In new book, pope addresses sex abuse, condoms, possible resignation

By  John Thavis, Catholic News Service
  • November 22, 2010

Light of the worldROME (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI's book-length interview is certain to spark global attention, and not only for his comments suggesting that condom use might be acceptable in some circumstances.

In the 219-page book, "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times," the German pontiff spoke candidly on the clerical sex abuse scandal, relations with Islam, papal resignation and the "threatening catastrophe" facing humanity.

In what is sure to become the most discussed section of the book, the Pope said the use of condoms may be a sign of moral responsibility in some specific situations when the intention is to reduce the risk of AIDS.

The pope addressed the issue in the book-length interview, "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times," which was to be released Nov. 23. The Vatican newspaper published excerpts from the book Nov. 20, including the comments on condoms.

In the book, the pope repeated what he said during a trip to Africa last year, that "we cannot solve the problem (of AIDS) by distributing condoms." Focusing exclusively on condoms damages human sexuality, making it "banal" and turning it into a kind of "drug," he said.

But the pope went on to say that in particular cases -- he mentioned prostitutes -- condom use may be justified as a first step toward taking moral responsibility for one's actions.

Here is the key passage as translated in the English edition of the book. The pope was asked whether it was "madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms."

"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 discovering 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," the pope said.

Peter Seewald, the German journalist who conducted the interview, then asked: "Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?"

The pope answered: "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 toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality."

The Italian translation -- the only one officially released to date by the Vatican -- has a slightly different wording: it uses the feminine "prostitute", not male prostitute, and says this is an example of where condom use can be "justified."

It was the first time Pope Benedict -- or any pope -- has said publicly that condom use may be acceptable in some cases.

{sa 1586176064}The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said Nov. 21 that the pope was not "reforming or changing" the church's teaching on sexual responsibility, but rather considering an "exceptional situation" in which sexual activity places a person's life at risk. While the pope was not morally justifying disordered sexual activity, he was saying that use of a condom to reduce the risk of transmitting the disease may be an act of moral responsibility, Father Lombardi said.

The spokesman said it would be an exaggeration to call the pope's comments "revolutionary," but he said they offered a courageous and important contribution to a long-debated question.

The pope's remarks underscored a distinction made previously by other church experts: that the church's teaching against condoms as a form of birth control is different from its position on condom use in disease prevention. The comments seemed destined to open a new chapter in the church's internal debate on that issue.

For years, in fact, Vatican officials and theologians have studied the morality of condom use to reduce the risk of AIDS. The Vatican has never proclaimed a "ban" on condom use in AIDS prevention; on the contrary, some Vatican theologians and officials have argued that for married couples in which one partner is HIV-infected, use of condoms could be a moral responsibility.

More generally, however, they have argued that promotion of condoms as the only or best answer to AIDS carries grave risks, mainly by promoting the idea that condoms guarantee "safe sex." In that sense, the pope said on his flight to Cameroon in 2009 that rather than solve the issue of HIV/AIDS, condoms "increase the problem." He encouraged campaigns to promote responsible sexuality instead.


The wide-ranging interview was conducted by German writer Peter Seewald, who posed questions in six one-hour sessions last summer. The book was to be released Nov. 23 at the Vatican, but ample excerpts were published three days earlier by the Vatican newspaper.

The book reveals a less formal side of the pope, as he responds simply and directly on topics as diverse as the joy of sex and the ban on burqas. Much of the conversation focuses on the pope's call for a global "examination of conscience" in the face of economic disparity, environmental disasters and moral slippage.

The pope repeatedly emphasized that the church's role in a largely broken world is not to impose a "burden" of moral rules but to open the doors to God.

Even before the book's release, media attention centered on the pope's remarks on condoms in AIDS prevention. While repeating his view that condoms cannot be the only answer to the AIDS epidemic, the pope allowed that in some specific cases -- for example, that of male prostitutes -- use of a condom could be a step toward taking moral responsibility for one's actions.

An entire chapter and parts of others were dedicated to the clerical sex abuse scandal. The pope called it "a great crisis" that left him "stunned by how wretched the church is, by how much her members fail to follow Christ."

"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," he said.

He expressed optimism about the church's recovery from the scandal, saying God continues to raise up Catholic saints. But he also said he understands why some Catholics, particularly victims, have responded by leaving the church in protest.

"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," he said.

The pope said media coverage of the abuse scandal was partly motivated by a desire to discredit the church. But he added that the church must be "grateful for every disclosure" and said the media could not have reported in this way "had there not been evil in the church."

The pope pointed to the church's new rules and policies on sex abuse, but he appeared to acknowledge that more might have been done. He noted that in 2002, the Vatican and U.S. bishops established strict norms to curb sex abuse in U.S. dioceses.

"Would it have been Rome's duty, then, to say to all the countries expressly: Find out whether you are in the same situation? Maybe we should have done that," he said.

The pope said that in responding to sex abuse allegations against the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, the late Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, "unfortunately we addressed these things very slowly and late." The allegations were eventually substantiated and the order has been placed under Vatican leadership for a period of reform.

Pope Benedict said Father Maciel remains for him "a mysterious figure," one who lived an immoral and twisted life but who built up his religious order with dynamism -- a "false prophet" who nevertheless had a "positive effect." As for the future of the Legionaries, the pope said it was basically sound but needed corrections that do not destroy the enthusiasm of its members.

The pope was asked if he considered resigning in the face of such burdens as the sex abuse crisis. He responded: "When the danger is great one must not run away. For that reason, now is certainly not the time to resign." But he added that if a pope is no longer physically, psychologically and spiritually capable of handling the duties of the papacy, he has a right and perhaps an obligation to resign.

The pope spoke candidly of his age and health, saying his schedule of meetings and trips "really overtaxes an 83-year-old man."

"I trust that our dear Lord will give me as much strength as I need to be able to do what is necessary. But I also notice that my forces are diminishing," he said.

The pope laughed when Seewald suggested that he looked good enough to be a fitness trainer, and said he has to conserve energy during his busy days. Asked whether he uses an exercise bicycle a doctor had given him, the pope replied: "No, I don't get to it at all -- and don't need it at the moment, thank God."

He said he spends his free time reading, praying and sometimes watching DVDs -- typically with religious themes -- with members of the papal household.

Much of the book dealt with the pope's strategy for presenting the church's message in a largely skeptical world. The essential problem today, he said, is that the prevailing model of economic and social progress that leaves out God, and thus omits the ethical aspect.

Impending climactic disaster actually provides an opportunity to evangelize and promote moral decisions, he said. The problem, though, is that populations and countries seem unwilling to make sacrifices -- which is where the church can make a difference, he said.

It is urgent to "bring the question about God back into the center," he said. "The important thing today is to see that God exists, that God matters to us and that he answers us."

He said the church can do this only if its own members live the faith in their daily lives. He said that simple task should be the priority today, rather than embarking on major initiatives like a third Vatican Council.

The pope said the church's task is threatened by a "new intolerance" that would limit religious expression in the name of non-discrimination, for example in banning the display of crucifixes in public schools, or in condemning specific church teachings.

"When, for example, in the name of non-discrimination, people try to force the Catholic Church to change her position on homosexuality or the ordination of women, then that means she is no longer allowed to live out her own identity," he said.

In that regard, the pope said other religions face similar pressures. He said, for example, that he saw no reason for Western countries to ban the burqa, the Islamic veil, as long as it is worn voluntarily.

On other topics, Pope Benedict had this to say:

  • He defended the 1968 encyclical "Humanae Vitae," which taught that artificial contraception in marriage is morally wrong, but said the church needs to find ways to help people live the teaching and show tolerance to those who have problems with it.

  • The pope noted that the church accepts natural regulation of conception. He said that method presupposes that couples take time for each other, and is far different from taking a pill "so that I can jump into bed with a random acquaintance." In general, he said, the church has to return to the "genuinely Christian attitude" of joy, as well as discipline and responsibility, in sexuality.

  • He said dialogue with Muslims has improved during his pontificate, in part because Muslim scholars accept that Islam needs to clarify its relation to violence and its relation to reason.

  • The pope took issue with critics of the wartime policies of Pope Pius XII, saying that he "saved more Jews than anyone else" by quietly opening doors to church institutions.

  • He said he began distributing Communion on the tongue during papal Masses not because he was opposed to Communion in the hand, but to "send a signal" about respect for the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.