The Pope’s new book should not be reduced to one remark the pontiff makes about condoms, according to a leading Vatican official.
“Reducing the entire interview to one phrase removed from its context and from the entirety of Benedict XVI's thought would be an offense to the Pope's intelligence and a gratuitous manipulation of his words,” said Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the newly established Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization.
He made his remarks at a Nov. 23 news conference announcing the official release of “Light of the World,” a new book that collects conversations between
Pope Benedict XVI and German journalist, Peter Seewald.
The Vatican’s own newspaper had broken the official embargo on the book over the weekend, releasing fragments of the Pope’s remarks about using condoms to fight the spread of AIDS in Africa. The excerpts caused a storm of media controversy — with many suggesting that the Pope had changed the Church’s teaching forbidding the use of artificial means of birth control.
The controversy is being further fueled by remarks made by the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi. He told the press conference that while the Pope had used the example of a male prostitute using condoms, the point could apply to men, women, and even transsexuals engaged in prostitution.
“I asked the pope personally,” he said, adding: “Whether a man or a woman or a transsexual does this, we’re at the same point,” Fr. Lombardi said. “The point is the first step toward responsibility, to avoid posing a grave risk to another person.”
Seewald, too, emphasized the point in his remarks. He noted the controversies over different translations of the Pope’s words and said: “The pope indicates that, in addition to the case he cited, there may be other cases in which one may imagine that use of a condom could be a step toward responsible sexuality in this area, and to prevent further infection.”
Others at the conference tried to steer the conversation away from the controversy.
“We have a Pope who does not evade any question, who wishes to clarify everything using a language that is simple but not for that reason less profound, and who benevolently accepts the provocations inherent in so many questions,” Archbishop Fisichella said.
He and veteran Vatican correspondent, Luigi Accattoli, focused attention on the deep philosophical and political themes addressed in the new book. The book, they said, is really a conversation about the relationship of the Church with a modern world that has grown increasingly secular and hostile to religion.
Archbishop Fisichella explained how Seewald had asked the Pope "about the great questions facing modern theology, the various political events that have always marked relations between States and, finally, the themes that often occupy a large part of public debate.
"In these pages Benedict XVI often returns to the relationship between modernity and Christianity, which cannot and must not be seen as parallels,” the archbishop said. “Rather, the relationship must be lived by correctly uniting faith and reason, individual rights and social responsibility; in a word, by 'putting God first'. … This is the task the Pope sets for his own pontificate and we cannot, in all honesty, deny how difficult it seems to be."
Accattoli emphasized how personally the Pope speaks in this book and suggested journalists read it as “a guided visit to the papal workshop of Benedict XVI and to the world of Joseph Ratzinger.”
On the condom controversy, Accattoli said the Pope was offering a realistic approach to a very difficult moral and public health issue.
"Cautiously and courageously Benedict XVI seeks a pragmatic way in which missionaries and other ecclesial workers can help to defeat the AIDS pandemic, without approving — but also without excluding, in particular cases — the use of the condom,” he said.
At the same time, he affirmed the importance and relevance of the Church’s ancient restrictions on artificial birth control, Accattoli said. “He likewise reaffirms the 'prophetic' nature of Paul VI's 'Humanae vitae', though without concealing the existence of real difficulties in 'finding paths that can be followed in a human way,' ... and recognizing that 'in this field many things must be rethought and expressed in new terms.'"
Despite the controversy, Archbishop Fisichella urged that the book be read as a meditation on “how the Church in the world can announce the good news which brings joy and serenity."