There is one thing that describes my relationship with Benedict: I have such great affection for him. I have always loved him. For me he is a man of God, a humble man, a man of prayer. I was so happy when he was elected Pope. Also, when he resigned, for me it was an example of greatness. A great man. Only a great man does this! A man of God and a man of prayer. Now he is living in the Vatican, and there are those who tell me: “How can this be? Two Popes in the Vatican! Doesn’t he get in your way? Isn’t he plotting against you?” All these sorts of things, no? I have found a good answer for this: “It’s like having your grandfather in the house”, a wise grandfather. When families have a grandfather at home, he is venerated, he is loved, he is listened to. Pope Benedict is a man of great prudence. He doesn’t interfere!

Pope Francis
Papal Flight from Rio de Janeiro
Sunday, 28 July 2013

 

On Sunday, the French weekly news magazine Le Figaro released excerpts from a soon-to-be released book on the priesthood and celibacy that was purportedly co-authored by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah (the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship). Soon thereafter, Ignatius Press president Mark Brumley announced on Twitter that the English version of the book, entitled From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy, and the Crisis of the Catholic Church, was being published by Ignatius Press with an expected release date of February 20.

This caused an instantaneous reaction on social media. Francis’s critics immediately celebrated the news, expressing gratitude that Benedict and Cardinal Sarah had collaborated on a public appeal to the Pope, asking him not to make any exceptions or alteration to the Church’s discipline on priestly celibacy. The publication of this book coincides with the preparation of Francis’s apostolic exhortation following October’s Synod on the Amazon, in which he is expected to make a decision regarding the ordination of viri probati–married men of proven virtue–in remote regions of the Amazon.

Among Francis’s supporters, there was a split. Some immediately criticized Benedict for interference with Francis’s papacy. They railed against the title “Pope Emeritus,” and some even called for Benedict to be silenced.

Other supporters of Pope Francis–those who also have great respect for Benedict–noted how this was extremely uncharacteristic of the former pope, who has always shown great care and discernment not to interfere in his successor’s exercise of the papacy, to whom he pledged in his 2013 farewell address to the cardinals, “I promise my unconditional reverence and obedience.”

Likewise, even after Francis’s election, when interviewer Peter Seewald asked him how he could pledge absolute obedience to a pope without knowing who it would be, the Pope Emeritus responded, “The Pope is the Pope, regardless of who it is.”

For Benedict, after remaining silent throughout much of Francis’s papacy–through all the doctrinal debates and controversies that we’ve witnessed in the last six years–to suddenly pop up without warning (at 92 years old) as the co-author of a book on a matter of discipline (albeit an important and traditional one) contradicts everything we know about him.

It was puzzling, to say the least, to see reports claiming that Benedict had suddenly changed course, especially on a matter that falls completely within the authority of the current pope. For those who admire the integrity of Pope Emeritus Benedict, the idea that he would break his promise never to interfere in the papacy of his successor is unthinkable.

For Pope Francis’s critics, however, this was a dream come true. Many have been quite vocal over the years, longing to hear him speak up in protest of Pope Francis and his teachings. They longed for Pope Benedict to affirm and justify their years of vocal complaints and accusations against Francis. They have strained at gnats to find coded messages in his notes. Despite this, Benedict had remained firm in his support of Francis. Until now, it was alleged.

With more information still rising to the surface, it is now clear that the situation is not as it first appeared.

Late Monday, reports began circulating that the Pope Emeritus had not, in fact, co-authored the book. Sources “very close to Benedict” were being quoted as saying that he never approved the cover and had been unaware of how his name would be used.

Last night, Cardinal Sarah provided, via Twitter, letters from Benedict in which the pope emeritus describes notes he had written on the topic, and gives permission to Sarah to use them if he found them beneficial. This morning, Cardinal Sarah published his official understanding of the facts.

Rather than agreeing to “co-author” a book, it seems that the pope emeritus believed he was contributing notes to the Cardinal’s own project. In fact, the letters appear to indicate that Benedict’s contributions were predominantly written in the summer of 2019 as a private reflection on the priesthood. In other words, these notes were in process well before the Amazon Synod had even begun and before he was ever asked to comment by Cardinal Sarah. As Gerard O’Connell reported in America that according to a source:

“Several months ago, Benedict XVI was writing his own piece on the priesthood and Cardinal Sarah asked to see it. The emeritus pope made it available to him, knowing that he was writing a book on the priesthood.” It is now clear that Benedict never knew that he was being involved as co-author of that book.

Shortly after Cardinal Sarah released the letters from Benedict and made his official statement, the news broke that the Pope Emeritus, through Archbishop Ganswein, requested that the publisher remove his name as co-author on the cover, that his name be removed from the introduction and conclusion, and that he should only be credited with authorship on the section he wrote.

In all the chaos on social media, Catholics grappled to figure out who was lying, who was plotting, and who was to blame for whatever perceived slights had been committed. In many ways this was unnecessary and doesn’t appear to reflect the reality of the situation, which may be–as Ganswein suggests–a misunderstanding of multiple parties operating with good intentions.

Benedict, especially early in Francis’s papacy, expressly stated his abiding fealty to Pope Francis many times. While rumors have circulated about Benedict’s alleged opposition to Francis, there have been no statements from Benedict indicating that he opposes Francis, even on “prudential matters.” Those who can’t appreciate that Benedict would never knowingly and deliberately attempt to influence Pope Francis’s decision-making in such a public and polemical way apparently haven’t paid close enough attention to Benedict’s character or his respect for Francis and his office. What are we to make of this controversy?

The alleged intervention was so out of character for Benedict that there were only two possible explanations:

1) Francis’s enemies had finally “gotten to him,” and successfully convinced him to break his promise and stand up to Francis in the way they’ve long hoped, or

2) This was “fake news” and the full story had yet to be revealed.

Now it seems clear that #2 is the truth.

The picture that has emerged is one of an embattled cardinal, eager to promote his vision of celibacy, unwittingly dragging a frail, retired pope into a project the latter didn’t fully comprehend. I believe Cardinal Sarah is an honest man, but it’s clear there was a miscommunication between the two of them. I don’t believe that these events suggest that Sarah is dishonest, subversive, or dissenting.

That said, Cardinal Sarah does bear some responsibility. It was incredibly imprudent of him to assume that Benedict would be willing to lend his name to a publication that publicly calls upon the pope to make a specific decision in the exercise of his office.

As for the Pope Emeritus, he remained true to his promises to his successor. He kept his word.

 

 

 


Note: Several edits for grammar and clarity were made to this piece on 15 January 2020 at approximately 11:21 EST. No substantial changes to the content were made. –ML

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