Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah look set to have lost out on compulsory celibacy, with Pope Francis seemingly ready to approve married priests in his forthcoming apostolic exhortation on the Amazon Synod.

Driving the news

All signs point this Thursday to a resounding defeat for Sarah in the battle of “bookgate”.

That’s the operation by which – at least since the preparations for last October’s Amazon Synod – the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has tried by all means to stave off what was perhaps the inevitable conclusion of that Synod: the ordination of viri probati, married “men of proven virtue”, to serve at least in the Amazon region if not in other parts of the world.

The intrigue

As part of his “operation bookgate”, Sarah tried to manipulate the figure and authority of Benedict XVI by appropriating a text apparently written by the Pope Emeritus against optional priestly celibacy, and by including that text in the cardinal’s own volume in which he blasts married clergy as a “half measure”, a “second-class” priesthood and “a breach, a wound in the coherence of the priesthood”.

Perhaps Sarah wasn’t acting alone, but counting on the support of the minority, but powerful, anti-Francis cabal of cardinals in the Vatican, not to mention the anti-Bergoglio tribe of media outlets and commentators on social networks.

Perhaps behind Sarah were the Pope’s own private secretary, Archbishop Georg Gänswein – who appeared to give contrary explanations of the events surrounding the book’s preparation – and Sarah’s publisher Nicolas Diat, a militant ultra-conservative Catholic with powerful far-right connections both in Europe and the US.

At any rate, Sarah’s machinations came undone from Sunday evening, when sources out of Benedict’s Vatican residence, the Mater Ecclesiae monastery, began filtering to the press statements that Benedict had never intended to be Sarah’s co-author.

Though Sarah produced solemn declarations and correspondence supposedly proving Benedict’s approval of the collaboration, in the end Gänswein was forced to demand the Pope Emeritus’ name be taken off the book cover and the supposed joint introduction and conclusion to the volume.

That was even though the tome had already gone to the press in France, and its US publishers later confirmed that they would print the book – Benedict’s name on the cover and all – exactly as they had received it.

Go deeper

Gänswein’s clarification – whether voluntary or forced – sounded the death knell for Sarah’s “operation bookgate”.

To make matters worse for the cardinal, theologians then began picking holes in the theology of the priesthood expounded in his book.

Particularly his argument for “an ontological-sacramental link between the priesthood and celibacy” against the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which affirmed (Presbyterum ordinis, 16) that celibacy “is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood, as in apparent from the practice of the early Church and the from the traditions of the Eastern Churches”.

But even though the double blow of denials from Gänswein and criticisms from the theologians must have bruised Sarah, what will hurt him even deeper is the knowledge that Pope Francis looks set to approve, and soon, the very thing he tried so hard to prevent: the ordination of married men as priests.

Why it matters

How do we know married priests are coming? Three signs:

First of all, the news that dropped January 16 that Francis has finished his apostolic exhortation on the Amazon Synod, and that key Synod organiser Cardinal Claudio Hummes has written to the world’s bishops to tell them to prepare for the document’s arrival “by the end of this month or in early February”, once the draft has been reviewed, corrected and translated.

Hummes also advised the world’s prelates to begin preparing press conferences for the exhortation’s presentation, thus suggesting there may be surprises in the final text.

Second of all, we have Pope Francis’ continued insistence this week on the importance of credibility, consistency, coherence and testimony for authentic authority.

The Pope said it in his homily at the morning Mass in Santa Marta, on the day the world was talking about the Sarah scandal.

Francis returned to the theme in an interview with Italian journalist Eugenio Scalfari – carried out also on Tuesday but published only Thursday – in which he referenced his Tuesday homily and declared:

“Jesus had authority because he was consistent in what he taught and what he did, how he lived. Authority shows itself in this: coherence and testimony”.

Scalfari also said Francis was not bothered by the opposition to his pontificate headed up by Sarah, and that Francis had told him that Benedict expressed his fraternal loyalty to him as “bookgate” was brewing.

“The Church is obliged to become more modern: to be with the poor and weak, not with the rich and strong”, Pope Francis further told Scalfari.

For the record

But that insistence of Francis’ on credibility, consistency, coherence and testimony as keys to true authority – not like the “pastoral schizophrenia” of saying one thing and doing another, as he put it in Santa Marta – are the real indicators that Francis is preparing for the re-introduction into the Church of married priests.

The Fathers of the Amazon Synod put their request for married priests very clearly, as the para-Vatican blog Il Sismografo recalled this afternoon, in paragraph 111 of the Synod final document which passed by a margin of 128 for and 41 against, despite only needing 123 to be approved:

Considering that legitimate diversity does not harm the communion and unity of the Church, but rather expresses and serves it (cf. LG 13; OE 6), witness the plurality of existing rites and disciplines, we propose that criteria and dispositions be established by the competent authority, within the framework of Lumen Gentium 26, to ordain as priests suitable and respected men of the community with a legitimately constituted and stable family, who have had a fruitful permanent diaconate and receive an adequate formation for the priesthood, in order to sustain the life of the Christian community through the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the Sacraments in the most remote areas of the Amazon region. In this regard, some were in favour of a more universal approach to the subject.

That raises the question: how could Pope Francis turn a deaf ear to that request after insisting so much on the Church needing to get with the times, and on being credible, consistent, coherent and giving testimony in the exercise of his legitimate authority?

Next on Novena:

German laypeople accuse Benedict, Sarah of creating “division” in Church with “irresponsible” anti-optional celibacy stance

In midst of Sarah scandal, Pope laments “much harm” done by “incoherent and schizophrenic” pastors

Bombshell: Benedict asks for name, image to be removed from celibacy book Sarah said they co-wrote

Sicilian archbishop reminds Benedict, Sarah that Francis is pope: he makes the decisions on celibacy

“Totally disloyal”: Catholic Twittizens roast Benedict and Cardinal Sarah for new book stifling celibacy debate


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.