Unpacking the Benedict XVI-Cardinal Sarah Book Fiasco

The book’s rollout caused a backlash against Benedict appearing as co-author of the book, even though it appears the Pope Emeritus had given at least tacit prior approval for the full manuscript.

LEFT: Benedict XVI puts on his glasses to sign a guest book in Freiburg, Germany, Sept. 24, 2011. (Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images). RIGHT: Cardinal Robert Sarah signs a guest book at the Malacañan Palace in the Philippines, Jan. 29, 2014. (Photo by Gil Nartea/Malacañang Photo Bureau/Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).
LEFT: Benedict XVI puts on his glasses to sign a guest book in Freiburg, Germany, Sept. 24, 2011. (Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images). RIGHT: Cardinal Robert Sarah signs a guest book at the Malacañan Palace in the Philippines, Jan. 29, 2014. (Photo by Gil Nartea/Malacañang Photo Bureau/Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons). (photo: Register Files)

VATICAN CITY — The controversy regarding the book on the priesthood and priestly celibacy with parts penned by Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah has produced plenty of heat but not much light.

So what are the hard facts, as far as we know? Perhaps the first place to look is precisely what Cardinal Sarah and Benedict had previously agreed upon concerning the book entitled From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy and the Crisis of the Catholic Church.

Beginning with Cardinal Sarah’s statement, published Jan. 14, we learn that:

  • On Sept. 5 last year, after visiting Benedict XVI at his Mater Ecclesiae residence, Cardinal Sarah wrote to the Pope Emeritus to ask him to write a text on the priesthood, especially on celibacy.
  • He told him he didn’t expect Benedict to agree because of the “polemics” that such reflections could “potentially stir in the media” but that he was “convinced the entire Church needs this gift” that could be published around Christmas.
  • On Sept. 20 Benedict replied, saying he had actually begun to write a text on the subject and Cardinal Sarah’s letter had encouraged him to finish the task.
  • On Oct. 12, Benedict gave him a “long text” and Cardinal Sarah thought it too profound and lengthy for a newspaper. He therefore “proposed to the pope the publication of a book, integrating his own texts as well as mine.”
  • Following “several exchanges in order to develop the book,” on Nov. 19 he sent a “complete manuscript” to Benedict, “as we had jointly decided, the cover, a common introduction and conclusion, the text of Benedict XVI and my own text.”
  • On Nov. 25, the Pope Emeritus expressed his “great satisfaction concerning the sections prepared in common” and wrote a key sentence: “For my part, the text can be published in the form which you have planned.”
  • On Dec. 3, he visited Benedict to explain “our book” would be printed over the Christmas holidays and released on Jan. 15 and that he would “bring him the work at the beginning of January after returning from a trip to my homeland.”

Following the announcement of the book which first appeared in the French newspaper Le Figaro on Jan. 12, a storm of criticism ensued against the cardinal and the pope emeritus, portraying both of them as at odds with Pope Francis and criticizing the cardinal for “using” Benedict in his dotage. Cardinal Sarah, widely seen as an honest man of integrity, said in his statement: “The polemic which has aimed to tarnish me for several hours by implying that Benedict was not informed of the appearance of the book From the Depths of Our Hearts is completely despicable.” He also said he “sincerely forgive[s] those who calumny me or who desire to put me in opposition to Pope Francis.”

“My attachment to Benedict remains intact, and my filial obedience to Pope Francis absolute,” he wrote.   

In letters from Benedict to Cardinal Sarah, also published by the cardinal on Jan. 13, we have the confirmation from Benedict that prior to his letter, he had already begun “some reflections on the priesthood” but that his physical strength no longer allowed him to edit a theological text.

Noting the cardinal’s “particular attention to celibacy” he then said the cardinal’s letter prompted him to “resume my work” on the reflections and then to “pass on to you the text” once translated from German into Italian. “I leave it to you [to determine] if these notes, whose insufficiency I feel strongly, can be of any use,” he wrote.

Benedict repeated a similar sentiment in his Oct. 12 letter to the cardinal that accompanied his text, saying, “I shall leave it to you if you find any use in my poor thoughts.”

In a third letter to the cardinal on Nov. 25, Benedict expressed his heartfelt thanks for “all the work you have done” regarding the sections written in common, the introduction and conclusion.

“It touched me deeply that you understood my last intentions: I had actually written 7 pages clarifying the methodology of my text and I am truly happy to say that you were able to say the essential in half a page. So, I do not see a need to send you the 7 pages, since you have expressed the essentials in half a page,” Benedict wrote.

Then, he added: “For my part, the text can be published in the form that you have planned.”

In a tweet accompanying the letters, Cardinal Sarah commented that the attacks against him, that he and Benedict were not co-authors, “seem to imply a lie on my part,” adding that these “defamations are of exceptional gravity.”

In a further tweet on Jan. 14, he wrote: “I solemnly affirm that Benedict XVI knew our project would take the form of a book. I can say that we exchanged several proofs to make the corrections. I will issue a more detailed statement this morning to set the record straight. +RS”

A further element to this story is a commentary by Andrea Tornielli, editorial director of Vatican News, who wrote Jan. 13 that the book “bears the signatures” of both Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah, also for the introduction and conclusion. In a neutral piece, Tornielli noted it had been written “in filial obedience to Pope Francis” and the authors “are seeking the truth” in “a spirit of love for the unity of the Church.” He then reiterated Pope Francis’ statements on priestly celibacy.  

And yet, just a few hours after Cardinal Sarah's morning statement on Jan. 14, Archbishop Georg Gänswein told the Italian news agency ANSA: “I can confirm that this morning I acted on instructions from the Pope Emeritus 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 knew that the cardinal was preparing a book and he sent him a text on the priesthood authorizing him to use it as he wanted. But he did not approve a project for a co-authored book and he had not seen or authorized the cover,” Archbishop Gänswein continued. “It is a misunderstanding that does not raise questions about Cardinal Sarah’s good faith.”

Cardinal Sarah then tweeted: “Considering the polemics caused by the publication of the book From the Depths of Our Hearts, it was decided that the book’s author for future publications will be: ‘Cardinal Sarah, with the contribution of Benedict XVI.’ However, the full text remains absolutely unchanged. +RS.”

Judging from the letters supplied by Cardinal Sarah over the last couple days, relations between all parties seemed relatively harmonious until news of the book broke that the Pope Emeritus and Cardinal Sarah were co-authors. Two reliable sources have told the Register that Tornielli phoned Archbishop Gänswein on Jan. 13 and Jan. 14 to discuss the book.

So what then happened? Was Benedict perhaps taken aback by the furore in some quarters that his name on the book appeared to cause and so distanced himself from the project? Had Nicolas Diat, the book’s editor, perhaps been too rash to include Benedict as co-author, even though Benedict had seen the title and cover and had not expressed his prior disapproval?

Or did Archbishop Gänswein feel pressured by the backlash the book was receiving from parts of the media, the Vatican and Santa Marta (perhaps via Tornielli), and so convinced Benedict to walk back his involvement?

The Register asked both Archbishop Gänswein and Nicolas Diat for comment. Archbishop Gänswein has yet to respond, but on Jan. 15 Diat confirmed to the Register Cardinal Sarah’s summary of events, most notably stressing that the cardinal showed Benedict in person a draft copy of the cover during a private audience. 

“Cardinal Sarah sent a confidential letter [to Benedict] on Nov. 19 with the full text. The proofs were complete: introduction, the two texts, and the conclusion,” Diat explained. “Then, on Dec. 3, he showed the draft cover during an audience with Benedict XVI.” 

Diat also maintains that as recently as last Thursday, Jan. 9, Archbishop Gänswein spoke with Davide Cantagalli who is working on the Italian edition, and that during their conversation Archbishop Gänswein “gave his support for all the work the Italian editors were doing.” Cantagalli told the Register that Diat’s comments regarding him were “false” but would not offer further details when asked.

This article has been updated to include Nicolas Diat's comments.

Edward Pentin is the Register's Rome correspondent.