VATICAN CITY – The Vatican sought Wednesday to explain the absence of a key member of Pope Francis' protocol team following his role in a controversial book on priestly celibacy co-written by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.
The Vatican press office denied that Archbishop Georg Gaenswein, who works for both the reigning and the retired pope, had been officially suspended as head of Francis' papal household because of the scandal.
The press office said his absence from Francis’ private and public audiences for the past three weeks was “due to an ordinary redistribution of the various commitments and duties of the prefect of the Papal Household."
The office noted that Gaenswein also was Benedict’s personal secretary.
The statement suggested the Holy See was trying to find an elegant way to justify Gaenswein's unofficial sidelining from Francis’ team by saying he was dedicating himself more full-time to Benedict's needs.
Benedict contributed an essay to the book, titled “From the Depths of Our Hearts," that was written primarily by conservative Cardinal Robert Sarah, head of the Vatican's liturgy office and one of Francis' quiet critics.
The book argues for the necessity of priestly celibacy. Excerpts released on Jan. 12 caused a firestorm because Francis is weighing whether to allow married priests in the Amazon, to address a priest shortage there.
Benedict's involvement gave the impression that the 92-year-old former pope was trying to influence the reigning pontiff on a fraught issue. Many observers noted that Benedict's participation couldn't have come about without the explicit approval and involvement of Gaenswein, his longtime aide and gatekeeper.
When the excerpts came out, Gaenswein sought to minimize the fallout by insisting that Benedict never planned to be listed as the book's co-author and merely gave Sarah an essay to use as he saw fit.
Sarah countered by publishing letters from Benedict that made clear the retired pope knew what he was getting into. Gaenswein ultimately asked Sarah to have Benedict's name removed from the cover, introduction and conclusion that identified him as co-author.
Some publishers complied, but the book's U.S. publisher, Ignatius Press, said it intended to publish the book as planned with Benedict as the lead co-author, arguing that his contributions justified joint authorship.
For many, the controversy proved that the experiment of having a reigning and a retired pope - and a Gaenswein-type figure simultaneously serving both men - needs to be changed if it is to ever be replicated.
Gaenswein hasn't been seen at one of Francis' general audiences since Jan. 15. He last served a private audience when he welcomed members of the Simon Wiesenthal Center to the Vatican on Jan. 20, according to Vatican photos of the events.
Standing in his place is a longtime Vatican official, Monsignor Leonardo Sapienza, the No. 2 in the Prefecture of the Papal Household, the office of the former papal court that today organizes papal liturgies and handles some protocol functions for audiences.