A human Pope

  • November 24, 2010
Pope Benedict XVIAs the marketing agencies might put it, this is the Pope like we’ve never seen him before.

The release last week of the book Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Spirit of the Times reveals a relaxed, flexible, sensitive, sometimes insecure pontiff not afraid to admit mistakes or  contemplate his frailty. If Pope Benedict XVI’s previous academic writings demonstrate his intellectual prowess, Light of the World reveals his human side.

The book is the result of six one-hour interviews the Pope granted last summer to a German writer who  explored the first five years of Benedict’s papacy. As Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi says,  the discussions are presented in “colloquial rather than magisterial form.” Or, to put it another way, the  Pope sounds like someone with something to get off his chest.

It appears clear that Benedict is often frustrated and exasperated by how his papacy is treated by not only the secular media, but by Catholic theologians and writers. By participating in this book, he seems to have decided to bypass the middlemen and talk directly to Catholics.

His most newsworthy comments concerned an apparent softening of the Church’s position on condoms. But it is important to read his comments carefully. The Pope did not, as some suggest, suddenly do an about-face on birth control. He was careful to reaffirm the 1968 teaching of Pope Paul VI in Humane Vitae, rejecting artificial birth control. The Church position is unchanged regarding condoms and pregnancy prevention.

Still, for the first time a Pope has conceded that, in some limited circumstances such as the prevention of  a disease such as AIDS, condoms could be an acceptable option. Even then, however, Benedict reiterates that solving the crisis of AIDS requires a moral response, what he calls, “a humanization of sexuality” that is founded on fidelity, respect and dignity.

It would be unfortunate, though, if the condom paragraphs devalued the richness of Benedict’s comments in several areas. His German collaborator is an old acquaintance and the Pope obviously felt comfortable speaking simply and directly to him on many topics. For example, on the clerical sex-abuse scandal, Benedict, clearly shaken by events, called it a “great scandal” and admitted the Vatican response was inadequate. On his health, Benedict conceded the demands of his schedule “really overtaxes an 83-year-old man,” and that, should his health fail, he could feel an obligation “under some circumstances” to become the first Pope in six centuries to resign.

He sounds hurt when discussing unwarranted criticism, confident when defending Pope Pius XII as “one of the great righteous men,” and seems to question if the cardinals got it right when they selected him five years ago.

Benedict’s candor is further evidence they did.

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