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Dutch bishop: Pope Benedict had ‘duty to speak out’ in defense of priestly celibacy

'If there are ambiguities,' said Bishop Robert Mutsaerts, 'you have to create clarity.'
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Bishop Robert Mutsaerts of Den Bosch, Netherlands. Omroep Brabant / YouTube
By Jeanne Smits, Paris correspondent

By Jeanne Smits, Paris correspondent

January 16, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — Dutch bishop Robert Mutsaerts, auxiliary bishop of ’s-Hertogenbosch (Den Bosch), said he “understands” the reason why Pope Benedict contributed to the priestly celibacy debate in the book he co-authored with Cardinal Sarah, Des profondeurs de nos cœurs (From the Depths of our Hearts).

“If there are ambiguities, you have to create clarity,” he said in an interview with LifeSiteNews (read full interview below).

“No matter the priest or bishop concerned, it is also a duty — and the higher you are in the hierarchy, the higher your responsibility, and also your duty to speak out,” said the Dutch bishop, who is well known for his own outspokenness.

Bishop Mutsaerts recently signed the “Protest against Pope Francis’s sacrilegious acts” that went online on November 12 as a public reaction after the Pachamama scandals at the Amazon Synod. He has not hesitated to express criticism of the present “paradigm shift,” also calling the Amazon Synod “the most politically correct meeting of all time.” He had previously denounced the Youth Synod, which lacked “credibility” in the wake of the sex abuse crisis, he told LifeSite at the time. On the internet, he has authored regular and vigorous posts on his blog “Paarse Pepers” (Purple Peppers) denouncing the present “paradigm shift” in the Church.

In this new interview with LifeSite, Bishop Mutsaerts speaks of the important role of priestly celibacy and the uselessness of scrapping it at a time when young vocations are all of the “orthodox type,” far from the liberalism of the post–Vatican II Netherlands.

Going farther, he points out that the present crisis in the Church is above all one of faith and of ignorance of the reality of Jesus Christ, Son of God.

Below is the full text of Bishop Mutsaerts’s interview with LifeSite.

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LifeSiteNews: You say the issue of Christian celibacy is central to the Church. Why is that?

Bishop Robert Mutsaerts: It’s about more than celibacy. Celibacy touches on the identity of the priest, of the priesthood, and then it also touches on the sacraments. After all, we are a sacramental church. So it’s not just a small item; it touches a lot more. If you push it aside, many things will follow. I know, it’s positioned as if it is to be allowed only in a small number of exceptional cases. But — and you know this — one thing leads to another. Besides, it’s about principles, and as far as I’m concerned, you should never put them aside because of pragmatic circumstances.

LSN: Were you surprised to hear that the pope emeritus cooperated on the project?

BRM: On the one hand, he’s pope emeritus, and he’s moved to the background, and that’s very wise. But I can also imagine that when it comes to something essential, he thinks he has to speak out — which, by the way, applies to everyone: to every bishop or priest or even to the layman. If there are ambiguities, you have to create clarity. This, by the way, is the primary task of Pope Francis: to create clarity. That is what popes stand for. That is the problem, because there is of course a lot of confusion and therefore also division. I try to do that myself; however unpleasant it may be, you speak out when you think things just don’t add up. And no matter the priest or bishop concerned, it is also a duty – and the higher you are in the hierarchy, the higher your responsibility, and also your duty to speak out. So that’s how I understand this affair. Of course, we don’t at all know what Pope Francis is going to write, so maybe the book doesn’t contradict Pope Francis. We have no idea... That’s a bit typical of our times.

LSN: The pope emeritus and Cardinal Sarah “humbly” ask Pope Francis to hold on to that which he himself has said: that he will never change the rule of celibacy. Is the book presented in the Netherlands as a kind of action against the pope?

BRM: Pope Benedict and also Cardinal Sarah of course see certain tendencies, also as a result of the Amazon Synod. They are simply concerned about the Church they love. Yes, out of concern you can of course write about a certain subject, in this case celibacy. This does not necessarily mean going directly against the pope, but to the noises you’re hearing, and then you can take a clear stand. You say priestly celibacy is not just an organizational rule, but it is something essential to the Church, something that of course has existed for a very long time, and for good reasons. And before it existed, there were a kind of Josephite marriages, so at the time it actually existed, even though priests were married.

What also plays a part: A priest is an alter Christus. Jesus Himself was also a man and not just a human being. We have no dualism: body and soul form a human being. That is not at all the expression of a negative judgment of corporeality or sexuality; we have never had that. Look at the Song of Songs; see how seriously we take it. But precisely because we take it seriously, we have to be clear about it. Nowadays it is said: once healthy sexuality meant a big family. Now that approach is presented as something negative in the context of “overpopulation,” and also as something repressive. Today we have more of a promotion of unrestraint, frankly. It’s a curious form of freedom — as long as there are no children being conceived, let everyone do what he wants. That, of course, is a morality that is pernicious.

LSN: Is there demand among young priests, or young men who think about the priesthood, for the abolition of celibacy? The pope emeritus and Cardinal Sarah both say: we meet many young men and priests who suffer from the fact that it is said that celibacy is not important, and we want to support those young men.

BRM: I think that is correct. If you look at the young clergy, they are not asking for married priesthood at all. For them, celibacy is not only a sacrifice, but, above all, a gift. The dissolution of celibacy is primarily related to the reigning crisis of faith. We also have a whole vocation crisis as a result of the crisis of faith, and you cannot solve it by making things easier and more flexible. I don’t think there are many people who feel called to the priesthood and who would be willing to devote themselves to the priesthood if they could get married. I don’t believe any of that. If you look at the young clergy and the vocations that we have now, in this day and age, there is really only one kind: the orthodox kind. Those liberal ideas are those of a completely different generation; the present generation doesn’t want any of them. We remember the time of the Second Vatican Council and how it was in the Netherlands: people were looking forward to the dissolution of celibacy and they were enormously disappointed when that turned out not to be the case. That was actually a Dutch issue at the time, because in my opinion, it played much less in other countries. It’s just an expression of a crisis of faith and of a strange conception of sexuality and of celibacy itself.

Priestly celibacy is not just a rule; there really is a theological foundation. That ontological link between the priest and celibacy is about body and soul — that is a being, because of course there is no dualism. Jesus didn’t even choose Mary as an apostle, and if anyone was above all others and holier than holy, it was Mary. We can’t just ignore that. Even less should one appeal to what was cultural then, because for Jesus, that is not true at all. Saint Paul says this very clearly: there are no men, no women, no Greeks, no Jews, no pagans. If anyone was standing up for equality and equal dignity, it was the Catholic Church and the early Christian community.

LSN: In the French press, Cardinal Sarah has been sullied because of the very traditional expression of his faith. Is that also the case in the Netherlands?

BRM: He is, of course, portrayed as extremely conservative — so am I. Usually this means they’re very Catholic, and they hold on to old norms and values — and on good grounds. There’s no point in blowing with the times. We should bring the world to the Gospel and not the other way around.

LSN: Benedict and Sarah clearly spoke against the scrapping of celibacy, even for exceptional situations. Cardinal Sarah even says in the book that the Eastern Catholic Churches are turning back on the possibility of choosing priests among married men.

BRM: He was already quite clear about it in his last book. All those things that are asked from the secular Catholic side have long been possible in the Anglican church. There they even consecrate female bishops, but their crisis has only gotten worse, even bigger than ours: it doesn’t solve anything. You don’t create vocations with it, and the apostasy doesn’t diminish. On the contrary. We have to go back to the roots. If the Church wants to survive, there is only one way, as it has always been: orthodoxy. Of course, we also need to set a good example and make work of it: ora et labora. Ambiguity, setting the bar low, is useless. Look at the history of the Church: it only leads to weakening. The Church needs reform, but not slackening. The risk that the Church becomes bourgeois is always lurking; sometimes we have to look again where we stand and return to basics.

What I found a very interesting book from last year was Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option: regrouping to strengthen your faith, making sure it doesn’t fade away, and encouraging each other to come back stronger.

LSN: The book is about celibacy, but at the moment there is confusion about many other points of the Church’s teaching, which we do not see being held up by Rome. Do you think that the issue of celibacy is the most important, or that we should not forget that there are other issues as well?

BRM: Of course, it is not the most important subject. Man is called to holiness, and is possible only if we first make clear who Christ is. That stands at the central point, and you notice that in so many things. The other day, a priest was invited to Brabant to explain the Christmas story, and his thesis was, it is impossible to explain to modern people that a virgin gets pregnant, and then tell them such a sentimental story of sheep and shepherds and three kings who come looking... His thesis wa,: it actually wasn’t true, you have to read it like a fairy tale with a certain interpretation. And then he gives an example: was Jesus born in Bethlehem? No, of course not, he says, because Bethlehem means “city of bread,” and that has a certain meaning, and that is why Luke positions it there. As long as we are keeping busy with this kind of nonsense, and lead people astray, we will get farther and farther away from home! We have such good arguments, historical and rational; maybe we should be bringing those up to start with. Not that arguments turn people into believers, but you have to get rid of some stumbling blocks first.

At confirmations, when I know in advance that the confirmands will be gathered before the ceremony, I come a bit early to join them, and then we’ll have a chat. They are pleasant young people. But when it comes down to it and I ask: what kind of book is that Bible — a fairy tale book, something like Harry Potter, or a history book like Julius Caesar? They almost always say: “A fairy tale book, it didn’t really happen.” Then you know how far from home we are. We’re below freezing point. We should work on that first, because if we don’t know who Christ is... I don’t think the problem for those children is the miracles, but “who is Christ,” and if you can interpret that correctly, then you are going to be able to give those miracles a place, and then you are going to put the proclamation in a different light, and only then can it be understood. It is not for nothing that in the profession of faith, nothing is said about Jesus, nothing about His proclamation, nothing about His miracles, nothing about the Sermon on the Mount or whatever: only that He was born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, died, buried, and resurrected.

In other words, you’re talking about God’s son. There are so many Catholics who don’t realize that at all, or who don’t believe anymore, and who also don’t believe in the transformation of the consecration, the transubstantiation. If all that falls away, and it is those people who are going to plead about celibacy, then you know they will be betting on the wrong horse.


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