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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Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He's a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He's active in his parish and community. He is the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.

Benedict kept his word

18 Responses

  1. Donald J Frickel says:

    Not thinking as benevolently as you regarding Cdl Sarah. I’m reminded of Rita Ferrone’s recent article in LaCroix Intl Cardinal Sarah Did It Again, in which Rita reports that “In a preface to a new book, the cardinal rages about offenses against the Eucharist. He fulminates over Satanism and black masses, and then — astonishingly — links these phenomena with receiving communion in the hand. He evaluates this liturgical practice as pure evil, a tool in the hand of Satan, promoting unbelief. Those who take communion in the hand are on the side of Lucifer in the great cosmic struggle of good against evil, Sarah claims. They are opposed to Michael and all the angels.”

    This action by the Cardinal suggests that he is beyond rationality on these culture warrior issues and makes one suspect that he is capable of unscrupulous behavior in support of his extreme views.

  2. Marie says:

    Excellent article again Mike. I must say I was glad to see a tweet from you yesterday withholding judgement, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was being thrown to the wolves. Thank you for that! Not only was he our pope, he is an elderly man, and very deserving of our respect. It hurt to read it, even though I couldn’t see there could be another answer. Glad I heeded your advise.

    I can’t say I feel the same at all about Cardinal Sarah, and I feel he has done a great disservice to our Church, the Pope and all Catholics. It’s the same as Cardinal Mueller releasing a letter to help the ‘confused faithful’ Catholics. Nothing new, nothing to learn from nor grow from, only fuel on the fire. I do not see it being possible that he is not aware of the great divide, yet he does this just before Pope Francis decides if he will make an exception to celibacy. I just find it outrageous.

  3. Jessica G. says:

    Why do I suspect a PR ploy?

  4. Chris Dorf says:

    …and so it continues… 🙁

  5. trav s says:

    I was under the impression that Pope Francis was against changing the celibacy rules for priests (or that his personal preference is such). If so, can this book be seen as support for his view? I’m sure there are plenty of hierarchy members lobbying for change.
    The “bomb throwers” are going to make EVERYTHING a controversy. Bomb throwers- about 75% of the people arguing on twitter.
    Would this book have been controversial 5-10-20 years ago? Twitter is making everyone crazy.

    • Mike says:

      Unfortunately, no. Pope Francis of course has praised the celibate life, and has pledged to keep celibacy as the norm for priests in the West. He has, however expressed an openness to ordaining married men in the Amazon, where there are extreme priests shortages. We do not know what his final decision will be oh, but we do know that he is deliberating on this right now.

      Based on the excerpts that have been made public, this book forcefully and assertively argues that Pope Francis should not make this exception.

      I don’t in any way deny Cardinal Sarah’s right to express his opinion on this matter. But this type of interference is specifically what Benedict pledged never to do.

      • PJA says:

        You mean the norm, like the way Latin is the norm in liturgy, or extreme like extraordinary ministers were only going to be used in extreme cases?

    • jl says:

      I think yes, It would have been controversial even 20 years ago. Hans Urs von Balthasar noted anti-Ratzinger bias in an interview 20+ years old…
      The last think I’m able to imagine is that this book would be “uncontroversial” if being titled “… with contribution” with photos removed.

  6. Robert S says:

    And yet Ignatius Press still continue to claim its a coauthored book.

    “In a statement released this afternoon, Mark Brumley, President of Ignatius
    Press, said: “Ignatius Press published the text as we received it from
    the French publisher Fayard. Fayard is the publisher with whom we have
    collaborated on three other Cardinal Sarah titles. The text we received
    indicates the two authors are Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah. That text
    also indicates that Benedict XVI co-authored an introduction and a
    conclusion with Cardinal Sarah, as well as his own chapter on the
    priesthood, wherein he describes how his exchanges with Cardinal Sarah
    gave him the strength to complete what would have gone unfinished.”
    Given that, according to Benedict XVI’s correspondence and Cardinal Sarah’s
    statement, the two men collaborated on this book for several months,
    that none of the essays have appeared elsewhere, and that a joint work
    as defined by the Chicago Manual of Style is ‘a work prepared by two or
    more authors with the intention that their contribution be merged into
    inseparable or interdependent parts of a unitary whole’, Ignatius Press
    considers this a coauthored publication.”

    My view is that Pope Emeritus XVI has been played and his gravitas exploited to promote an agenda.

    Had that not been the case then Cardinal Sarah upon hearing that Pope Emeritus BXVI rejected the assertion that he was a coauthor should have out of respect and charity retracted the claim immediately and apologized to Pope Emeritus XVI. The fact that he continues to further remonstrate and deny Pope Emeritus BXVI assertions (publicly no less) is telling. The other alternative explanation is that Pope Emeritus BXVI was indeed a coauthor and was fully cognizant of his name being attached to the book but when it became public and the news of the febrile worldwide reaction got back to him he panicked and decided to argue that was never his intention. In my feeble mind they are, the only two possible explanations and I know which one I believe.

  7. David Armitage says:

    My own thoughts on this is that no one is deliberately lying or trying to mislead. I suspect that Benedict when shown everything in advance paid only limited attention to the material put before him. At his age and state of health we should not expect differently. I think he would trust Cardinal Sarah not to mislead him in any way.

    Even if Benedict had seen the cover and his name on it, the significance of having the two names might well have escaped him. I think that it would have been Cardinal Sarah’s responsibility to point out the significance to Benedict but maybe he did not do this.

    • StumbleBumble says:

      Quite possible.
      I am giving Cardinal Sarah the benefit of doubt.
      Hope it all gets sorted out.

  8. Richard W Comerford says:

    Mr. Lewis:

    I do not think it is fair to Holy Father Francis to publicly comment on this book until folks have had a chance to read it.

    God bless

    Richard W Comerford

    • Mike says:

      There is only one part of the book that is a concern to me: the appeal to Pope Francis not to alter the discipline. This is public knowledge.

  9. Susan Schudt says:

    I think Ignatius Press has much of the blame. They are the ones who have the most to gain. The email I received yesterday morning from them had the subject: “Pope Benedict XVI Breaks His Silence,” implying that #1 had happened.

  10. StumbleBumble says:

    What is to be made of this? I received this in my email just now. Any thoughts?

    Cardinal Sarah: no confusion on Benedict’s role in new book (Cardinal Sarah- Facebook)
    Editor’s Note: Cardinal Robert Sarah has announced that he met with Pope-emeritus Benedict, and “we have been able to see how there is no confusion between us” about the retired Pontiff’s role as co-author of a new book defending clerical celibacy. Cardinal Sarah said that he wanted to meet privately with Benedict because of the “incessant, unpleasant and false controversy that has never stopped since the beginning of the week.”

    Email was sent from CWN run by Philip F. Lawler. (I no longer visit the website but still get their stuff in my spam box)

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