The Vatican, apparently like God, works in strange ways.
A series of official meetings at the Holy See last week served as a reminder that, in its governance function, the Catholic Church is very bureaucratic. Yet Pope Benedict has just done what few government or religious leaders would do. He gave six interviews of one hour’s duration each to the German journalist and author Peter Seewald.
The product of this conversation is contained in Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times (Ignatius Press), which has just been published. In the Western world, which is increasingly subsumed with sex and celebrity, media attention has focused on the Pope’s answers to two questions about HIV/AIDS in Africa and the church forbidding condoms.
Commentators have homed in on Benedict’s comment that in the case of some individuals – he cited the case of a male prostitute – the use of condoms may amount to “a first step in the direction of a moralisation, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way towards recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants”. That was about it.
But commentators tended to ignore a more significant papal refrain in Light of the World. Namely that “people can get condoms when they want them anyway”.
And that’s the essential point. The Pope recognises that not all Catholics follow the teachings of the church. Moreover, Africa is by no means a Catholic zone. The unfashionable fact is that HIV/AIDS is rife in large parts of Africa because many African men have multiple sex partners. Only some of them are baptised Catholic.
The Catholic Church has a good understanding of the devastation of HIV/AIDS. It is estimated about 15 per cent of the world’s population is Catholic and that 25 per cent of all AIDS victims around the world are treated in Catholic institutions. That’s an impressive statistic.
There is another inconvenient truth. The church’s interaction with HIV/AIDS victims primarily focuses on caring for wounds and emptying bedpans – rather than writing opinion pieces in newspapers and attending international conferences.
The obsession with Catholicism in the Western media also impacts on discussion of world population growth. Last October, the presenter of Late Night Live, Phillip Adams, interviewed the former Catholic priest Paul Collins about his book Judgment Day – The Struggle for Life on Earth.
As the title suggests, Collins’s work is primarily about the environment, climate change and all that. But Adams introduced the interview with predictable comments about condoms and the ridicule-laced claim that Catholics believe “it’s naughty to have contraception because it might eliminate a couple of babies and every sperm is sacred”.
Collins did not object to Adams’s sneers. But he did point out that Catholic fertility in Australia since the late 19th century has been pretty much the same as Australia’s national fertility. Collins did refer to the fact that, in Australia, Catholics suffer an enormous amount from caricature. He added that in parts of Catholic Italy the population is in decline.
This suggests that the Pope has a much better understanding of contemporary Catholics than do such secularists as Adams. As Francis Fukuyama pointed out in a lecture in Sydney in 2008, the huge increases in world population are taking place in sub-Saharan Africa where the Pope has little influence. If Adams was truly concerned about the need for condom advocacy as a form of birth control, he would take his cause to the Islamic nations – or, indeed, to Islamic settlements within Western societies. It’s just that it is easier to ridicule Christians in the West than Muslims anywhere.
During his visit to Britain in September, Benedict was subjected to more low-level abuse. The author Richard Dawkins described the Pope as a “leering old villain in a frock”, the philosopher A.C. Grayling compared him to “the head of a drug cartel” and the humanist Andrew Copson accused him of undermining human rights. Yet, as Bryan Appleyard reported in The Sunday Times, Geoffrey Robertson, QC, obtained a papal blessing in Rome a few months before joining the protests in London.
The evidence suggests the Pope is more considered than many of his critics. This is evident in Light of the World where the former theology professor acknowledges the church handles some issues poorly, concedes that “the Pope can have private opinions that are wrong” and accepts that “no one is forced to be a Christian”. The Pope also apologises for the “filth” involved in the sexual abuse of young children by male priests and brothers.
The reader does not have to agree with the views of Benedict to be impressed by the fact he gave lengthy interviews in the absence of minders and that Light of the World was released without “talking points” memos being issued to bishops and priests.