In 1970, nine German theologians, including Joseph Ratzinger, signed a
‘Memorandum for the Discussion of Celibacy’, which they sent to the German Bishops. The signatories were:
Ludwig Berg, Mainz
Alfons Deissler, Freiburg
Richard Egenter, München
Walter Kasper, Münster
Karl Lehmann, Mainz
Karl Rahner, Münster-München
Joseph Ratzinger, Regensburg
Rudolf Schnackenburg, Würzburg
Otto Semmelroth, Frankfurt
The Memorandum is available online in German:
Memorandum zur Zölibatsdiskussion
I do not know German. I have read the Google translation here. UPDATE: A better translation, by Joseph Bolin, is now posted here.
My understanding of what the document says is as follows.
The memorandum was signed by nine theologians; it was not the sole work of Joseph Ratzinger. It asked the German Bishops for a review of the law of celibacy, with ‘law’ underlined for emphasis. They were asking for a review of the rule that requires all priests in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church to be chosen only from men who freely choose to be celibate. They stated that the request was only for a review, without any prejudgment as to what the outcome of that review would be. They made it clear that they are not opponents of priestly celibacy and were not fighting against celibacy.
The document states that the signatories are not in agreement on every substantive point on this subject, that they did not share one common view. So we cannot know with which points in the memorandum Joseph Ratzinger agreed, and with which he disagreed.
However, the signatories to the document did agree that freely chosen celibacy is useful and even indispensable to the Church and to the priesthood. They state that the celibate priesthood is an essential form of the priesthood in the Latin Church. They were not suggesting the abolition of celibacy in the priesthood. To the contrary, they supported celibacy as essential and indispensable.
The memorandum asserts that once a priest enters into the celibate priesthood, he should not generally be released from celibacy; it is a binding commitment. Some exception can be made for priests who fail to live a celibate life, for them to be released from the obligation of celibacy (with the permission of the Church, as has long been the case).
The document states that the signatories were only suggesting that the Bishops consider that other forms of the priesthood, in addition to the celibate priesthood, might possibly be permitted. But the celibate priesthood should never be permitted to die out.
The signatories make the point that the Bishops have a role, as taught at Vatican II, to exercise the authority of the Church with the leadership of the Pope. The Bishops are not merely “executors of the papal will”. Therefore, the Bishops can raise this question with the Pope and the other Bishops.
They suggest that it would have been better for the Bishops to have considered the matter years earlier. They point out that celibacy is being debated among the members of the Church and also in the mass media. The example of Rehoboam in the Old Testament is cited. (Rehoboam was the son of Solomon and rightful heir to his throne, but most Israelites abandoned him because he was a harsh ruler.) The signatories were concerned that there would be either widespread disobedience by priests, or mass resignations from the priestly life, if the matter was not given due consideration and discussion.
On the relationship between the shortage of priests and the requirement of celibacy, the memorandum asserts that the shortage is not solely caused by celibacy, but has many other deeper causes. But it further asserts that the celibacy requirement plays some role in the shortage of priests. The document suggests that perhaps not all men who are called by the grace of God to ordination are also called by the grace of God to celibacy.
The signatories reject the idea that perhaps the Church should become a ‘small remnant’ of the most faithful, as a type of “resigned defeatism”. Instead, the Church should have a missionary objective, whenever and wherever possible. They assert that the current (in 1970, under the older version of Canon Law) law on celibacy is changeable. They suggest that the Pope might permit the ordination of “older married men”. (Of course, we now know that this came to pass in the form of the permanent deaconate, which permits married men to be ordained as deacons.)
The document makes the point that a good law, established with a good intention, can nevertheless have some detrimental consequences. The signatories state their concern that many candidates for the priesthood have not shown a commitment and a gift for celibacy. They also state their concern that priests are becoming increasingly isolated from the larger community, and that young people are under pressure from a “sexually overwrought society” that makes a healthy celibacy difficult to attain.
The memorandum asks the German Bishops to consult with experts and to consider the current circumstances faced by young candidates to the priesthood. The signatories also ask that the German Bishops raise these issues with Pope Paul VI, so that the Pope and the Bishops of the world would discuss the matter in a collegial manner.
The comments and claims about this memorandum by the mass media in recent days has been sensationalized and inaccurate.