VATICAN CITY, Holy See (AFP) — The Vatican was gripped Tuesday by a dispute over whether elderly ex-pope Benedict XVI was being used by the Catholic Church’s ultra-conservative wing to undermine his successor Pope Francis.
Following the controversy, the former pontiff asked that his name be removed from a controversial new book in which he comes down firmly against married priests, saying he had not co-authored it with a conservative cardinal.
When France’s Le Figaro newspaper published extracts of the book on Sunday, it was presented as a collaboration between Benedict and the ultra-conservative Cardinal Robert Sarah.
Benedict was quoted in the book saying he “cannot keep silent” about the divisive issue of whether or not to allow married men to become Catholic priests — and coming down firmly against it.
Francis is currently considering allowing it in remote locations, such as the Amazon, where communities seldom have Mass due to a lack of priests. He is expected to publish his decision in the coming weeks.
Vatican experts expressed astonishment that the retired pope would speak out on such a sensitive topic.
But Benedict’s private secretary, Georg Gaenswein, told ANSA on Tuesday that on behalf of the former pope he asked Cardinal Sarah “to contact the publishers of the book begging them to remove the name of Benedict XVI as co-author of the book itself and also to remove his signature from the introduction and conclusions.”
The book in question, “From the Depth of our Hearts,” was expected to hit bookshelves in France on Wednesday with images of the former pope and Cardinal Sarah on the cover.
Gaenswein said Benedict was aware that a book was in the works and had sent his own text authorizing Sarah to “make use of it as he wanted.”
“But he hadn’t approved any plans for a double signature book nor had he seen and authorized the cover,” Gaenswein said.
It is unclear which passages in the book came from Benedict and which were written by Sarah.
Cardinal Sarah took to Twitter to “solemnly affirm that Benedict XVI knew that our project would take the form of a book.”
“We exchanged several proofs to make the corrections,” he said, before publishing three letters written by the former pope.
In one, Benedict writes that “the text can be published in the manner you suggested” — without, however, specifying if that was a book.
“Attacks seem to imply a lie on my part. These slanders are exceptionally serious,” Sarah said.
He later issued a statement affirming his “affection” for Benedict and “obedience” to Pope Francis.
“No one is doubting that Benedict agrees with the premise of the book — to retain clerical celibacy for the Latin rite priesthood,” said Vatican expert Christopher Lamb.
“The question is the use of a retired pope’s authority to make the point.”
Nicolas Seneze of the French Catholic daily La Croix reported a flurry of exchanges Monday between Benedict’s abode and Francis’s, “where the danger of a book that erects the pope emeritus as a parallel magisterium (Catholic authority) was clearly understood.”
Italian daily Repubblica also weighed in on the controversy.
At the former monastery in the Vatican gardens, Benedict’s home since becoming the first pontiff to resign in almost 600 years, the fear was “that the emeritus pope has been used without his knowledge”, it reported.
It warned of “the real risk that there are those… who use Benedict to advance their own battles.”