Let’s leave the condoms on the bedside table for now. Pope Benedict XVI has much more to say in his book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald.
In “Light of the World,” Seewald, an earnest Catholic, guides the pope through topics ranging from pedophile priests and drugs to the ordination of women and the Second Coming. Benedict’s responses, some humorous, are worth reading even after you’ve flipped to the bit where he says condoms may be justified in some cases, as “perhaps” for a male prostitute.
Even as a lapsed Protestant, I was engrossed by the book’s rare insights into a leader who usually appears impossibly aloof -- an elderly, white-robed patriarch viewed from afar, waving to crowds and speaking Latin. (He wears the cassock even at home, he says. No sweaters for him.)
Often seen as a dry academic steeped in dogma, Benedict is better known for the things he did before, rather than after, his election as supreme pontiff in 2005. In his 24 years as John Paul II’s doctrinal enforcer, he helped oust priests who diverged from orthodoxy and asserted the superiority of the Roman Catholic Church over other Christian religions. His hard-line stances on homosexuality, women priests and birth control won him enemies, both within the church and without.
Though there’s plenty here to make non-believers balk, his clarity on complex issues is compelling. If nothing else, the book succeeds as a public-relations vehicle for a pope who has had his share of PR disasters.
In Germany, it has reached No. 2 on Der Spiegel’s best-seller list, squeezing Keith Richards’s autobiography, “Life,” into third place. The pope failed to oust Thilo Sarrazin from the top slot, which he has held since September for the book that led to his resignation from the Bundesbank’s board. In “Germany Is Wiping Itself Out,” Sarrazin argued that Turks and Arabs are making Germany “dumber.”
Seewald, who has written for Der Spiegel, Stern and the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, rediscovered his Catholic faith 14 years ago, after an interview with Benedict when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. For this book, he spent one hour a day over six days with the 83-year-old pope in July -- the most extensive, one-on-one papal interview ever.
Benedict doesn’t play down the damage done by pedophile priests. The scandal was like “the crater of a volcano, out of which suddenly a tremendous cloud of filth came, darkening and soiling everything,” he says. He understands that Catholics who were sexually abused as children may find it hard “to keep believing that the church is a source of good,” he says.
“Insofar as it is the truth, we must be grateful for every disclosure,” he says, though he voices concern that some news coverage was motivated by pleasure in discrediting the church. He never considered resigning or, as he puts it, “running away.”
His longer-term challenge is to hold onto his flock. The threat, in his view, doesn’t arise from other religions. Unsurprisingly, it comes from the spread of secularism.
Attempts to force the Vatican to change its opposition to homosexuality and the ordination of women would rob the church of the right “to live out her own identity,” he says. So that’s a “no” to female, married or gay priests anytime soon.
Still, his willingness to address all these subjects and to acknowledge that gay prostitutes even exist is surprising. Which brings us back to condoms.
The pope has hardly become an enthusiastic supporter overnight. The church “does not regard it as a real or moral solution” yet accepts that, to prevent the spread of AIDS, it could be “a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way of living sexuality.” What seems a small concession could save thousands of lives in Africa.
Nor is the pope averse to a touch of populist outreach in his fight to save souls. Of late, he has taken to putting the sacrament directly on the tongues of communicants at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
“I have heard,” he confides, “of people who, after receiving communion, stick the Host in their wallet to take home as a kind of souvenir.”
“Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times” is published by Ignatius Press in the U.S. (239 pages, $21.95) and by Herder Verlag in Germany under the title “Licht der Welt” (256 pages, 19.95 euros). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)