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World

Retired Pope Benedict's Book Addresses Priestly Celibacy

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So at a time when TV and movies are focusing on the existence of two popes inside the Vatican, the Roman Catholic Church is again roiled by controversy in what appears to be a case of life imitating art. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports that many church scholars are criticizing former Pope Benedict for trying to influence the thinking of his successor.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: In a sign of the times, a building off St. Peter's Square is covered with a gigantic poster for the Netflix movie "Two Popes," a fictional account of Popes Benedict and Francis.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TWO POPES")

JONATHAN PRYCE: (As Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio) Popes can't resign. If you do this, you will damage the papacy forever.

ANTHONY HOPKINS: (As Pope Benedict XVI) I can no longer sit on the Chair of St. Peter.

POGGIOLI: Meanwhile, the Catholic Twittersphere is abuzz over a bombshell book written by former Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah, a staunch conservative who heads the Vatican department on divine liturgy. In the book, titled "From The Depths Of Our Hearts," Benedict and the cardinal criticized the idea of ordaining married men to the priesthood. At a recent assembly at the Vatican, a majority of bishops made the proposal for the Amazon region, where the faithful can go months without having mass. Pope Francis is expected to issue his decision before March.

Massimo Faggioli, a professor and theologian at Villanova University, says the book is a brazen attempt by the former pope to sway the thinking of the current one.

MASSIMO FAGGIOLI: It's, as usual, a carefully planned media operation. So this is not one off-the-cuff remark made by one person. This is something that has been planned because this is not a social media post; it's a book.

POGGIOLI: In 2013, Benedict became the first pope to resign in 700 years. He gave himself the title pope emeritus, vowed to remain hidden from the world and pledged obedience to the new pope. Like many Vatican watchers, Faggioli believes Benedict, who is 92 and in ill health, would not have been able to write the book on his own and that he has been manipulated by anti-Francis conservatives.

FAGGIOLI: He has become the symbol of those who don't think Francis is a good pope. They don't think he's doing a good job. And they are hanging on to him as a symbol of the true Catholic teaching.

POGGIOLI: The Vatican tried to downplay the controversy, issuing a statement that Francis, too, has upheld the rule of priestly celibacy and that Benedict's book is a mere contribution written in full obedience to Francis.

But in the latest plot twist of Vatican intrigue, media reports today claim that unnamed sources close to the former pope insist that Benedict never even approved publication of the book. In reply, co-author Cardinal Sarah tweeted a denial, claiming Benedict also wrote the book. If nothing else, the celibacy dispute has highlighted the ambiguous situation caused by two popes living side by side.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.