This is, by my count, the fourth piece we’ve posted on the controversy regarding From the Depths of Our Hearts, a matter that should have been settled on January 14 by the official statement of the pope emeritus, but continues due to the determination of Pope Francis’s critics to keep the issue alive. What’s interesting about those who are determined to prop up this story is the fact that they’re completely ignoring the key question in the case, while exploiting the matter to hurl accusations against those who support both Francis and Benedict.
On Sunday, January 12, news broke that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had co-authored the book with Cardinal Robert Sarah on priestly celibacy. Exclusive excerpts were published in the French newspaper Le Figaro. The book, we were told, consisted of an essay by Benedict, an essay by Sarah, and an introduction and conclusion by both authors. For many of us, including myself, this appeared to be a breach of the promise Benedict made to his future successor and an unprecedented interference in a pressing matter under consideration by Pope Francis. For an emeritus pope to make a public intervention such as this (one which reportedly caught the Vatican flat-footed), rather than bringing the issue directly to Pope Francis in private, was unthinkable.
Late January 13, word began to go around on social media that Benedict had not co-authored a book with Cardinal Sarah (or that at least he never intended to do so).
Finally, on January 14, the official word came from Pope Benedict, via his private secretary Archbishop Georg Gänswein:
“I can confirm that this morning I acted on instructions from the emeritus pope and I asked Cardinal Robert Sarah to contact the book’s publishers and request them to remove Benedict XVI’s name as co-author of the book and remove his signature from the introduction and the conclusions too.”
“The Pope Emeritus, in fact, knew that the cardinal was preparing a book,” Ganswein added, “and had sent a brief text of his own on the priesthood, authorizing the cardinal to use it as he wanted. But he had not approved any project of a book with a double signature, nor had he seen or authorized it’s cover. It was a misunderstanding, without calling into question the good faith of Cardinal Sarah.”
Cardinal Sarah, despite his earlier protestations, issued a statement via Twitter, acceding to Benedict’s request:
Considering the controversies that the publication of the book “From the depths of our hearts” have provoked, it’s been decided that the author of the book for forthcoming publication will be ‘Cardinal Sarah, with the contribution of Benedict XVI.’ Nevertheless, the complete text will remain without changes.
That should have been it. Within 48 hours, news of the book was released, one of the purported co-authors expressed via official statement that he had not consented to being a co-author, asking that his name be removed, and the other purported co-author agreed to honor this request.
While this sequence of events certainly caused tension and not a little embarrassment, the reputations and character of Benedict and Sarah remain intact: Benedict’s for not having broken his promise to Francis, and Sarah’s for having honestly misunderstood Benedict’s intentions, and not having his good faith called into question.
There’s certainly been criticism of some of the content of the book, particularly Sarah’s statements on married priests (or as he reportedly refers to them, “second-class priests”) and theologians who have proposed the possibility of ordaining married men (he allegedly calls them “sorcerer’s apprentices”). Such language appears derogatory towards the thousands of married men who serve the Church as priests, whether they are Eastern Catholics or former Protestant ministers who have been ordained through John Paul II’s pastoral provision or Benedict’s Anglican Ordinariate — not to mention priests of the Eastern Orthodox, with whom we hope to someday reconcile. Thus it is clear that there is room for debate on the substance of Sarah’s essay. It’s not a matter of his integrity, but his theological ideas that are being called into question.
Why does the co-authorship debate continue, then?
It persists for two reasons. The first is that the North American publisher of the book, Ignatius Press, has astonishingly (and, as Dan Amiri described, disgracefully) refused to acknowledge the request of Benedict and Cardinal Sarah regarding the cover and co-authorship of the book. To my knowledge, the only public reason they’ve given for this is their argument that Benedict’s contribution falls within the definition of “co-authorship” given by the Chicago Manual of Style. For the longtime American publisher of Benedict/Ratzinger’s work to disregard his official, public request is shocking. As a matter of ethics, I’d go as far as to say it’s immoral. This book is not due to be released in the US until March, which means this conversation isn’t going away anytime soon.
The second reason apparently springs from a strong desire on the part of Francis’s critics to paint his defenders as people who are attacking the pope emeritus and Cardinal Sarah. Last week, for example, George Weigel published a piece in First Things entitled, “The Bullies and that Book.” It’s unclear what the purpose of his piece was, other than to reveal he was received in a private audience with Benedict in October 2019, and he found him very lucid during the visit.
Weigel then used his anecdotal experience to harshly condemn those who speculated that the misunderstanding over the book might have been partly due to the physical incapacities one might expect of a 92-year-old man who, from recent photographic and video evidence, appears to be suffering the physical effects of aging that one expects of someone that age.
The attack on Pope Emeritus Benedict was exceptionally nasty—and deeply ill-informed. One prominent partisan of the current pontificate opined that Benedict is “conscious barely half an hour at a time”; another wizard from the left-field bleachers had it that Benedict was “incapacitated.”
I have seen these accounts, but I did not interpret them as “nastiness” or “attacks.” They appear to be speculation based upon the understandably natural course for a man who is 92 years old and retired from the papacy 7 years ago due to his lack of physical strength.
Weigel begged to differ, writing,
“I spent a full 45 minutes with Pope Emeritus Benedict this past October 19, discussing a broad range of issues. He was quite frail physically, but in the early evening of what I assume had been a normal day, he was completely lucid, quite well-informed, eager for new information, full of good humor, and able to recall themes and personalities from conversations we had had decades earlier. The pope emeritus seemed clear as a bell, intellectually, at age 92; can the same be said for those who, relying on “reports,” dismiss him as a senile old man, out of touch with events and perhaps even reality?”
Perhaps Weigel’s experience is an accurate description of Benedict’s physical and mental state. Even so, to suggest that the misunderstanding between Benedict and Cardinal Sarah was possibly caused (at least in part) by Benedict’s physical incapacity is not nasty, and it’s not an attack. It’s acknowledging that the man is 92 years old and might not have the same capabilities he once did. Weigel himself drifts into hyperbole when he suggests that Benedict has been described as “senile.” I have not heard anyone suggest this, only that Benedict’s strength, stamina, hearing, and eyesight are greatly weakened. I don’t think anyone seriously challenges that assessment.
This is not “bullying.” It’s only natural that when an official narrative is given, that people will speculate about what might have caused the misunderstanding described in Benedict’s statement. Perhaps it was Benedict’s incapacity due to age. Weigel seems to think this is preposterous. Fine. But perhaps rather than lashing out at those who are simply trying to understand the fuller story behind Benedict’s official statement, he could propose another reason for the misunderstanding?
Instead, Weigel sidesteps the official account and engages in the same post-reality thinking as Ignatius Press.
“The partisans of openness and dialogue are now telling two of Catholicism’s most distinguished sons that their views are unwelcome; that the theological and pastoral defense of clerical celibacy is an act of disloyalty to Pope Francis; and that they should just shut up.”
Who is telling anyone to shut up? As I wrote before, the controversy is not about the content of the book, so much as the idea that Benedict would attach his name to such a polemical and public intervention on a controversial topic facing Pope Francis right now. It appears his contribution isn’t terribly controversial, either. Phyllis Zagano, writing from the pages of the progressive National Catholic Reporter, has this to say about Benedict’s contribution:
“Benedict’s 35-page essay, which might better have been attributed to Joseph Ratzinger, is a dense reflection on his personal dedication to celibate priesthood. It is, in its own way, rather lovely. He writes, from retirement, that priesthood is both incompatible with marriage and a means of escaping narcissism.”
Cardinal Sarah’s writing a book on the subject–even though his position is theologically debatable and might ultimately be rejected by Francis–is not a matter of great controversy, either. Cardinal Marc Ouellet also published a book promoting celibacy back in October, and it didn’t create an uproar. The problem with the Sarah/Benedict book was Benedict’s involvement and co-authorship, the latter of which he has officially disavowed.
So what’s the real problem? The problem isn’t with Benedict, or Francis, or even Cardinal Sarah. The problem isn’t with those who accept Benedict’s request to have his name removed as co-author. For those of us who do, the key question (“Did Benedict agree to co-author Sarah’s book?”) was answered within 48 hours. Yet some refuse to let that be the end of it. And they aren’t being forthcoming about their reasons.
The problem is with those who live in what seems to be a post-reality world, where Benedict’s words bear no weight, where so-called “bullies” are plotting to defame a good cardinal and the pope emeritus, and where a pope uses his divinely-given authority to make decisions that infuriate his detractors.
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.