Abattle inside the Vatican over a book about priestly celibacy took an odd turn on Tuesday when Pope Benedict demanded his name be taken off it, a day before it was due to appear in bookshops.
The book, From the Depths of Our Hearts, puts up a staunch defence of celibacy and was interpreted as a critical attack on Pope Francis, who is mulling whether to relax the stipulation in parts of the world where there is an acute shortage of clergy.
It contains an essay written by Benedict and was due to be published in French on Wednesday and in English next month.
The Pope Emeritus, who in 2013 became the first pope in seven centuries to resign but who still lives within the walls of the Vatican, was credited as the co-author of the volume, along with a fellow conservative, Cardinal Robert Sarah from Guinea.
But in an unexpected announcement, Benedict’s aides said they wanted his name removed from the cover and from the book’s introductory and concluding chapters.
The move raised questions as to whether the 92-year-old Benedict had been in any way manipulated by conservatives keen to coopt him in the fight against the reformist Pope Francis.
It was the latest twist in a saga that reflects the war of attrition being fought between traditionalists and progressives within the Catholic world.
“The pope emeritus knew that the cardinal was preparing a book and he sent him a text on the priesthood, authorising him to use it as he wanted,” said Georg Ganswein, Benedict’s personal secretary, whose good looks and suave manner have earned him the nickname ‘the Black Forest Adonis’.
“But he did not approve a project for a co-authored book and he had not seen or authorised the cover. It is a misunderstanding that does not raise questions about Cardinal Sarah's good faith.”
In the book, Benedict, 92, argues that a priest cannot devote all his time and energy to the service of God if he also has a family – despite the fact that there are several parts of the Roman Catholic Church in which married priests are tolerated.
Coming at a time when Francis is considering the deliberations of an October synod on whether to relax the celibacy rule in certain circumstances, it was seen as Benedict trying to influence the debate and of running, in effect, a parallel papacy.
Cardinal Sarah, 74, strongly denied any suggestion that he had misled Benedict.
"I solemnly affirm that Benedict XVI knew that our project would take the form of a book," the cardinal wrote on Twitter.
In a lengthy statement, he insisted that Benedict knew his name would be on the front of the book and that accusations that he had manipulated the former pope were “despicable”.
In future editions of the book, Benedict will be named as a contributor rather than the co-author, but the text of what he wrote would remain unchanged, the cardinal said. The French publishers of the book, Fayard, said that “discussions were taking place” about how to respond to Benedict’s request to have his name removed.