Way back in 2013, when he retired, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI promised to remain “hidden to the world” so as not to interfere with the leadership of whoever took on the role.
Now, he’s wrapped up in controversy after the publication of a book, listing him as a co-author, that criticizes Pope Francis for being too progressive (at least by Vatican standards) on celibacy in the priesthood.
The book is fresh off the presses, with a January 15 publication date. Originally written in French, its subject matter encompasses — as publisher Fayard Press describes it on their website — “the future of priests, the just definition of the Catholic priesthood, and respect for celibacy.”
After French newspaper Le Figaro published excerpts, though, charges surfaced that the book was an attempt to volley criticism at the current pontiff, who has recently been urged to relax the requirement of celibacy in places where acute priest shortages are keeping Catholics from practicing their faith.
In October 2019, the month-long Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region ended with clergy voting for the pope to allow the ordination of older married men as a measure to ease the shortage. This is not a measure that Francis has agreed to enact, but he is considering the question.
Opinions were sharply divided within Catholic circles: Traditionalists argue that Benedict had a moral obligation to speak up about such a serious shift in the Church’s current practices, but many Vatican-watchers argue that it is an inappropriate overstep for a former pope to publicly critique his successor.
In response to the criticism, Benedict has attempted to distance himself from the work, asking via his personal secretary, Georg Gänswein, that his name and photograph be removed from the book’s cover. While he says he knew his words would become part of a finished book, he says he did not have the opportunity to see or approve the finished text or cover design, leading some to charge that he was manipulated into contributing.
The book’s other author, Guinean Cardinal Robert Sarah, objected strenuously to the suggestion that he deceived Benedict about his intent, releasing a letter (written in French) even before the book hit shelves.
The controversy that has been aimed for several hours at smearing me by insinuating that Benedict XVI was not informed of the book’s publication is profoundly offensive. I sincerely forgive all those who criticize me or who want to oppose Pope Francis. My attachment to Benedict XVI remains intact, and my filial obedience to Pope Francis absolute.
The pope emeritus knew that the cardinal was preparing a book and he sent him a text on the priesthood authorising him to use it as he wanted. But he did not approve a project for a co-authored book, and he had not seen or authorized the cover.
Sarah subsequently announced that future editions of the book will be published under his name alone, “with the contribution of Benedict XVI.” The content will remain unchanged.
But it won’t be so easy for Benedict to distance himself from this one. Catholic publishing house Ignatius Press, who published the English translation of the book, insists that their attribution is correct. As long as the text remains unaltered, they say, they will continue to consider it a co-authored book:
There is no doubt that Pope Benedict wrote the section ‘The Catholic Priesthood,’ and since Cardinal Sarah says “the complete text will remain absolutely unchanged”, then the entries in the table of contents: ‘Introduction by the Two Authors’ and ‘Conclusion by the Two Authors’ say all we need to know.
Media reports have been quick to fit this incident into the pre-existing frame they prefer, in which the conservative Pope Emeritus Benedict squares off against the progressive Francis in a battle for the soul of the Catholic Church. But, as Director Matteo Bruni of the Vatican’s Press Office was quick to remind the media, Pope Francis has previously expressed his support for priestly celibacy in very strong terms:
I am reminded of that phrase of Saint Paul VI: ‘I would rather give my life than change the law on celibacy’. It came to mind and I want to say it, because it is a courageous phrase… Personally I think celibacy is a gift for the Church. I don’t agree to allow optional celibacy, no. Only a few possibilities would remain in the most remote locations… When there is pastoral need, there the pastor must think of the faithful.
It’s not entirely clear how Francis plans to resolve the dearth of ordinations in South America, but it’s fair to say his position on the issue is far from progressive.
Controversy sells, though, and a pitched battle between pontiffs makes compelling news. And a book written by an obscure Guinean cardinal gains some extra star power when the name and likeness of a previous pontiff appears on the cover.
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