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In new book, pope opens up discussion on condom use

He also concedes church failings in sex abuse crisis

Benedict said there may be cases, such as with male prostitutes, where condom use is “a first assumption of responsibility.’’ Benedict said there may be cases, such as with male prostitutes, where condom use is “a first assumption of responsibility.’’
By Rachel Donadio
New York Times / November 21, 2010

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ROME — Pope Benedict XVI has said that condom use can be justified in some cases to help stop the spread of AIDS, the first Vatican exception to a long-held policy condemning condom use. The pope made the statement in a series of interviews with a German journalist, part of an extraordinary effort to address some of the harshest criticisms of his turbulent papacy.

The pope made clear that he considered the use of condoms a last resort and not a way to prevent conception. The example he gave of when they could be used was in the case of male prostitutes. Amid his defense of the church in contemporary society, Benedict also acknowledged some of its failings, like in the sexual abuse crisis, which he calls “a volcano of filth’’ sent by the devil. He pointed to a “readiness for aggression’’ among those who criticized him for revoking the excommunication of a bishop who denied the scope of the Holocaust.

Benedict also discussed his contentious speech in Regensburg, Germany, in 2006, which provoked the ire of the Muslim world; denounced drug abuse; explained what he described as the impossibility of ordaining women as priests; and, with surprising candor, said that if he did not feel up to the task of being pope, he would resign.

The revelations — which show the pope to be at once personal, provocative, and largely unapologetic — come in the first book-length interview ever to be granted by a sitting pontiff, conducted in July by Peter Seewald, the author of two previous books of interviews with Benedict when he was still a cardinal.

In allowing the pope to speak for himself, the book is a clear acknowledgment of the challenges facing Benedict, 83, whose five-year-old papacy has suffered a series of crises, including over the sexual abuse of minors by priests. Even his greatest defenders concede his papacy has had grave communications problems.

The book “proves once again that Benedict XVI is his own best advocate,’’ said George Weigel, a papal biographer who wrote the introduction for the English-language edition of the book, “Light of the World,’’ which will be published on Tuesday. (The Vatican’s newspaper published excerpts online yesterday.)

In the book, Benedict upholds the view that the Roman Catholic Church does not see condoms as “a real or moral solution’’ and says that they are “not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.’’

But for the first time, he opened the door for at least some more open debate on the issue.

“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 recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants,’’ the pope said.

Condoms have been a contentious issue ever since Pope Paul VI denounced birth control in his famous 1968 encyclical, “Humanae Vitae.’’ In recent years, bishops in Africa and elsewhere have been quietly calling on the Vatican to relax its stance to allow for condom use as part of a broader approach to fight the spread of HIV and AIDS.

The Rev. Joseph Fessio, a former student of Benedict and the editor in chief of Ignatius Press, which is publishing the English-language edition of the book, said the pope’s remarks on condoms were among the most surprising in the volume.

“It’s very carefully qualified,’’ he said. “It would be wrong to say, ‘Pope Approves Condoms.’ He’s saying it’s immoral, but in an individual case the use of a condom could be an awakening to someone that he’s got to be more conscious of his actions.’’

The book also devotes an entire chapter to the sexual abuse crisis. He says he was not surprised by the scandal, having spent 25 years in the Vatican office that handles doctrinal and disciplinary questions, and which victims and critics have accused of not acting swiftly and decisively enough.

In the book, Benedict says of the abuse crisis that erupted in the United States in 2001, “We responded to the matter in America immediately with revised, stricter norms. In addition, collaboration between the secular and ecclesiastical authorities was improved. 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.’’

And he acknowledged that the scandal had undermined the moral authority of the Catholic Church. “It is not only the abuse that is upsetting, it is also the way of dealing with it. The deeds themselves were hushed up and kept secret for decades. That is a declaration of bankruptcy for an institution that has love written on its banner.’’

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