When Pope Benedict XVI became the first pope to voluntarily resign in 700 years back in 2013, he vowed to remain “hidden from the world.” Skeptics wondered what that would look like in practice, especially since he continued living in Vatican City, wearing the white robes reserved for popes, and traveling in the same influential circles even after Pope Francis assumed the job. Benedict also took the newly created title “pope emeritus,” rather than giving up “pope” altogether. Several past popes, including John Paul II, had decided to stay in the job even as their health declined, for fear of the division and confusion that could result from two popes living side by side with different views on key issues and their own loyal factions.
This week, the skeptics seemed to be proven right. Late on Sunday, news broke—via an excerpt published in conservative French daily Le Figaro—that Benedict had co-authored a book making a forceful case for the necessity of celibacy in the priesthood, just as Pope Francis openly ponders the possibility of allowing some married men to be ordained. Suddenly, the ex-pope was opining in public about a topic the current pope is actively deliberating on—and potentially undermining or influencing his future decision. “This kind of intervention constitutes an illegitimate form of pressure on the one pope,” a professor and theologian at Villanova University, Massimo Faggioli, wrote in the National Catholic Reporter. “In the eyes of those who do not like Francis’ teachings, there is a parallel teaching being written.”
According to the excerpt, the book, From the Depths of Our Hearts, was co-authored by Benedict and Guinean cardinal Robert Sarah, the head of the Vatican’s liturgy office and a conservative who has compared gay rights to terrorism. The book makes a strongly worded case for celibacy as a necessary condition of the priesthood and lambasts “the diabolical lies and the fashionable errors that try to put down priestly celibacy.” The cover featured the names and photographs of both Benedict and Sarah, presenting them as equal contributors to the book’s provocative central argument. It also uses the name “Benedict XVI,” rather than Joseph Ratzinger, giving it the imprimatur of the papacy.
From the Depths of Our Hearts was scheduled to be published in France on Wednesday. Instead, all hell broke loose. On Tuesday, an aide to Benedict said the ex-pope wanted his name removed from the book. Sarah initially defended the co-authorship, issuing a statement that said the retired pope had contributed significant portions of the text and approved the finished manuscript, the cover design, and the publication date. Sarah quoted Benedict as writing, “I agree that the text should be published in the form you have foreseen.” Ninety minutes later, Sarah reversed course, announcing that Benedict’s name will be removed as co-author in the French edition and would be listed only as a contributor. The book’s American publisher, Ignatius Press, has announced it will still list Benedict as co-author.
The issue of priestly celibacy is particularly fraught at this exact moment, which may be why Sarah made a point of mentioning that Benedict approved the book’s publication date. Last fall, Catholic bishops approved a proposal that would allow some married men to be ordained as priests in the Amazon region, where a drastic shortage of priests means some Catholics go years without receiving the Eucharist. The proposal is narrow, restricted to one region of the global church, and would apply only to men who are already deacons and “esteemed men of the community.” It would not mean that existing priests would be allowed to marry. (Married Anglican priests who convert to Catholicism are allowed to become priests on a case-by-case basis.) But it would still represent a fundamental shift to the 1,000-year tradition of priestly celibacy, one the New York Times said could “revolutionize the priesthood.”
Some Catholics see the book dust-up as a prompt to revisit the wisdom of having two popes. (The Netflix drama The Two Popes, nominated this week for three Academy Awards, has only revived popular interest in the mysterious and nearly unprecedented relationship.) Perhaps the Vatican should issue new guidelines for future retired popes, such as banning them from publishing under their papal name after they have retired.
Others wondered if the ex-pope really contributed to the book, or if the 92-year-old who retired for health reasons in 2013 was being exploited by people with an interest in undercutting Francis. “Has the pope emeritus become a brand that some manipulate and administer at will?” wondered the head of one Catholic website based in Rome. “Benedict resigned precisely to avoid such indignities,” prominent British Catholic writer Austen Ivereigh wrote in Commonweal, adding that Benedict “sleeps much of the day, has difficulty writing, and finds it hard to talk.” Benedict’s secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, has been making public statements on Benedict’s behalf. (Gänswein, cheekily nicknamed “Gorgeous George,” is also the prefect of Francis’ household, adding to the dueling-popes drama.)
This is not the first time in recent history that an aging religious figure has been blessed with a period of late, and perplexing, productivity. Skeptics noted that the last book supposedly written by evangelist Billy Graham, 2015’s Where I Am, displayed a fluency with the Bible and online theological debates that went far beyond his apparent abilities as a 96-year-old with serious memory loss and that its central claims about God’s wrath did not reflect his last known thinking on the topic. Graham’s son, Franklin, wrote the book’s foreword and is listed as its copyright holder. Last December, when Franklin announced that Billy voted for Donald Trump in 2016, some Graham family members expressed their doubts in scathing terms. “I’ll never forget that day in 2016 when my grandfather, @billygraham, shrugged off the symptoms of Parkinson’s and hydrocephalus, got up out of bed for the first time in a year, drove down to the polling station, and cast his vote,” one of Billy Graham’s grandsons tweeted. “What a glorious memory!”
If this were just a matter of reshuffling some names on a book cover, it would not have scandalized so many Catholics. But Francis’ defenders see something more diabolical at work: the frail ex-pope being taken advantage of by a faction of powerful anti-Francis conservatives in the church hierarchy. Unless Benedict speaks in his own voice, it won’t be clear what he—rather than his advisers and acolytes—thinks about any of this. For now, he remains “hidden from the world.”