While Pope Benedict XVI on Monday said the Roman Catholic Church feels "profound shame and regret" over the sexual abuse of children and young people at the hands of priests, he made it clear to those considering priesthood that the vow of celibacy is not to blame.
"[M]any people, perhaps even some of you, might ask whether it is good to become a priest; whether the choice of celibacy makes any sense as a truly human way of life," the pope acknowledged in a letter to Catholic seminarians.
But the pontiff said "even the most reprehensible abuse cannot discredit the priestly mission [of celibacy], which remains great and pure."
"Thank God, all of us know exemplary priests, men shaped by their faith, who bear witness that one can attain to an authentic, pure and mature humanity in this state and specifically in the life of celibacy," he wrote.
Benedict's comments marked the first time the German pontiff directly spoke of the Catholic Church's celibacy policy in the context of sexual abuse and the first time any pope has spoken of the two issues in tandem, according to some experts.
Sandro Magister, a longtime Vatican observer who writes for Italy's L'Espresso magazine, told the Wall Street Journal that Benedict's latest move suggests he is willing to engage in a discussion that previous popes have considered off-limits
Ultimately, Magister said he believes the pope aims to "reinforce" the Catholic Church's celibacy rule by engaging in debate.
To date, Benedict has staunchly defended celibacy, saying in June that it "is a great sign of faith."
Like marriage, celibacy "is an act of fidelity and trust," he added.
As for sexuality, Benedict wrote Monday that it is "a gift of the Creator" but can become "banal and destructive" when not integrated within the person – priest or lay.
"It is important for the priest, who is called to accompany others through the journey of life up to the threshold of death, to have the right balance of heart and mind, reason and feeling, body and soul, and to be humanly integrated," the pontiff stated. "This also involves the integration of sexuality into the whole personality."
Benedict went on to say the clergy sex abuse scandal "should make us all more watchful and attentive."
The pontiff urged seminarians to examine themselves earnestly before God as they make their way toward priesthood to understand whether it is His will for them.
He said their years in seminary should be a time of growth toward human maturity.