By Francis X. Rocca
Religion News Service
VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Benedict XVI has dominated global headlines since Saturday (Nov. 20) when the Vatican's official newspaper leaked excerpts from a new book in which the pope suggested condoms might sometimes be justified in reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS.
But the condom remarks -- that a male prostitute, for example, is someone whose use of a condom "can be a first step" in the practice of sexual morality -- aren't the only newsworthy bits in The Light of the World, a book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald, which hits stores on Wednesday (Nov. 24).
The new book, based on six hours of interviews in July, is also an extraordinarily intimate portrait of a sitting pope. Benedict reveals his sensitivity to criticism, concerns about his health and a striking willingness to admit error -- especially for a religious leader whose
followers consider his dogmatic pronouncements infallible.
Asked if the start of his reign was marked by mistakes, Benedict replies: "Maybe one makes even more mistakes later, because one is no longer so careful."
Despite years of experience as the Vatican official in charge of investigating clerical sex abuse and then as pope, Benedict voices his "unprecedented shock" at the "great crisis" provoked earlier this year by revelations of widespread clergy abuse in several European and Latin American countries.
"It was really almost like the crater of a volcano, out of which suddenly a tremendous cloud of filth came, darkening and soiling everything," the pope tells Seewald, expressing hope that the scandals may yet "have a purifying virtue."
"We must be grateful for every disclosure of sex abuse," Benedict says, nevertheless claiming that "what guided this press campaign was not only a sincere desire for truth, but ... also some pleasure in exposing the Church and if possible discrediting her."
Benedict admits that "maybe (the Vatican) should have" called for an immediate worldwide investigation of clerical sex abuse following the scandals in the U.S. in 2002.
Neither the pope nor his interviewer addresses widely circulated charges that the pope, while serving as the Archbishop of Munich and later as a Vatican cardinal, himself mishandled cases of pedophile priests.
Benedict flatly rules out resigning in the face of criticism over the sex abuse crisis. "Precisely at a time like this one must stand fast and endure the difficult situation," he says.
In a comment that could help explain his reluctance to dismiss bishops who mishandle abuse cases, he adds: "One must not run away from danger and say that someone else should do it."
On the other hand, Benedict acknowledges a pope may have an "obligation to resign" once he "is no longer physically, psychologically, and spiritually capable of handling the duties of his
His own health is currently good, Benedict reports, but admits his schedule "really overtaxes an 83-year-old man," and he observes that "my forces are diminishing."
On the subject of his public appearances, he says: "I wonder whether I can make it even from a purely physical point of view. The trips are very demanding for me."
The Williamson Case
Benedict says, in retrospect, he would not have lifted the 20-year-old excommunication of the ultra-traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson had he known that Williamson was a public Holocaust denier.
"Unfortunately, though, none of us went on the Internet to find out what sort of person we were dealing with," he says.
For a pope to admit error this way, in a matter as weighty as the exercise of his penal power, may be unprecedented.
However, Benedict also points to the controversy that greeted his mistake as evidence of "a hostility, a readiness to pounce, that waits for these kinds of things ... in order to strike a well-aimed blow." There was a "readiness for aggression," he says, "which was lying in wait for its victim."
Benedict reveals that his decision last December to declare the wartime Pope Pius XII "venerable" and thus eligible for beatification (the rank just below sainthood) came after an informal investigation of still-sealed wartime records in the Vatican Archives.
Critics say Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, failed to do or say all he could to stop the Nazis' persecution and genocide of the Jews. But Benedict says the Vatican investigation confirmed the "positive things we know, but not the negative things that are alleged."
Pius "saved more Jews than anyone else," according to Benedict, and failed to protest publicly only out of fear that the Germans would deport thousands of Jews under the church's protection in Rome.
Recalling the violent protests that greeted his 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a medieval Christian emperor describing the teachings of Islam's Prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman" and "spread by the sword," Benedict confesses to naivete.
The pope says he gave that speech, which provoked the first crisis of his reign, "without realizing that people don't read papal lectures as academic presentations, but as political statements."
While noting tendencies toward violence and intolerance in some parts of the Muslim world, Benedict insists Islam and Christianity are "on the same side of a common battle" between "radical secularism" and "the question of God, in its various forms."
Though he insists he is "shy about making any predictions about when reunion will happen" between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, Benedict says there is a realistic possibility he will meet with the Patriarch of Moscow -- a long-sought goal that eluded his predecessor Pope John Paul II -- "in the not too distant future."
Divorced and Remarried Catholics
Benedict hints at greater accommodation of divorced and remarried Catholics, who are prohibited from receiving Communion unless their previous marriages are annulled.
Many first marriages might be eligible for annulment on account of prevailing mores, Benedict suggests.
The "indissoluble" nature of marriage is based on the assumption that "someone who contracts a marriage knows what marriage is," Benedict says.
But today, "what people 'know' is rather that divorce is supposedly normal. So we have to deal with the question of how to recognize validity and where healing is possible."
Recalling the excitement that greeted his appearance in December 2005 wearing a red-and-white cap called a camauro, which some observers said made the pope resemble Santa Claus, Benedict denied any intention to make a fashion statement.
"I was just cold, and I happen to have a sensitive head," Benedict says. "I haven't put it on again since. In order to forestall over-interpretation."