Former Pope Benedict Distances Himself From Debate on Married Priests

ROME—Retired Pope

Benedict XVI

moved to distance himself from suggestions he had tried to sway his successor

Pope Francis

on whether to allow married men to be ordained as priests—suggestions that have inflamed debate within the Catholic Church over the former pope’s role in the Vatican.

Pope Benedict asked Tuesday that he no longer be credited as co-author of a book to which he contributed that defends the principle of celibacy. Pope Francis is considering relaxing the millennium-old role in remote areas to encourage more men to become priests. News of the book, which the publisher said Monday was co-written by Pope Benedict and Guinean Cardinal

Robert Sarah,

intensified debate over the historically unique situation of having two living popes in the Vatican, especially as many conservative Catholics look to Pope Benedict as a defender of tradition in the face of Pope Francis’ progressive agenda.

Pope Benedict retired in 2013, citing his age and diminished strength, and under his successor’s reign has led a largely secluded existence in a former convent within the grounds of the Vatican.

He has, however, weighed in occasionally on sensitive subjects such as traditional liturgy, interreligious dialogue, and clerical sexual abuse, sometimes reflecting alarm among conservative Catholics over the direction of the current pontificate.

Celibacy has become one of several polarizing issues in the church. Pope Francis is due to decide early this year whether to allow the ordination of married men as priests in South America’s Amazon region to relieve a shortage of clergy there.

He has said that celibacy is a “gift to the church” but that he is open to exceptions in sparsely populated regions. If he relaxes the rule, it would mark the first time that the Roman Catholic Church routinely allowed the ordination of married priests in nearly a thousand years.

Amid mounting controversy over the book, Pope Benedict’s private secretary, Archbishop

Georg Gänswein,

called Cardinal Sarah on Tuesday morning to ask that the retired pope’s name and picture be removed from the book cover, the archbishop told KNA, the news service of the German Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

“From the Depth of Our Hearts” was due to be published on Wednesday in French, and in English and German next month, listing as co-authors Pope Benedict and Cardinal Sarah, an outspoken conservative who heads the Vatican’s office for liturgy. One of the book’s four chapters will still be credited to Pope Benedict.

Cardinal Sarah wrote on Twitter that Tuesday’s request from the former pope came in response to the “polemics that the publication of the work provoked.” He said he was in touch with the publisher about implementing Pope Benedict’s requested changes.

Various commentators on social media had already accused Cardinal Sarah of exaggerating the role of the retired pope in the writing of the book. Cardinal Sarah issued several statements defending himself on Monday and Tuesday, including a detailed account of his collaboration with Pope Benedict, who he said had approved the coauthorship.

Archbishop Gänswein told KNA that one chapter in the book is “100% Benedict.” In that chapter, the former pope writes that even married priests in the early church were always required to be sexually abstinent as a sign of their marriage to the church.

But Pope Benedict asked that his name be removed from the cover, introduction and conclusion, which were to be attributed to him jointly with the cardinal, Archbishop Gänswein said. The retired pope had never signed a contract with the book’s publisher, the archbishop said, adding: “It was a misunderstanding, without casting doubt on Cardinal Sarah’s good intentions.”

The incident is a major embarrassment for Cardinal Sarah, a vocal conservative who was previously rebuked by Pope Francis for championing traditional styles of worship. Many Vatican observers see him as a potential candidate to become the next pope.

Write to Francis X. Rocca at [email protected]

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