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The bullies and that book

There is nothing of churchmanship in the extraordinary venom spewed at Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah, nor is there anything of Christian charity.

(Left) Pope Benedict XVI in February 2013; (right) Cardinal Robert Sarah in October 2018. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Immediately after news broke on January 12 that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Robert Sarah had written a book on the crisis of the priesthood in the 21st-century Church, online hysteria erupted—which rather underscored the prudence of a New Year’s resolution I had recommended to concerned Catholics in a January 1 column: “Resolve to limit your exposure to the Catholic blogosphere.”

The extraordinary venom spewed at the pope emeritus and the cardinal by more than a few commentators did not advance the Church’s discussion of the reform of the priesthood one jot or tittle. It actually retarded that urgent discussion, diverting attention from some urgent issues (including the deep roots of the abuse crisis and the meaning of clerical celibacy) by treating a serious book as if it were a partisan political tract.

Yet the cacophony over the Benedict/Sarah book, From the Depths of Our Hearts, did serve two useful purposes: it spoke volumes about the character of the venomous, and it clarified some of the dynamics roiling the Church as the pontificate of Pope Francis approaches its seventh anniversary on March 13.

The attack on Pope Emeritus Benedict was exceptionally nasty—and deeply ill-informed. One prominent partisan of the current pontificate opined that Benedict is “conscious barely half an hour at a time;” another wizard from the left field bleachers had it that Benedict was “incapacitated.” Neither man has the faintest idea of what he’s talking about. I spent a full 45 minutes with Pope Emeritus Benedict this past October 19, discussing a broad range of issues. He was quite frail physically, but in the early evening of what I assume had been a normal day, he was completely lucid, quite well-informed, eager for new information, full of good humor, and able to recall themes and personalities from conversations we had had decades earlier. The pope emeritus seemed clear as a bell, intellectually, at age 92; can the same be said for those who, relying on “reports,” dismiss him as a senile old man, out of touch with events and perhaps even reality?

The attack on Cardinal Sarah was equally vicious and just as ill-informed. I have had the honor of knowing the Guinean cardinal for several years and, like anyone who has spent significant time with him, I have found him a man of profound holiness: a truly converted disciple of Jesus Christ whose ministry flows from his radical fidelity to the Lord. Despite the caricatures perpetrated by those who evidently fear his present and future influence in the Church, Cardinal Sarah has also struck me as a man of Christian joy, still amazed at the grace of God that has been at work in his life, and therefore able to laugh (in that robust way that only Africans can) at the human foibles of the moment. Cardinal Sarah was not laughing, however, at the claim that he had lied about the origin and nature of From the Depths of Our Hearts—and his righteous, if controlled, anger confirmed what those who actually know him understand: this is an honest man.

These calumnies against Benedict and Sarah were amplified by another absurd charge: that by discharging their minds and consciences on what is necessary for an authentic reform of the priesthood, the pope emeritus and the cardinal were somehow interfering with Pope Francis’s “discernment” after the Amazonian synod of this past October. So it has now come down (and I do mean down) to this: the partisans of openness and dialogue are now telling two of Catholicism’s most distinguished sons that their views are unwelcome; that the theological and pastoral defense of clerical celibacy is an act of disloyalty to Pope Francis; and that they should just shut up.

These are not the tactics of advocates convinced that they have won the substantive argument and are likely to continue winning. These are the tactics of those who, fearful that time is running out, imagine that their only recourse is to resort to bullying.

There is nothing of churchmanship in this, nor is there anything of Christian charity. The reform of the priesthood is essential for the evangelizing mission of the Church. Those who dismissed a serious proposal for such reform, in large part by vilifying its authors, branded themselves as less interested in reforming the priesthood of the New Covenant than in ecclesiastical power-games.

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About George Weigel 458 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. George, name names and give specific instances…please. Otherwise, yours is just another vague indictment of some with nefarious intent.

    • The tweet about Benedict XVI being conscious for barely half an hour a day is by Austen Ivereigh.
      If you can read Italian try Stilum Curiae, Marco Tosatti’s blog for more.

      • The comments sound arrogant and vindictive yet might beguile those who are only getting into what has been happening in the hrirsrchy.

  2. Never thought that I would live to see the day that a book defending Catholic tradition would be seen as an attack on the Pope.

    • “We need NAMES”.

      “If there is a union of a private nature, there is neither a third party, nor is society affected.”- Jorge Bergoglio, denying the Sanctity of the marital act within The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony and denying that sin done in private is sin.

      Certainly we are all aware that there are a multitude of those Baptized Catholic, who profess to be in communion with Christ and His One, Holy, Catholic, And Apostolic Church, outside of which, there is no Salvation, who deny that sin done in private, perhaps we should call it “consensual sin”, is sin.

      “Queen and Mother, stretch thy arms to us, raise us up to thy Immaculate and Sorrowful Heart. Allow us to rest our heads on thy heart and thus become saints and apostles! Queen of the Holy Rosary grant us the strength to fight thy enemies!”

      “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost; “It Is Through Christ, With Christ, And In Christ, In The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, That Holy Mother Church, outside of which, there is no Salvation, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, exists.

      It is not possible for a counterfeit schismatic church to subsist within Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, And Apostolic Church, outside of which, there is no Salvation, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost. (Filioque)

      But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ (Luke 18:8.)

      That will be up to us, whether we repent and accept Life-affirming, Life-sustaining Salvational Love, God’s Gift Of Grace And Mercy, and live.

  3. This event makes crystal clear that the bullying is directed by the Pontiff Francis. No one but he could force Gänswein to kowtow and post-facto contradict the undeniable evidence of the long prior agreement of co-authorship.

    The only question remaining is about Gänswein: is he nothing more than the jail-keeper for McCarrick’s Pontiff?

  4. America magazine:
    “Benedict, who will be 93 in April and is very frail, can hardly write because of physical difficulties or hold a conversation for more than 15 minutes and moves about in a wheelchair”

    Commonweal Magazine:
    “Sarah has turned the ex-pope into a counter-magisterium, a rallying point for opposition to Francis.”

    So names are already well known…
    Pope should condemn their rigidity.

    • Pope v. pope? Every Faithful Catholic knows that would not just be a contradiction in terms. That would be a denial of The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, and thus a denial of The Divinity Of The Blessed Trinity.

      “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost.

      One cannot be for Christ, if one denies The Divinity Of The Blessed Trinity, Father, Son, And Holy Ghost.

  5. Why not just be honest about what this book is? Sarah was rightly very concerned that PF would use the Amazon Synod to undermine the discipline of celibacy. I recall a quote from PF in one of the early interviews of his papacy in which he said something to the effect that the “problem” of clerical celibacy needed to be addressed. Then, he proposed a synod on the priesthood and celibacy but there were strong objections from some on his Council of Cardinals, so we got the Youth Synod instead. Not to be deterred, PF used another vehicle to address the issue.

    With this background, you can see why Sarah was alarmed and, as a last ditch effort, contra PF and the Germans, enlisted Benedict XVI to write this book defending clerical celibacy and rush it to publication before PF publishes his exhortation. Everyone knows this is the case, but everyone (including Sarah) keeps insisting that they do not “oppose Francis.” Well, in a sense that’s true, because you can’t oppose PF if he has not yet taken a “formal” stand. But in reality we all know (or should know) what is going on. This was a last-ditch, nuclear option, enlistment of the former pope to try to forestall what Sarah fears may be coming down the pike from PF.

  6. “One prominent partisan of the pontificate opined that Benedict is conscious barely half the time.”

    WHO said that?

    “Another wizard from the left-field bleachers had it that Benedict was incapacitated.”

    I repeat – WHO said that?

    To me this article implies that Pope Francis is clearly behind these attacks. There are undoubtedly a few layers of deniability between him and the attacks, but the implication is clear.

  7. Great title for this article! Where do this sudden increase in anti-Church, anti-Truth bullies and their greater viciousness come from? Yep, we’ve had conflict inside the Church since day one back there 2,000 years ago (heck the Angels had conflict, it’s called ‘free choice’), but never this level of fanaticism with an aura of false legitimacy, aggressiveness and “pontifical” entitlement. As they say in martial arts: “Where the head goes the body follows”. Also, when I was a Protestant long time ago, I kept hearing that a congregation was limited to the level of spirituality of its Pastor, like a hard spiritual ceiling (and it was very obviously true).

    A leader either opens the floodgates of corruption, those of mediocrity or those of integrity. Pope Francis has very consistently showed that he is himself definitely a very low spiritual ceiling and those who live at that very low level feel entitled, justified, empowered, legitimized and “sanctified” like never before in Catholic History. Thanks God we are Catholics and not Protestants because they are stunted and locked down by their Pastor’s maturity, but we Catholics have had 8 bad Popes in the past and BROKE THROUGH THAT CEILING!! Glory be to God!! Time to do it again and again and again! Our Supreme Pastor is Jesus Christ not a Pope guarded by his ideological attack dogs and that is so untruthful, fragile and delicate he can’t face the slightest difference of opinion, questioning or confrontation. To distract from this they mock Benedict’s fragility, which is ONLY physical not moral or spiritual, and like St. Paul, when Benedict is weak, he is strong in Christ (2 Corinthians 12:10).

    Where were those hyper-protective attack dogs when Pope Paul VI was attacked for Humanae Vitae? Where were they when Pope John II was attacked for not yielding to the Satanic Communist Media pressure? Sure, some of those attack dogs attacking Benedict and Sarah are disguised infiltrators and agitators from “outside” that are not one bit Catholic but they come together with those who have totally ceased to be True Catholics in their hearts at some point, like the traitorous Jewish leaders scaring the people about Roman reprisals, and infiltrating and agitating the crowd to ask Pilate for Jesus’ crucifixion.

    Like someone else I heard, “I am an uncompromising enemy of the enemies of the Papacy, especially the worst ones: bad Popes!” God bless, protect and empower True Catholics like Benedict and Sarah! We must follow THEM and all those who follow the Lord Jesus faithfully (“Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” 1 Corinthians 11:1) and not the pompous, bombastic impostors, cowardly hiding behind their rank! Blindly kissing up to rank is a most disgusting slavery and high treason to our True Lord Jesus Christ!! “Therefore, whoever chooses to be a friend of the world is an enemy of God!” (James 4:4)

      • “Sudden”, yes, as I already explained it in my comment. When a bad leader takes charge in the Church, at parish, diocese, national or world level (or political level), those inhabitants of darkness, mostly mixed in with the generic anti-Church mob of today, then come out into the open as “independent authority” and assume false airs of false “pontifical legitimacy” to attack the MOST LEGITIMATE representatives of the Church, whether Laity or Clergy like Benedict and Sarah. Referring to situations like this, my late father would say, “When the light gets turned off, the creepy crawlers come out”.

  8. I am certain that when Pope Benedict formerly Cardinal Ratzinger, who for decades ran the office that oversaw the world-wide files on clerical abuse under Pope JPII, has plenty of thoughts on clerical celibacy, as only a true insider would have of the worst sins of the church would know. Precisely why his point of view would be so interesting. He saw what only a few people in the church every saw, namely the “filth.” His thoughts on returning the Church to the early roots of Christian celibacy would be fascinating.

    Also, no one knows when he might have written several articles and/or started a book on the early Christian traditions of priestly celibacy. He could have been working on such a book for decades and could have easily handed over several finished chapters to Cardinal Sarah that he had written many years ago as Cardinal Ratzinger.

  9. It would be nice (and fair) if the venom constantly spewed at the Pope by that ‘Catholic’ blogosphere was denounced with as much zeal. He has been subject to as bad for far longer …

    • Mr. Daniel Mahoney, yours is the same “compassionate”, “pacifist”, “tolerant” attitude of those who lament and strongly criticize the ones who expose the obvious errors, heresies and popularity-seeking brazenness of Protestant Pastor Joel Osteen, who went initially from a very faithful Pastor into turning Bible verses into a New Age/witchcraft/Prosperity Gospel. Those who expose Osteen are supposed to be sabotaging the Gospel, hard-hearted rigid fanatics, friends with anti-God groups, enemies of Christianity, etc. etc. REALLY? Something very similar to what’s happening over THERE is happening over HERE.

      When I was an adolescent, my late father had an efficacious remedy when truthful criticism would make me indignated, offended, furious and pissy-hissy mad like a rattlesnake: “stop doing wrong and seeking ways to justify it!”

      We are COMMANDED to speak up the Truth, even when we others condemn us for it: “When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood”, (Ezekiel 3:18). “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet, till her vindication shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch”, (Isaiah 62:1).

  10. I’m really confused. The BBC, National Newspapers both in the UK and elsewhere around the world reported that Pope Benedict, himself (via his personal, private Secretary) stated that he was not the co-author of this book and requested that the publisher change the details of the book to describe him as merely “contributor”. Can it be true that the Pope Emeritus’ Personal Secretary lied, rather than a mistake was made and greater weight was given to comments and written notes made, which the originator had not expected? We are all human and frail after all! From where did all this reported vitriol come, and is it true? As a member of the laity I feel that we need an honest answer to all this and less civil-war from the clergy, theologians and journalists. The content and value of the book has been seriously undermined by this confusion, so that all that is good is likely to be missed and anything needing reassessment will equally be misinterpreted. We, the laity need leadership and wisdom, not partisan power-struggles, more importantly, the World needs evangelization and metanoia. Is it not possible for all sides in this story to find common ground and listen generously to each other’s point of view?

  11. I read that whole article here in the link given here by Mr. Carl Olson and, while there are true facts in it, there’s also a LOT of subtle and not-so-subtle personal attacks against Benedict and Sarah, starting with the title “Bookgate” (reminiscent of “Watergate”, suggesting some scandal right away), and finishing with saying “none” of both Benedict and Sarah are known for their “candour” (candor: frankness, honesty).

    This is after suggesting that Sarah’s popularity as “papabile” (electable for Pope) is totally baseless due to his “carelessness” about the contracts related to the book. Whoa! Of course, you can read the article yourself and make your own conclusions. I’ve covered only what I find more remarkable, whichever way you may want to understand that word. Yes! Read it!!

  12. Interesting article and comments and reminds us of past situations in the halls of the Vatican. Those of us with a modest competence in Church history are well aware that since at least the early Middle Ages there was rumor, intrigue and maneavering in the Vatican as in the royal houses of Europe. That the remnants of such behavior exist behind the walls today should come as no surprise. Only the names change.

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