Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times proves that Joseph Ratzinger did not stop being a teacher — or a thinker — when he became Pope on April 19, 2005.
And to drive home that point, the book-length conversation between Pope Benedict XVI and veteran German journalist Peter Seewald contains a juicy subject that got the world’s attention even before the book was released Nov. 23: condom use for people with HIV/AIDS.
The headlines were predictable after L’Osservatore Romano broke the worldwide press embargo on the book Nov. 20 and leaked passages from an advance copy: In rare cases, Pope justifies use of condoms (New York Times). Pope Says Condoms Can be Used in Some Cases (NPR). Gay sex workers can use condoms, women can’t (IrishCentral.com). The Boston Herald interviewed male escorts, who said for the most part that the Pope’s relaxation of the ban was “too little, too late.”
Equally predictable was the speed at which some commentators concluded that the Church was finally “coming around to an enlightened position”: Of course you’ve got to allow condoms when people are at serious risk of infection of a deadly disease, especially in a place like Africa, where it’s generally acceptable for even married people to have multiple sex partners.
But others took the time to parse Benedict’s language and read it in context. In doing so, they came away with a deeper understanding of not condoms or the AIDS problem or disordered sexual behavior but of love and marriage in God’s plan.
And that’s the genius of Pope Benedict: A consummate teacher, not afraid to address controversial issues, he’ll take the risk of being misunderstood while trusting his students to find the truth.
Most of Light of the World, the English version of which is published by Ignatius Press, is an enjoyable, breezy read, with lots of insight into a Pope who is genuinely simpatico and engaging — far from the media stereotype of a doctrinal enforcer. But there are passages that are definitely not breezy, where the reader is called to reflect on what the Pope is trying to say. Take Chapter 11, for instance, which contains the condom passage. Seewald brings up the Pope’s trip to Africa in 2009, when he refused to admit that condoms could be morally justified in the fight against AIDS in Africa. In fact, he said then, they could make the problem worse.
Answering Seewald’s devil’s advocate-objection that “it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms,” the Pope states, “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, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.”
Seewald asks for a clarification: “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?” It’s a question we might ask. After all, “a first step in the direction of a moralization” sounds like “a first step in acknowledging the morality of using condoms if the risk of doing harm without one is greater.”
The Pope reaffirms that the Church “of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but 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.”
Admittedly, it does sound like he’s making an exception to the blanket ban on condoms. But the focus is on the human person, not the condom, as several commentators pointed out.
“What he’s talking about in the point he makes about the male prostitute is about a certain conversion process taking place in an individual’s life,” said Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, in an interview with the Register Nov. 22 “He’s simply making the comment that if a person who is given to prostitution at least considers using a condom to prevent giving disease to another person … it could be a sign of someone who is having a certain moral awakening. But in no way does it mean that prostitution is morally acceptable, nor does it mean that the use of condoms is morally acceptable. The point the Pope is making is about a certain growth in freedom, an overcoming of an enslavement to a sexual activity that is morally repugnant [unacceptable] so that this concern to use a condom in order not to infect a sexual partner could at least be a sign of some moral awakening in the individual, which one hopes would lead the individual to understand that his activity is a trivialization of human sexuality and needs to be changed.”
Moral theologian Janet Smith said in a commentary posted on Catholic World Report’s website over the weekend, “If such individuals are using condoms to avoid harming another, they may eventually realize that sexual acts between members of the same sex are inherently harmful since they are not in accord with human nature.”
Indeed, the Vatican issued a clarification Nov. 21, saying, “The Pope again makes it clear that his intention was not to take up a position on the problem of condoms in general; his aim, rather was to reaffirm with force that the problem of AIDS cannot be solved simply by distributing condoms, because much more needs to be done: prevention, education, help, advice, accompaniment, both to prevent people from falling ill and to help them if they do.”
The statement, issued by Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, emphasized that the Pope in the book “broadens his perspective and insists that focusing only on condoms is equivalent to trivializing sexuality, which thus loses its meaning as an expression of love between persons and becomes a ‘drug.’ This struggle against the trivialization of sexuality is ‘part of the great effort to ensure that sexuality is positively valued and is able to exercise a positive effect on man in his entirety.’ In the light of this broad and profound vision of human sexuality and the problems it currently faces, the Pope reaffirms that ‘the Church does not of course consider condoms to be the authentic and moral solution’ to the problem of AIDS. In this the Pope does not reform or change Church teaching, but reaffirms it, placing it in the perspective of the value and dignity of human sexuality as an expression of love and responsibility.”
Thus, for those who care more about the direction mankind is heading, instead of merely whether the Catholic Church is opposed to the use of a prophylactic or not, Pope Benedict’s ruminations can and should serve as the starting point for a renewed discussion of the nature of human love and sexuality, much as Pope John Paul II’s talks on the theology of the body did in the 1980s.
What the Pope Is Like
That may not be the best introduction to this man, though, for those who don’t really know him, so the rest of the book is quite useful as well. Along with Seewald, who was granted the extraordinary privilege this past July to spend an hour a day with Benedict for six days during the Pope’s vacation at Castel Gandalfo, we sit in a parlor with this theologian-Pope, learning about his likes and dislikes, leisure activities, memories of important moments in his life, thoughts on the papacy, revelations into how he prays and, of course, opinions on world events and trends. We catch a glimpse of a Pope who is thoughtful, brilliant, personable and at times quite forthright, not bashful to speak his mind.
The life he leads, even as the world’s highest-profile head of state, is one that is thoroughly Catholic — and quite German. He and members of the papal household center their day around the common celebration of morning Mass. They celebrate one another’s feast days (in Catholic Europe and other countries, more important than one’s birthday). They pray vespers together.
But they also have moments of relaxation.
“You are one of the most diligent, perhaps even the most diligent, workers of all the popes,” Seewald proposes, in what must be a very high compliment coming from one German to another.
The Pope says he believes there are few people who have as many meetings as he does, and he often has evening appointments and works after supper. He says the key is to organize one’s time well, but he also manages to keep his equanimity through prayer.
“But part of that is always meditation, reading sacred Scripture, reflecting on what it says to me,” the Pope says. “One cannot simply work only on files. I do read as much there as I can. But I keep in mind the exhortation of St. Bernard that one must not lose oneself in activism.”
He also has time to watch the nightly news or enjoy an occasional DVD with his Vatican “family.”
In public, as we all know by now, Benedict is soft-spoken and shy. He does not possess the charisma of an actor, and the power of his presentations is from the content, often obscured by his difficulties with English or another language. He is better read than heard, and a quiet, reflective reading is best.
In Light of the World, we are treated to a Pope who is often not so reticent. Reflecting on the fallout from his Regensburg speech, for example, which set off extreme reactions among Muslims around the world, he states, “The nature of present-day political communication prevents understanding of subtleties of context like this.”
In another section, Seewald, who interviewed Cardinal Ratzinger for a similar book, Salt of the Earth, in 1997, asks, “You once said that you must also ‘bear’ this office, as it were. Are you also disappointed because certain things have not proved possible?”
“Of course I am also disappointed. By the continued existence of this lack of interest in the Church, especially in the Western world,” the Pope answers. “By the fact that secularity continues to assert its independence and to develop in forms that increasingly lead people away from the faith. By the fact that the overall trend of our time continues to go against the Church. But I believe that this is just part of the Christian situation, this battle between two kinds of love.”
(In another part of the book, he refers to St. Augustine’s assessment that there are continually two kinds of love doing battle in the world: love of self and love of other.)
On religious education, Seewald asks how it is possible that in many Western countries every child spends years studying the Catholic religion in school, “yet on graduation may know more about Buddhism than he does about the basic tenets of Catholicism?”
“That is a question that I also ask myself,” Benedict says. “Every child in Germany has nine to thirteen years of religion in school. Why in spite of that, so very little sticks, if I may put it like that, is incomprehensible. You are right that the bishops must seriously reflect on ways to give catechesis a new heart and a new face.”
As for an issue that is as controversial as condoms, Seewald said that critics see the ban on women’s ordination as a form of discrimination. “The only reason Jesus did not call women to be priestesses, it is said, is that this would have been unthinkable 2,000 years ago,” the journalist states.
“This is nonsense,” Benedict rejoins, “since the world was full of priestesses at the time. All religions had their priestesses, and the astonishing thing was actually that they were absent from the community of Jesus Christ, a fact that in turn is a point of continuity with the faith of Israel.”
Seewald came well-prepared to this interview, and his questions are far from softball pitches. His challenges on all sorts of issues bring out the best in Benedict. And he says in his preface that the Pope made few changes to the text after the interview was conducted.
Some of the most interesting moments in Pope Benedict’s pontificate have been the times when he has looked up from his prepared text to speak extemporaneously. Or when he has no prepared text at all but answers questions such as those posed him in various gathering of priests (of the Diocese of Rome or during the closing ceremonies for the Year for Priests). It’s then that he is the consummate professor, engaged with his students and engaging them with the subject. This book is in that vein. George Weigel, who has written two biographies of Pope John Paul II, speaks in his introduction to Light of the World of his fascination in watching Benedict respond to questions.
“I have never known anyone like Benedict XVI, who, when one asks him a question, pauses, thinks carefully, and then answers in complete paragraphs — often in his third, fourth or fifth language.”
If you ever wondered what it’s like to sit down and chat with a great spiritual leader, Light of the World will give you an answer.
John Burger is the Register’s news editor.