In Light of the World journalist Peter Seewald continues a discussion with Pope Benedict XVI he began over 25 years ago in Salt of the Earth, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was prefect for the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith. In Light, the first book length interview conducted with a sitting pope, Pope Benedict XVI comments on a variety of issues relating to the church and the world at large, including the subject of condoms and AIDS. Here we are happy to provide a few excerpts from that conversation. Light of the World is published by the Catholic Truth Society in England and Ignatius Press in the United States. These translations are taken from the British edition.
Pope's Don't Fall from the Sky
Holy Father, on April 16, 2005, your seventy-eighth birthday, you told your co-workers how much you were looking forward to your retirement. Three days later you were the leader of the universal Church with 1.2 billion members. Not exactly a project that one saves for his old age.
Actually I had expected finally to have some peace and quiet. The fact that I suddenly found myself facing this tremendous task was, as everybody knows, a shock for me. The responsibility is in fact enormous.
There was the moment when, as you later said, you felt just as if “a guillotine” were speeding down on you.
Yes, the thought of the guillotine occurred to me: Now it falls down and hits you. I had been so sure that this office was not my calling, but that God would now grant me some peace and quiet after strenuous years. But then I could only say, explain to myself: God’s will is apparently otherwise, and something new and completely different is beginning for me. He will be with me.
In the so-called “room of tears” during a conclave three sets of robes lie waiting for the future Pope. One is long, one short, one middle-sized. What was going through your head in that room, in which so many new Pontiffs are said to have broken down? Does one wonder again here, at the very latest: Why me? What does God want of me?
Actually at that moment one is first of all occupied by very practical, external things. One has to see how to deal with the robes and such. Moreover I knew that very soon I would have to say a few words out on the balcony, and I began to think about what I could say. Besides, even at the moment when it hit me, all I was able to say to the Lord was simply: “What are you doing with me? Now the responsibility is yours. You must lead me! I can’t do it. If you wanted me, then you must also help me!” In this sense, I stood, let us say, in an urgent dialogue relationship with the Lord: if he does the one thing he must also do the other.
Did John Paul II want to have you as his successor?
That I do not know. I think he left it entirely up to the dear Lord.
Nonetheless he did not allow you to leave office. That could be taken as an argumentum e silentio, a silent argument for his favorite candidate.
He did want to keep me in office; that is well known. As my seventy-fifth birthday approached, which is the age limit when one submits one’s resignation, he said to me, “You do not have to write the letter at all, for I want to have you to the end.” That was the great and undeserved benevolence he showed me from the very beginning. He had read my Introduction to Christianity. Evidently it was an important book for him. As soon as he became Pope he had made up his mind to call me to Rome as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He had placed a great, very cordial, and profound trust in me. As the guarantee, so to speak, that we would travel the right course in the faith.
On the occasion of your trip to Africa in March 2009, the Vatican’s policy on Aids once again became the target of media criticism. Twenty-five percent of all Aids victims around the world today are treated in Catholic facilities. In some countries, such as Lesotho, for example, the statistic is 40 percent. In Africa you stated that the Church’s traditional teaching has proven to be the only sure way to stop the spread of HIV. Critics, including critics from the Church’s own ranks, object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms.
The media coverage completely ignored the rest of the trip to Africa on account of a single statement. Someone had asked me why the Catholic Church adopts an unrealistic and ineffective position on Aids. At that point, I really felt that I was being provoked, because the Church does more than anyone else. And I stand by that claim. Because she is the only institution that assists people up close and concretely, with prevention, education, help, counsel, and accompaniment. And because she is second to none in treating so many Aids victims, especially children with Aids.
I had the chance to visit one of these wards and to speak with the patients. That was the real answer: The Church does more than anyone else, because she does not speak from the tribunal of the newspapers, but helps her brothers and sisters where they are actually suffering. In my remarks 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 a matter of fact, you know, people can get condoms when they want them anyway. But this just goes to show that condoms alone do not resolve the question itself. More needs to happen. Meanwhile, the secular realm itself has developed the so-called ABC Theory: Abstinence-Be Faithful-Condom, where the condom is understood only as a last resort, when the other two points fail to work. This means that the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.
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.
Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?
She 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.
The Sexual Abuse Crisis
Exactly one year later, the darkest clouds gather over the Catholic Church. As though out of a deep abyss, countless incomprehensible cases of sexual abuse from the past come to light—acts committed by priests and religious. The clouds cast their shadows even on the Chair of Peter. Now no one is talking any more about the moral authority for the world that is usually granted a Pope. How great is this crisis? Is it really, as we occasionally read, one of the greatest in the history of the Church?
Yes, it is a great crisis, we have to say that. It was upsetting for all of us. Suddenly so much filth. It was really almost like the crater of a volcano, out of which suddenly a tremendous cloud of filth came, darkening and soiling everything, so that above all the priesthood suddenly seemed to be a place of shame and every priest was under the suspicion of being one like that too. Many priests declared that they no longer dared to extend a hand to a child, much less go to a summer camp with children.
For me the affair was not entirely unexpected. In the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith I had already dealt with the American cases; I had also seen the situation emerge in Ireland. But on this scale it was nevertheless an unprecedented shock. Since my election to the Chair of Peter I had already met several times with victims of sexual abuse. Three and a half years ago, in October 2006, in my address to the Bishops of Ireland, I had called for them to bring the truth to light, to take whatever steps necessary to prevent such egregious crimes from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of law and justice are fully respected and, above all, to bring healing to the victims. Suddenly to see the priesthood so defiled, and with it the Catholic Church herself, at the very heart—that was something that we were really just beginning to cope with. But it was imperative not to lose sight of the fact that there is good in the Church and not only those horrible things.
It is not only the abuse that is upsetting, it is also the way of dealing with it. The deeds themselves were hushed up and kept secret for decades. That is a declaration of bankruptcy for an institution that has love written on its banner.
The Archbishop of Dublin told me something very interesting about that. He said that ecclesiastical penal law functioned until the late 1950s; admittedly it was not perfect—there is much to criticize about it—but nevertheless it was applied. After the mid-sixties, however, it was simply not applied any more. The prevailing mentality was that the Church must not be a Church of laws but, rather, a Church of love; she must not punish. Thus the awareness that punishment can be an act of love ceased to exist. This led to an odd darkening of the mind, even in very good people.
Today we have to learn all over again that love for the sinner and love for the person who has been harmed are correctly balanced if I punish the sinner in the form that is possible and appropriate. In this respect there was in the past a change of mentality, in which the law and the need for punishment were obscured. Ultimately this also narrowed the concept of love, which in fact is not just being nice or courteous, but is found in the truth. And another component of truth is that I must punish the one who has sinned against real love.
And nevertheless it is difficult for many people these days to stand by the Church. Can you understand why people respond by leaving in protest?
I can understand it. I am thinking of course above all about the victims themselves. That it is difficult for them to keep believing that the Church is a source of good, that she communicates the light of Christ, that she helps people in life—I can understand that. And others, who have only these negative perceptions, no longer see then the overall picture, the life of the Church.
All the more reason that the Church must strive to make this vitality and greatness visible again, despite all that is negative.
Recently in Malta you met with several victims of abuse. One of them, Joseph Magro, said afterward, “The Pope wept along with me, although he is in no way guilty for what happened to me.” What were you able to say to the victims?
Actually I could not say anything special at all to them. I was able to tell them that it affects me very deeply. That I suffer with them. And that was not just an expression, but it really touches my heart. And I was able to tell them that the Church will do everything possible so that this does not happen again, and that we intend to help them as well as we can. And finally, that we keep them in our prayers and ask them not to lose faith in Christ as the true light and in the living communion of the Church.
Paul VI made the topic of contraception the theme of his famous 1968 encyclical Humanae vitae. At that time, he pointed out that man’s attempt to manipulate the natural order leads to fatal consequences. Life, Pope Paul said, is too great, too sacred, for us to meddle in it. It is as if to say: If we do not respect the lives of children, our own lives and the life of our society, our world, will be lost. Perhaps people at the time were not yet able to understand this vision. Today we are witnessing not only the enormously injurious consequences of the contraceptive pill on human health and on the environment, but we are also watching our social systems collapse because we have become a childless society that is losing its foundations. Nevertheless, it has become almost impossible for the Catholic Church even to make her sexual ethics understandable. A supermodel from Brazil recently said, as if to prove our point, that nowadays no woman enters marriage as a virgin. A retired auxiliary bishop has criticized the Church for answering the questions pertaining to premarital sexuality in such a way that “practically no one can live them and people doubtless live them quite differently.”
This is a huge question. Given the present framework, we cannot enter into the many layers of the problem or examine the issues in detail. It is correct there is much in this area that needs to be pondered and expressed in new ways. On the other hand, I would also disagree with the supermodel, and many others as well, and I would insist that statistics do not suffice as a criterion for morality. It is bad enough when public opinion polls become the criterion of political decisions and when politicians are more preoccupied with “How do I get more votes?” than with “What is right?” By the same token, the results of surveys about what people do or how they live is not in and of itself the measure of what is true and right.
Paul VI has been proved prophetically right. He was convinced that society robs itself of its greatest hopes when it kills human beings through abortion. How many children are killed who might one day have been geniuses, who could have given humanity something new, who could have given us a new Mozart or some new technical discovery? We need to stop and think about the great human capacity that is being destroyed here—even quite apart from the fact that unborn children are human persons whose dignity and right to life we have to respect.
The contraceptive pill is another problem in its own right.
Yes. What Paul VI wanted to say, and what is still correct as a main vision, is that if we separate sexuality and fecundity from each other in principle, which is what the use of the pill does, then sexuality becomes arbitrary. Logically, every form of sexuality is of equal value. This approach to fecundity as something apart from sexuality, so far apart that we may even try to produce children rationally and no longer see them as a natural gift, was, after all, quickly followed by the ascription of equal value to homosexuality.
The basic lines of Humanae Vitae are still correct. Finding ways to enable people to live the teaching, on the other hand, is a further question. I think that there will always be core groups of people who are really open to being interiorly convinced and fulfilled by the teaching and who then carry everyone else. We are sinners. But we should not take the failure to live up to this high moral standard as an authoritative objection to the truth. We should try to do as much good as we can and to support and put up with each other. We should also try to express the teaching pastorally, theologically, and intellectually in the context of today’s studies of sexuality and anthropology so as to create the conditions for understanding so that people can realize that this is a great task on which work is being done and on which even more and better work needs to be done.