priests, and is expected to publish his decision in the coming weeks.

The pair in the book asked the whole Church not to be “swayed” by “bad pleas, theatrics, diabolical lies, fashionable errors that want to devalue priestly celibacy”.

“It is urgent, necessary, that everyone, bishops, priests and laity, let themselves be guided once more by faith as they look upon the Church and on priestly celibacy that protects her mystery,” they wrote.

Pope Benedict, who retired in 2013, said he could not remain silent on the issue.

The 92-year-old says “it doesn’t seem possible to realise both vocations [priesthood and marriage] simultaneously”.

It is rare for Pope Benedict, who was the first pontiff to resign in almost 600 years, to intervene in clerical matters.

The Vatican is yet to comment on the book, which was previewed in part by French newspaper Le Figaro before its full publication on Monday.

Vatican commentators have reacted with surprise to Benedict’s intervention, suggesting it breaks with convention.

“Benedict XVI is really not breaking his silence because he (and his entourage) never felt bound to that promise. But this is a serious breach,” Massimo Faggioli, a historian and theologian at Villanova University, tweeted.

The comments by Pope Benedict were described as “incredible” by Joshua McElwee, a journalist for the National Catholic Reporter.

A theological conservative with traditional views on Catholic values, Pope Benedict pledged to remain “hidden from the world” when he retired, citing poor health.

But since then, he has made his views known in articles, books and interviews, advocating a different approach to Pope Francis, who is seen as more progressive. Pope Benedict still lives within the walls of the Vatican in a former monastery.

What is the proposed change to priestly celibacy?

In October, Catholic bishops from around the world gathered for a meeting, known as the synod, to discuss the future of the Church in the Amazon.

At the conclusion of that meeting, a document detailing issues affecting the Church was released. In it, there was a suggestion that in remote parts of the Amazon, older, married men should be ordained.

South American bishops have advocated this in an effort to address the shortage of priests in the region.

Pope Francis will consider it, along with many other proposals, including the environment and the role of women in the Church. He is expected to make a decision on the matter within the next few months.

Why is it controversial?

For many, celibacy is a key part of being a Catholic priest. A priest is supposed to be married to God and not be distracted by what some consider to be worldly concerns like a wife or a family.

For traditionalists, this is about the direction in which Pope Francis is taking the Church.

Some critics regard the idea of allowing married priests in the Amazon as a pretext to abolishing celibacy as a requirement altogether.