Pope Benedict XVI has said that in special cases, such as that of prostitutes trying to prevent HIV infection, condoms could be justified under Catholic ethical thinking, especially if their use leads to an awareness that engaging in such a "banalization of sexuality" is morally harmful.
Many reports portrayed the pope's statements as a stunning reversal for the church, although Benedict was actually articulating longstanding Catholic tradition on the morality of preventing HIV and was not approving condoms for birth control. But his remarks were important for the extent of their explanation of this complex matter -- and because they come from the pope, which makes them more authoritative than other church proclamations.
Benedict's views on condoms were among the many controversial and revealing comments contained in a new book-length interview titled "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times." The book is the result of a series of conversations the pope had last July with a German journalist he trusts, Peter Seewald, and it reads like a brief for the defense of Benedict's gaffe-prone reign -- a defense that seems to be the main goal of the project.
The book is to be published on Tuesday but the Vatican newspaper ran excerpts on Saturday and news outlets began reporting the contents of the volume.
In the book, the pope also confirms that gay men, even if chaste, cannot be priests and says they should not reveal their sexual orientation if they have already been ordained. He also discusses the clergy sexual abuse crisis at length though without criticizing bishops who covered up the abuse and thereby allowed it to fester.
Regarding the furor last year over Benedict's decision to lift the excommunications of four right-wing schismatic bishops, one of whom -- Richard Williamson -- is a Holocaust-denier, Benedict says that if he had know about Williamson's views he would have separated him out from the papal pardon. "Unfortunately," Benedict says, "none of us went on the Internet to find out what sort of person we were dealing with."
But he defends the decision to lift the excommunications, saying that whatever their views on a range of topics he had no choice under canon law but to rehabilitate them since the bishops wrote him a letter formally recognizing his authority -- the issue that had originally led to their expulsion. The media, he said, were just waiting for an excuse to ambush the pope -- they displayed "a readiness for aggression" -- which he blamed for causing much of the public relations debacle for the Vatican.
On another topic, Benedict says he is not afraid of assassination (two of his three predecessors, John Paul II and Paul VI, were attacked, with a gunman almost killing John Paul in 1981) and he is matter-of-fact in stating that he would consider resigning if his physical or mental faculties failed -- even though no pope has retired in 600 years and there is no mechanism for electing a successor while a former pope is alive.
The 83-year-old pope, who was raised in Germany during the Nazi era and appears to be in good health, does say he feels "my forces are diminishing" but adds that he does not use the exercise bicycle his doctor set up for him in the papal apartments. He also expresses regret that he must always wear a white cassock, even in the privacy of his apartment, because that is what John Paul always did.
"The Pope always
wore a cassock, and so must you," one of John Paul's close aides told Ratzinger when he became pope back in April 2005.
Benedict also said he opposes the move by many European countries to ban burqas, the full head-and-body covering worn by some Muslim women. And he defends himself in the first great controversy of his papacy, a Sept. 12, 2006 address during a trip to his old university lecture hall in his native Bavaria in which he seemed to equate Islam with violence and fanaticism and thereby prompted violent reactions from some Muslims.
"I had conceived and delivered the lecture as a strictly academic address" -- Benedict is a career theologian -- "without realizing that people don't read papal lectures as academic presentations, but as political statements," Benedict said, arguing that his words were taken out of context and misconstrued.
Moreover, the pope argues -- contrary to the view of many cultural and political conservatives in the West -- that the real "battle lines" today are not between Christianity and Islam but between "radical secularism...and the question of God, in its various forms."
The author behind "Light of the World" is journalist Peter Seewald, who had twice in past years sat down with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, conversations that resulted in two book-length interviews, "Salt of the Earth" in 1996 and "God and the World" in 2000. Both produced the kind the headline-making comments that Ratzinger became known for during his more than two decades as the hardline doctrinal watchdog for the late Pope John Paul II.
Since his election as Pope Benedict XVI in April 2005, however, Ratzinger has shied away from almost any contact with the media beyond tightly-scripted answers to pre-screened questions aboard the papal plane. But as Benedict's papacy has lurched from crisis to crisis, many of them self-inflicted public relations missteps, he has been sharply criticized as out of touch and aloof, even by some of his strongest supporters.
"Light of the World," especially with its extensive discussion of the sex abuse crisis, is an effort to enlist one of the only journalists Benedict trusts in order to change that dynamic, and throughout the 185 pages of back-and-forth Seewald is an accommodating, at times fawning questioner. (After his first collaboration with Ratzinger, Seewald was so impressed that he returned to practicing the Catholic faith he had abandoned.)
In the book, Seewald effusively praises the pope, who tends to look humble with his more modest responses, and he often sets up straw men arguments that Benedict then hedges with a more measured answer.
But Seewald also raises all of the most hot-button topics of Benedict's papacy, and while Benedict is rarely as forceful as he was when he was a cardinal, he still strongly defends his record and in doing so provides enough zingers to make the book a fascinating and sometimes provocative read.
For example, Benedict tells Seewald that the Legion of Christ, an ultra-conservative, cult-like order whose charismatic founder was exposed as a notorious molester and embezzler, "is sound" and says its members should be encouraged to continue the mission of their disgraced founder, the late Father Marcial Maciel Degollado.
Benedict says the victims of abuse should be the church's priority, along with dealing with perpetrators and providing tighter screening for seminarians studying to be priests. But he does not address his own contested role in dealing with specific cases -- nor is he pressed on the issue -- or his management of the crisis.
"Objectively, I think, everything essential was said," Benedict responds when asked whether he said too little, too late about the tidal wave of revelations of past abuse in the past year. He said he also felt it best for the bishops in each country -- who were often targeted for their own roles in the cover up -- to be the public face of the church's response. "In that respect it was surely not wrong to wait" to speak out.
In general, Benedict sticks to a favorite conservative talking point that blames a relaxation of societal mores in the 1960s and 1970s as the root cause of the abuses.
Regarding the presence of gays in the priesthood, a topic of much debate, the pope takes an unusually hard line, saying homosexuals cannot be ordained even if they are chaste because gay men do not sacrifice marriage as straight men do. "And the persons who are affected" with homosexuality, he says, "must at least try not to express this inclination actively, in order to remain true to the intrinsic mission of their office."
Benedict also says that the presence of homosexuals in holy orders is "one of the disturbing problems" of the church -- a phrase originally translated as one of the "just one of miseries of the Church," an arresting characterization given the number of gay men serving in the priesthood and the hierarchy who have distinguished themselves through their service.
The U.S. publisher of "Light of the World," Ignatius Press, said the wording will be changed in subsequent editions from "miseries" to "disturbing things." The book was rushed into print -- perhaps a sign of the Vatican's anxiety to begin deflecting the pope's bad press, with Ignatius having just a few weeks to translate and print the volume from the original German.
The pope's remarks on condoms were among the most controversial in the excerpts printed by the Vatican daily, "L'Osservatore Romano," on Saturday, and drew the most interest.
"There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility," the pontiff said. (Because prostitute is a masculine noun in German, it was also unclear whether Benedict meant a male sex worker. In the Italian version of the book the noun is feminine.)
The condom comments were prompted by Seewald's question to the pope about the uproar he provoked in 2009 when he told reporters, while on his way to Africa, that the scourge of AIDS on the continent could not be resolved by condoms.
"On the contrary, they increase the problem," he said then.
The pope's remarks touched off furious commentary at the time, much of which blasted the pontiff for -- the critics assumed -- putting the church's teaching against contraception over the lives of Africans, especially sex workers and spouses of infected husbands or wives.
Benedict's response to the furor was murky, and did not quell the disquiet his remarks had caused. Also, the Vatican did not help his cause when it was learned that church officials in Rome had massaged the official translation in a way that tended to make the pontiff's comments sound less stark. Moreover, many critics failed to read the pope's entire answer for context, and did not appear to take into account studies showing that indiscriminate reliance on condom distribution may not actually help reduce rates of infection.
But Catholic teaching has never totally barred the use of condoms to protect people from contracting the HIV virus that causes AIDS. And the Vatican has never issued a formal pronouncement on the matter other than to stress that abstinence is always the best means of prevention, even if it that is often impractical. Earlier this year the Vatican said it had shelved
a study to determine whether, or what, Rome should say on the matter, deciding that it was preferable to leave the question open-ended, depending on the circumstances rather than making a blanket judgment.
In the interview with Peter Seewald, the pontiff voiced his exasperation with how the media covered -- or exaggerated -- the episode, and he said that while the church does not view condoms "as a real or moral solution... in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality." That said, the pope was in no way condoning the activity of sex workers.
Regarding the Africa uproar, Benedict says that, "I was not making a general statement about the condom issue, but merely said -- and this is what caused such great offense -- that we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms. Much more
needs to be done. We must stand close to the people, we must guide and help them; and we must do this both before and after they contract the disease."
As for other hot-button topics, the pope not surprisingly reaffirms mandatory celibacy for priests and the ban on the ordination of women -- which he says is not a question of discrimination but just how Jesus set up the church -- and says divorced and remarried Catholics must learn to live with the fact that they cannot receive communion. He also reiterates the church's ban on artificial birth control, but explains how it differ from natural birth control, which the church supports.
And Benedict rips into some of his usual bogey men, such as liberation theology and liberal believers in the West who are agitating for reforms. "It is sad that there are what you might call professional Catholics who make a living on their Catholicism, but in whom the spring of faith flows only faintly, in a few scattered drops."
"Light of the World" is novel, however, for the glimpses Benedict offers into the intimate life of the pope -- his feelings of dread at the moment of his election at the age of 78, when he wanted nothing more than to retire to Germany to write; his favorite television shows and his heirloom wristwatch; and his spiritual struggle not to be overwhelmed by the pressures and responsibilities of the office.
"I am no mystic," Benedict says at one point. Noting that he is "a modest figure" following a "giant" like John Paul, Benedict wonders whether it is right "to allow oneself to be regarded as a star."
"I simply told myself that I am who I am," Benedict says. "I don't try to be someone else. What I can give I give, and what I can't give I don't try to give, either. I don't try to make myself into something I am not."
"I am the person who happens to have been chosen -- the cardinals are also to blame for that -- and I do what I can."