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‘Bookgate’: a week on, there are still unanswered questions

Cardinal Robert Sarah (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

What we know — and what we don’t

An embattled senior Vatican official again took to social media on Friday to defend himself from accusations of dishonesty in connection with a book he wrote with another senior churchman on the priesthood and priestly celibacy.

The senior official is the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Cardinal Robert Sarah. The other senior churchman is Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. The title of the book in question is: From the Depths of our Hearts: Priesthood, Celibacy, and the Crisis of the Catholic Church.

The book is a timely theological meditation on the priesthood and particularly the place of celibacy in priestly and ecclesial life. The book offers the informed reflections of each senior churchman. Benedict’s part focuses on the scriptural, sacramental, and ecclesiological bases of the priesthood and the long-standing Western discipline, according to which only unmarried men are admitted to priestly orders. Cardinal Sarah’s is a pastoral reflection and an appeal against changing the discipline or granting exceptions to it.

Though each writer articulates a strong position regarding the question — Cardinal Sarah’s is more strident, and in fact becomes in places a case for policy — their views of celibacy are a consequence of their general considerations, rather than a motor of them. They invite substantial criticism, and they are likely to get it.

News of the book’s release generated significant heat early in the week, with one area of discussion being the manner in which the contributors to the volume should be identified on the covers of the various editions.

“Because of the incessant, nauseating and deceptive controversies that have never stopped since the beginning of the week, concerning the book, From the Depths of Our Hearts, I met Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI this evening,” Cardinal Sarah said on Friday, in the first of three tweets addressing the business.

“With Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI,” read the second, “we have seen how there is no misunderstanding between us. I came out very happy, full of peace and courage from this beautiful interview.”

That word — “misunderstanding” — was also used by the personal secretary to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Prefect of the Papal Household, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, to describe the contretemps surrounding the book’s cover billing, which was one of the several confused points raised during an often heated public controversy throughout a very confused week in the news. Here’s how it shook out.

What happened

News broke in the French press last Sunday of the book’s impending release. News outlets in several languages picked up the story and began to run with it. The commentariat began to weigh in, occasionally without having read even the excerpts carried in the leading French daily, Le Figaro, which broke the story.

A series of narratives developed around the book.

First, Benedict was violating the self-imposed terms of his retirement in order to weigh in against the pope on a major question of Church discipline. It was Pope Francis, however, who told Italy’s Corriere della Sera – in 2013 – that he’d spoken with Benedict about the matter of his “retirement”, and decided with him that he ought to be involved in Church life.

“We have spoken about it,” the Corriere quoted Francis as saying, “and we decided together that it would be better that he see people, get out, and participate in the life of the Church.”

Commentators at the same time complained that the book would have the effect, at least, of reinforcing the notion that Benedict is still somehow officially responsible for safeguarding Church teaching and exercising Church governance.

That “parallel magisterium” line took a hit when review of the proofs showed that Cardinal Sarah — not Benedict — was unambiguously the author of the most strident passages, including recommendations against any further exceptions to the long-standing discipline of the Latin Church with respect to priestly celibacy. The book does strongly advocate against any general change to the Western discipline. That is Pope Francis’s own publicly stated opinion on the matter — something official Vatican media channels noted on Monday.

Then there were sensational social media teasers saying Benedict did not co-author the book. Those appeared after early reports, which quoted blind sources “close to Benedict XVI” as saying they were “surprised” that Benedict could have co-written the book.

It quickly became clear, however, that the question of authorship had to do with the billing, rather than the substance. The chapter attributed to the pope emeritus was “100 per cent Benedict,” in the words of Archbishop Gänswein.

The archbishop said the same on Tuesday afternoon to Le Figaro, which further quoted him as saying, “We have checked the translation of the original German text, not a comma has been changed.”

There had still been some doubt on Tuesday morning regarding the introduction and conclusion, both of which appear under the signatures of both the Pope Emeritus and the cardinal in the first editions.

Le Figaro reported on Tuesday evening that the French first edition would be released Wednesday unchanged, but subsequent editions will have a new cover attributing the book to: “Cardinal Sarah avec la contribution de Benoît XVI.”

Cardinal Sarah had announced the change to the book’s cover Tuesday morning. The Prefect of the Papal Household and personal secretary to the pope emeritus, Archbishop Gänswein, confirmed the change to Le Figaro.

Tuesday afternoon, Archbishop Gänswein also told Le Figaro that the introduction and conclusion will be billed in subsequent editions as: “Written by Cardinal Sarah, read and approved by Benedict XVI.”

“This,” Gänswein further explained, “is so as to avoid the impression that this is a book written jointly (Fr. a quatre mains), while Benedict XVI made his simple contribution.” At press time, Gänswein had not responded to independent inquiries sent Thursday morning from the Catholic Herald in those regards.

Meanwhile, Ignatius Press said no one has asked them to change any part of it.

“We have not received any request to change anything,” the CEO of Ignatius Press, Mark Brumley, told the Catholic Herald on Tuesday.

On Friday morning, Brumley said that was still the case. He also said Ignatius had received the French manuscript “a little before Christmas” and that everything seemed to be in order. “All we have are tweets and news reports,” Brumley said, but no request to alter the book, which was still being prepared for printing as we headed into the weekend.

Various news outlets and commenters have reported that Ignatius Press has refused to change the cover. As of Sunday morning, they haven’t been presented with the chance to do so.

Outstanding questions

Back to Cardinal Sarah’s Friday afternoon tweet thread: when Sarah said there is “no misunderstanding” between himself and Benedict, did he mean for us to read closely, and understand that there is no misunderstanding now? Or did Sarah intend to say that there has never been a misunderstanding?

One readily understands the desire to visit with an old friend with whom one has worked closely on a major project. One readily understands the desire to clear the air after the eruption of a significant public controversy, even — especially — when one is conscious of no wrongdoing.

What one does not understand so readily is the reason one would describe the outcome of such a meeting in such terms. It was either extremely cagey, or extremely careless.

In any case, Cardinal Sarah’s deployment of the word “misunderstanding” on Friday set off another round of social media speculation and comment from Catholicism’s polyglot professional chattering classes across the spectrum of opinion in the Church.

“I call you to read and meditate on From the Depths of our Hearts. I warmly thank my editor, Nicolas Diat, as well as the Fayard [publishing] house, for the thoroughness, probity, seriousness, and professionalism which they have shown. Excellent reading to all!” Cardinal Sarah finally tweeted.

That was a plug for his book — whatever else it was — and one that contained some interesting elements. To start, Cardinal Sarah identified Nicholas Diat of Fayard as “my editor”. NB. He did not say “our editor”. He praised the conduct of Diat and Fayard, but did not clarify whether he intended to praise their conduct during the book’s production or during the controversy that ensued after news broke of its impending release.

The rules of construction would see general statements as intended for general application, though there are particulars of this affair, touching both Diat (statements he has made) and Fayard (what kind of contracts they secured, with whom, and under what pretences) which invite scrutiny.

Diat told the National Catholic Register on Wednesday that he understood that Sarah had personally shared the manuscript and cover with the Pope Emeritus. “Cardinal Sarah sent a confidential letter [to Benedict] on Nov. 19 with the full text,” the Register quotes Diat as saying. “The proofs were complete: introduction, the two texts, and the conclusion,” Diat also told the Register. “Then, on Dec. 3, he showed the draft cover during an audience with Benedict XVI.” That recollection tracks with Cardinal Sarah’s own statements.

The Register also reported other remarks from Diat, in which Diat claimed that Archbishop Gänswein had spoken to the book’s Italian editor, David Cantagalli, recently — “as recently as January 9” according to the Register — and that Gänswein “gave his support for all the work the Italian editors were doing”.

In response to email queries from the Catholic Herald, Cantagalli disputed the accuracy of that statement.

“With regard to the news of which you inform me,” Cantagalli replied, “concerning the recent statements made to the National Catholic Register by Mr Nicolas Diat regarding the event described therein: For the part that concerns me, I inform you that these statements are false.”

After receiving the statement from Cantagalli, the Herald asked him whether he hadn’t spoken to Gänswein at all. Cantagalli declined to comment further. “I have nothing to add,” he wrote on Wednesday afternoon, promising a press release that would “clarify everything” by Thursday. On Thursday evening, having received nothing in the way of official communication, the Catholic Herald again contacted Cantagalli. “You will have to use patience until [Friday] evening,” Cantagalli replied. Friday saw no press release, either. Cantagalli did not respond to email queries on Saturday.

Attempts by the Catholic Herald to contact Diat at Fayard starting Wednesday afternoon, were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, Fayard has apparently agreed to change the billing in subsequent printings and editions of the French original. Fayard has not disputed assertions in the press, to the effect that no author contract between the house and the pope emeritus ever existed.

Standard practice in the publishing industry would be to secure contracts with each contributor, detailing — among other things — specific rights to copy and division of proceeds. If Fayard did not do that, then the reason they didn’t becomes important: did they trust Cardinal Sarah’s good faith representation of Benedict as agreeing to the mode and manner of the book’s publication?

If they somehow misrepresented the book to the other publishing houses with which they contracted editions in translation, then they could be on the hook for any advances those houses paid for whatever rights they supposed they had secured. The Catholic Herald sent email queries to Archbishop Gänswein on Friday morning, asking whether the pope emeritus had a contract with Fayard. As of Sunday morning, the Herald had received no reply.

On Friday afternoon, however, Die Tagespost — with which Benedict has recently launched a Catholic journalism initiative — published a story quoting Archbishop Gänswein with regard to certain particulars of the story as it had developed, but only indirectly attributing to Gänswein the assertion that there is no contract. A story from the Austrian Kathpress agency earlier in the week had done the same.

If Fayard did have a contract, they might have decided to humour the request from Cardinal Sarah to modify the title in subsequent printings and editions anyway — contracts notwithstanding — in order to keep a bestselling author happy. In any case, it appears the other houses with which Fayard arranged translations have contracts for a co-authored book. That certainly is the case with Ignatius Press, the book’s English-language publisher.

In theory, the fallout could lead to complex multiparty litigation. The contretemps, however, does not seem to have harmed sales. For now, the controversy continues over the book written in part by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI and in part by Cardinal Sarah, but somehow not “co-authored” by them.

What we know — and what we don’t

Archbishop Gänswein acknowledged that Benedict contributed to the book, and knew it would be published, though he explained that the Pope Emeritus had neither seen nor approved the cover design.

“The Pope Emeritus knew that the cardinal was preparing a book and had sent his text on the priesthood authorizing him to use it as he would,” various news agencies quoted Gänswein as saying, “but [Benedict] had not approved any plans for a jointly-signed book, nor had he seen and authorised the cover.”

Gänswein further stated the Pope Emeritus was not responsible for writing either the introduction or the conclusion to the book. The change reported by Le Figaro on Tuesday afternoon to the attribution line in the French edition, however, clarified that Benedict at some point read and approved the texts that introduce and conclude the book.

Cardinal Sarah had already released a carefully worded statement on Tuesday morning — backed by photographs of his correspondence with the Pope Emeritus that he had previously shared — the purport of which appeared to be that Benedict had seen the project and approved it.

Gänswein characterised the whole business as “a misunderstanding, without questioning the good faith of Cardinal Sarah”. After reaching Cardinal Sarah’s secretary by phone on Thursday, the Herald sent email queries to Sarah through him, asking about the precise contractual arrangements Cardinal Sarah has with Fayard, the publisher of the original work. By Sunday morning, the Herald had no reply.

Even if Cardinal Sarah fairly and accurately represented to Fayard that Benedict had agreed to every particular of the content, best practice would have been for the publisher to seek a contract from the Pope Emeritus. While authors are broadly aware of publishing ins and outs, Cardinal Sarah is responsible for his arrangement with the publisher. The publisher and the lawyers are responsible for the rest.

The business nevertheless might have been fairly embarrassing for Cardinal Sarah. Sarah, however, was not merely embarrassed. He saw himself savaged in the press: his reputation injured; his good name tarnished. By the time it emerged that Benedict had written his part, approved the introduction and conclusion, and given his placet to the book’s publication, the damage was done.

If Cardinal Sarah deserves criticism for this business, it is because he may have had his part in the mismanagement of the back of the house. It may be fair to ask the people touting him as papabile how they might expect him to govern the Church in a time of major global crisis, when he couldn’t manage a book launch. On the basis of what we know has transpired, however, it does not seem fair — or even minimally just — to suggest (as some have) that he might be guilty of plagiarism, forgery, elder abuse, manipulation, disloyalty, or any similar wickedness.

So, a “misunderstanding” in which no one comes out looking particularly well, but also a misunderstanding in which one man suffered particularly, and a good deal of it apparently undeserved. That carelessness, rather than malice, may be chiefly responsible for the manner in which Sarah’s character has been impugned over the past week, is likely to be of little comfort. That said, none of the churchmen involved in this business have distinguished themselves by their candour.