Vatican tamps down clamor over Benedict's new celibacy book

FILE - In this Sept. 28, 2014 file photo, Pope Francis, right, hugs Pope Benedict XVI prior to the start of a meeting with elderly faithful in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. Retired Pope Benedict XVI has broken his silence to reaffirm the value of priestly celibacy, co-authoring a bombshell book at the precise moment that Pope Francis is weighing whether to allow married men to be ordained to address the Catholic priest shortage. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 28, 2014 file photo, Pope Francis, right, hugs Pope Benedict XVI prior to the start of a meeting with elderly faithful in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. Retired Pope Benedict XVI has broken his silence to reaffirm the value of priestly celibacy, co-authoring a bombshell book at the precise moment that Pope Francis is weighing whether to allow married men to be ordained to address the Catholic priest shortage. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, File) (Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

VATICAN CITY – The Vatican on Monday sought to downplay the decision by retired Pope Benedict XVI to reaffirm the “necessity” of a celibate priesthood at the same time that Pope Francis is considering ordaining married men, calling his book a mere contribution that was written in full obedience to Francis.

The Vatican’s editorial director, Andrea Tornielli, penned an editorial that sought to put Benedict’s bombshell book in the context of a continuity between the two popes. He noted that Francis, too, has upheld the “gift” of priestly celibacy and refused to make it optional across the board.

The French daily Le Figaro late Sunday published excerpts of the book “From the Depths of Our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy and the Crisis of the Catholic Church," co-authored with conservative Cardinal Robert Sarah; The Associated Press obtained galleys of the English edition, which is being published Feb. 20 by Ignatius Press.

Benedict’s intervention was extraordinary, given he had promised to remain “hidden from the world” when he retired in 2013, and pledged his obedience to the new pope. He has largely held to that pledge, though he penned an odd essay last year that blamed the sexual abuse crisis on the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

His reaffirmation of priestly celibacy, however, gets to the heart of a fraught policy issue that Francis is expected to weigh in on in the coming weeks, and could well be considered a public attempt by the former pope to sway the thinking of the current one.

The implications for such an intervention are grave, given that conservative and traditionalist Catholics nostalgic for Benedict's orthodoxy are already deeply opposed to Francis, with some even considering Benedict's resignation illegitimate.

The book is likely to fuel renewed anxiety about the wisdom of Benedict's decision to call himself “emeritus pope," rather than merely a retired bishop, and create the unprecedented situation of a former pope living in the Vatican gardens near a current one, and wearing the white cassock of the papacy.

In that light, it is significant that the English edition of the book lists the author as “Benedict XVI," with no mention of his emeritus papal status on the cover.