Cardinal denies claims he manipulated retired pope over celibacy book

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The Vatican cardinal who co-authored a controversial book with Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI reaffirming priestly celibacy has denied he manipulated the retired pontiff into publishing it.

Guinean cardinal Robert Sarah, who heads the Vatican’s liturgy office, spoke out after news reports quoting “sources close to Benedict” claimed the retired pope never saw or approved the finished product.

Cardinal Sarah reproduced letters from Benedict making clear that the 92-year-old pope had written the text and approved publishing it.

The controversy underlines the conservative-versus-progressive battle lines within the Catholic Church following Benedict’s 2013 decision to retire, and his successor Pope Francis’ more reform-minded papacy.

Benedict’s intervention in the book, entitled From The Depths Of Our Hearts, had the appearance of being an attempt to interfere with Pope Francis’ ministry.

Francis has said he will publish a document in the coming weeks that is expected to touch on whether married men could be ordained priests in the Amazon, to deal with a priest shortage there.

Pope Francis is the more reform-minded of the two pontiffs (AP)

His intervention was also surprising, given he had vowed to live “hidden from the world” when he retired in 2013, specifically to avoid any suggestion that he still wielded papal authority.

Catholic Twitter accounts, amplifying the rift between right and left, were buzzing about the implications of Benedict’s intervention.

Francis’ supporters claimed Benedict had been manipulated by members of his right-wing entourage into writing something that amounted to a direct attack on Francis. Some claimed it was evidence of elder abuse, given Benedict is 92 and increasingly frail.

Conservatives, many of whom long for Benedict’s orthodoxy, claimed it was no such thing and noted that Francis too has reaffirmed the gift of priestly celibacy.

The Vatican tried to dampen down the whole furore by insisting the book was a mere “contribution” to the discussion about priestly celibacy written by two bishops in “filial obedience” to Francis.

Benedict XVI
Concerns have been raised with the Emeritus Pope’s advancing age and frailty in mind (AP)

He tweeted three 2018 letters from Benedict making clear the retired pope had provided him the text.

As he wrote in the book, Benedict said he had begun writing “some reflections on the priesthood” before Cardinal Sarah even proposed the book in September, but had put it aside because of his waning strength.

Benedict wrote in a letter dated September 20 that he had finished the book after Sarah proposed a text on the priesthood and celibacy. The third letter from Benedict, dated November 25, reads: “From my side, the text can be published in the form you have foreseen.”

In a tweet, Cardinal Sarah said: “I solemnly affirm that Benedict XVI knew that our project would take the form of a book. I can say that we exchanged many drafts to make corrections.”

The letters make clear Benedict had written a text prior to Francis’ Amazon synod, in which a majority of bishops backed ordaining married men as priests. After the synod concluded, Francis announced he would write his own reflections on its outcome.

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