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Pope Benedict wants his name removed from book about priestly celibacy

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2020-01-14 Chico Harlan, Michelle Boorstein

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's longtime aide is pushing to have the retired pontiff removed as co-author of a controversial book on priestly celibacy that many church-watchers saw as an effort to influence Pope Francis.

Benedict’s aide, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, alleged that the retired pope never intended to have his name on the book — there had been a “misunderstanding” with the other co-author, Cardinal Robert Sarah.

But in a series of tweets and statements Tuesday, Sarah defended himself, saying that Benedict, 92, had been fully informed and signed off on the plans.

Given the dispute, Sarah wrote, Benedict would be removed as co-author and instead listed as a contributor.

“However,” Sarah said, “the complete text remains absolutely unchanged.”

The book’s English-language publisher said it still considered Benedict a co-author.

The back-and-forth between Benedict’s main lieutenant and a conservative cardinal mirrored a larger debate inside the Catholic Church over what kind of role the retired pope should have — and whether he risks being manipulated as he grows more frail.

Benedict vowed after abdicating to remain silent on major church affairs, but in two high-profile instances over the past year, on the topics of sexual abuse and celibacy, he has shared opinions that either contradict Francis or put pressure on him.

“The one good thing from this whole cheap operetta is that it’s now clearly demonstrated to show that the whole [pope] emeritus thing doesn’t work,” said Ulrich Lehner, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame.

The new book, whose excerpts were published Sunday by France’s Le Figaro newspaper, amounts to an ardent defense of clerical celibacy at a time when Francis is considering an exception that would allow for some married priests in the Amazon region. According to those excerpts, Benedict wrote that celibacy was a sometimes painful but necessary “criterion” for ministry.

The question over Benedict’s role in the book has consumed a slice of American Catholicism, with social media posts flying about who was probably telling the truth and why. In keeping with the polarization of the U.S. church in recent years, conservatives were angered by the suggestion that Sarah — a traditionalist stalwart — had duped Benedict or that Benedict wasn’t challenging Francis, while more-liberal Catholics accused the emeritus pope of trying to undermine Francis.

John L. Allen Jr., editor of the Catholic news site Crux and a biographer of Benedict, said Tuesday that despite the fracas, Benedict and Francis were on the same side of the celibacy debate.

“They are both willing to entertain limited exceptions,” said Allen, noting that Benedict allowed married Anglican converts to become Catholic priests.

“I think this is less about pope versus pope than about rival camps in the church seeking to exploit both popes,” Allen said.

In a statement to Italy’s ANSA news service, Gänswein, Benedict’s personal secretary, said the retired pope had never approved the project as co-author and had not “seen or authorized the cover,” which also included his photo. Gänswein called it “a misunderstanding that does not raise questions about Cardinal Sarah’s good faith.” Gänswein also asked that Benedict’s name be removed from introductory and concluding sections.

Sarah, the head of the Vatican’s liturgical office, provided a different — though not entirely contradictory — narrative, sharing several letters written to him by Benedict in late 2019. Sarah said he had reached out to Benedict in September, asking the pope emeritus if he might be willing to share reflections on the priesthood, paying particular attention to the topic of celibacy.

Sarah said he also cautioned Benedict that such a subject might raise “debate” in the newspapers.

“But I am convinced that the whole church needs such a gift,” Sarah said he told Benedict.

Benedict replied that he had already started writing along those lines but hadn’t felt good about the work he was producing.

“Then came your letter, with the unexpected request of a text directly on priesthood with particular attention to celibacy,” Benedict wrote. “So I reprised my work and will forward to you the text.”

He passed along that text in October, according to Sarah, and later offered a final thank you to the cardinal in November.

“As for me, the text can be published in the way you planned,” Benedict wrote.

chico.harlan@washpost.com

michelle.boorstein@washpost.com

Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.

Pope Benedict XVI et al. dressed in a costume: Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI sits near the Holy Door as Pope Francis leads a mass to mark opening of the Catholic Holy Year, or Jubilee, on Dec. 8, 2015, in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican. © Max Rossi/Reuters Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI sits near the Holy Door as Pope Francis leads a mass to mark opening of the Catholic Holy Year, or Jubilee, on Dec. 8, 2015, in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican.
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