Excerpts from Light of the World

This page contains: The Pope on Condom Use, and excerpts from the chapters "Popes Do Not Fall from the Sky", "Time for Conversion", "The Return of Jesus Christ", and the full Foreword by George Weigel.

The Pope on Condom Use

On the occasion of your trip to Africa in March 2009, the Vatican’s policy on AIDs once again became the target of media criticism. Twenty-five percent of all AIDs victims around the world today are treated in Catholic facilities. In some countries, such as Lesotho, for example, the statistic is 40 percent. In Africa you stated that the Church’s traditional teaching has proven to be the only sure way to stop the spread of HIV. Critics, including critics from the Church’s own ranks, object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms.

The media coverage completely ignored the rest of the trip to Africa on account of a single statement. Someone had asked me why the Catholic Church adopts an unrealistic and ineffective position on AIDs. At that point, I really felt that I was being provoked, because the Church does more than anyone else. And I stand by that claim. Because she is the only institution that assists people up close and concretely, with prevention, education, help, counsel, and accompaniment. And because she is second to none in treating so many AIDs victims, especially children with AIDs.

I had the chance to visit one of these wards and to speak with the patients. That was the real answer: The Church does more than anyone else, because she does not speak from the tribunal of the newspapers, but helps her brothers and sisters where they are actually suffering. In my remarks I was not making a general statement about the condom issue, but merely said, and this is what caused such great offense, that we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms. Much more needs to be done. We must stand close to the people, we must guide and help them; and we must do this both before and after they contract the disease.

As a matter of fact, you know, people can get condoms when they want them anyway. But this just goes to show that condoms alone do not resolve the question itself. More needs to happen. Meanwhile, the secular realm itself has developed the so-called ABC Theory: Abstinence – Be Faithful – Condom, where the condom is understood only as a last resort, when the other two points fail to work. This means that the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.

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. 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.

Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?

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 in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

[back to TOP]

From Chapter 1, "Popes Do Not Fall from the Sky," pages 3-5

In the so-called “room of tears” during a conclave three sets of robes lie waiting for the future Pope. One is long, one short, one middle-sized. What was going through your head in that room, in which so many new Pontiffs are said to have broken down? Does one wonder again here, at the very latest: Why me? What does God want of me?

Actually at that moment one is first of all occupied by very practical, external things. One has to see how to deal with the robes and such. Moreover I knew that very soon I would have to say a few words out on the balcony, and I began to think about what I could say. Besides, even at the moment when it hit me, all I was able to say to the Lord was simply: “What are you doing with me? Now the responsibility is yours. You must lead me! I can’t do it. If you wanted me, then you must also help me!” In this sense, I stood, let us say, in an urgent dialogue relationship with the Lord: if he does the one thing he must also do the other.

Did John Paul II want to have you as his successor?

That I do not know. I think he left it entirely up to the dear Lord.

Nonetheless he did not allow you to leave office. That could be taken as an argumentum e silentio, a silent argument for his favorite candidate.

He did want to keep me in office; that is well known. As my seventy-fifth birthday approached, which is the age limit when one submits one’s resignation, he said to me, “You do not have to write the letter at all, for I want to have you to the end.” That was the great and undeserved benevolence he showed me from the very beginning. He had read my Introduction to Christianity. Evidently it was an important book for him. As soon as he became Pope he had made up his mind to call me to Rome as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He had placed a great, very cordial, and profound trust in me. As the guarantee, so to speak, that we would travel the right course in the faith.

You visited John Paul II one more time when he was on his deathbed. On that evening you hurried back from a lecture in Subiaco, where you had spoken about “Benedict’s Europe in the Crisis of Cultures”. What if anything did the dying Pope say to you?

He was suffering much and, nevertheless, very alert. He said nothing more, though. I asked him for his blessing, which he gave me. So we parted with a cordial handshake, conscious that that was our last meeting.

[back to TOP]

From Chapter 6, "Time for Conversion," pages 64-66

The changes of our time have brought other life-styles and philosophies of life with them, but also a different perception of the Church. Advances in medical research pose enormous ethical challenges. The new universe of the Internet, too, demands answers. John XXIII seized upon the change after the two world wars so as to interpret the “signs of the time”, as he put it in the bull of convocation Humanae salutis, dated December 25, 1961, as pointing to a council, even though he was already at that time an old, sick man. Will Benedict XVI do the same?

Well, now, John XXIII made a great, unrepeatable gesture in entrusting to a general council the task of understanding the word of faith today in a new way. Above all, the Council took up and carried out its great mission of defining in a new way the Church’s purpose as well as her relation to the modern era, and also the relation of faith to this time with its values. But to put into practice what was said, while remaining within the intrinsic continuity of the faith, is a much more difficult process than the Council itself. Especially since the Council came into the world in the interpretation devised by the media more than with its own documents, which are hardly ever read by anyone.

I think that our major task now, after a few fundamental questions are clarified, is first of all to bring to light God’s priority again. The important thing today is to see that God exists, that God matters to us, and that he answers us. And, conversely, that if he is omitted, everything else might be as clever as can be—yet man then loses his dignity and his authentic humanity and, thus, the essential thing breaks down. That is why, I think, as a new emphasis we have to give priority to the question about God.

Do you think that the Catholic Church could really get around having the Third Vatican Council?

In all we have had more than twenty councils, and surely there will be another one someday. At the moment I do not see the prerequisites for it. I believe that at the moment the bishops’ synods are the right instrument, in which the entire episcopate is represented and is, so to speak, “searching”, keeping the whole Church together and at the same time leading her forward. Whether then someday the moment will come again to do this in a major council, that we should leave to the future. At the moment we need, above all, those spiritual movements in which the universal Church, drawing upon her current experiences and at the same time coming from the interior experience of faith and of its power, sets up guideposts— and thereby makes God’s presence the central focus again.

[back to TOP]

From Chapter 17, "The Return of Jesus Christ" pages 175-177

Jesus does not merely bring a message, he is also the Savior, the healer, Christus medicus, as an old expression has it. Given this society of ours, which is so broken and unhealthy in so many ways, as we have often said in this interview, isn’t it an especially pressing task of the Church to take extra pains to highlight the offer of salvation contained in the Gospel? Jesus, at any rate, made his disciples strong enough, not just to preach, but also to expel demons and to heal.

Yes, that’s key. The Church is not here to place burdens on the shoulders of mankind, and she does not offer some sort of moral system. The really crucial thing is that the Church offers Him. That she opens wide the doors to God and so gives people what they are most waiting for and what can most help them. The Church does this mainly through the great miracle of love, which never stops happening afresh. When people—without earning any profit, without having to do it because it is their job—are motivated by Christ to stand by others and to help them. You are right that this therapeutic character of Christianity, as Eugen Biser put it, ought to be much more clearly in evidence than it is.

A major problem for Christians is that they stand unprotected in the middle of a world that is basically continually launching bombs against the alternative values of Christian culture. Wouldn’t you have to say that it is impossible to be entirely immune to this sort of worldwide propaganda in favor of negative behavior?

It is true that we need something like islands where faith in God and the interior simplicity of Christianity are alive and radiant; oases, Noah’s arks, to which man can always come back for refuge. Liturgical spaces offer such protective zones. But there are also various communities and movements, the parishes, celebrations of the sacraments, exercises of piety, pilgrimages, and so forth, in which the Church attempts to instill powers of resistance as well as to develop protective zones in which the beauty of the world, of the gift of being alive, also becomes visible in contrast to the rampant brokenness around us.

[back to TOP]

Foreword – by George Weigel

The Chair of Peter affords its occupant a unique view of the human condition, unlike that offered to any other global figure from any other vantage point.

World political leaders see the flow of history in terms of interests, alliances, and power. Intellectuals of international repute perceive humanity in terms of their philosophical, historical, or scientific theories. Leaders of great commercial enterprises analyze the world in terms of markets to be penetrated. World-renowned entertainers imagine their audiences in terms of the emotions they seek to evoke.

Popes, if they have the wit and the stomach for it, see the whole picture — the entirety of the human drama, in both its nobility and its wickedness. And they see it through the prism of humanity’s origins and humanity’s ultimate destiny.

It can be a dizzying, even disorienting, view. Over almost two millennia of papal history, some Popes have indeed bent history to their wills — or, perhaps more accurately, to the power of their faith; one thinks immediately of John Paul II’s pivotal role in the collapse of European Communism. Other Popes have seemed overwhelmed by the tides of history, their papacies swamped by riptides they were unable to channel or resist. Novelist Morris West once wrote that the Chair of Peter “. . . was a high leap, halfway out of the world and into a vestibule of divinity. The man who wore the Fisherman’s ring and the triple tiara carried also the sins of the world like a leaden cope on his shoulders. He stood on a lonely pinnacle, alone, with the spread carpet of the nations before him, and above, the naked face of the Almighty. Only a fool would envy him the power and the glory and the terror of such a principality.” West exaggerated, as novelists tend to do, but he caught something of the unique perspective on humanity and its pilgrimage through history that the papacy thrusts before a man.

Having worked closely with John Paul II for almost a quarter-century, and having written incisively about the Office of Peter for decades before that, Joseph Ratzinger knew all this when the question was put to him on April 19, 2005, two days after his seventy-eighth birthday: “Acceptasne electionem de te canonice factam in Summum Pontificem?” [Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?] The world and the Church can be grateful that, once again, Ratzinger put his own plans on hold — this time, permanently — by saying Yes to that awesome query. For Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, brings both a clear-eyed view and the courage of convictions born in faith and honed by reason to the papacy’s unique vantage point on the human race in the first decades of the twenty-first century.

What the Pope sees, and what he discusses with frankness, clarity, and compassion in this stimulating conversation with Peter Seewald, is a world that (to borrow from Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson) has lost its story: a world in which the progress promised by the humanisms of the past three centuries is now gravely threatened by understandings of the human person that reduce our humanity to a congeries of cosmic chemical accidents: a humanity with no intentional origin, no noble destiny, and thus no path to take through history. This is not, it must be emphasized, the cranky view of a man ill at ease in the postmodern world. Rather, as Benedict XVI takes pains to underscore in this conversation, his challenge to postmodernity is one intended to preserve and extend the achievements of modernity, not least in the sphere of political freedom — and to do so by encouraging postmodernity to rediscover some ancient truths about itself.

Those truths include the necessary dialogue between faith and reason. Faith devoid of reason risks becoming superstition and blind prejudice. Reason inattentive to faith risks solipsism, self-absorption, detachment from reality. The effects of faith detached from reason are all around us: thus Benedict’s urgent challenge to Islam. So are the effects of reason inattentive to faith: thus Benedict’s challenge, to a West in cultural disarray, to rediscover the biblical roots of the Western civilizational project. Like John Paul II, Benedict XVI sees both facets of this dual crisis of world civilization clearly; and, again like the predecessor to whom he pays touching tribute in this book, he has put these issues on the table of the world’s conversation as no one else has or can.

Benedict XVI brought to the papacy more than a half-century of reflection on the truths of biblical faith and a master teacher’s capacity to explicate those truths and bring them to bear on contemporary situations in a luminously clear way. I have had the privilege of knowing many men and women of high intelligence, even genius, in my lifetime; I have never known anyone like Benedict XVI,who, when one asks him a question, pauses, thinks carefully, and then answers in complete paragraphs — often in his third, fourth, or fifth language. Peter Seewald’s well-crafted questions give Benedict XVI good material with which to work. But it is the remarkably lucid and precise mind of Joseph Ratzinger that makes the papal answers here sing.

Those who had known Joseph Ratzinger in his pre-papal days knew this about him, as they had known him for a man of exquisite manners and a pastor’s kind heart. Which is to say, those who knew the man knew that the caricature of him in the world press — a caricature created by his ecclesiastical enemies in a particularly nasty exercise of odium theologicum — was just that: a caricature, a cartoon, with no tether to the real man. Happily, the world has been able to discover this since April 19, 2005.

Those with eyes to see and ears to hear have discovered a pastor who meets, prays, and weeps with those suffering the aftereffects of being abused by men they thought were their shepherds; and by the victims’ own testimony, the tears were real, as was the Pope’s horror and anguish at what his brothers in the priesthood had done and what his brothers in the episcopate had failed to address. Those willing to hear and see have met a world-class intellectual who, in addressing British Catholic schoolchildren, distills sixty years of higher learning into a winsome and compelling catechetical message on how important it is to become a twenty-first-century saint. Those who come to Rome to attend one of Benedict XVI’s general audiences have encountered a master catechist, whose command of the Bible, the Fathers, and the theological traditions of Christian West and Christian East is simply unparalleled — as is his capacity to explicate what he has learned in ways that virtually everyone can understand and engage.

That is the Benedict XVI whom the reader will meet in Light of the World: a teacher to whom any sensible person would want to give a fair hearing. That this teacher is also a pastor, and a thoroughgoing Christian disciple who believes that friendship with Jesus is the key to human happiness, suggests that, like his predecessor, Benedict XVI is reforming the papacy by returning it to its evangelical roots as an office of witness to the truth of God in Christ.

Benedict XVI lived through the trauma of the mid-twentieth century, in which false conceptions of the human person and human destiny almost destroyed civilization, as he lived through the drama of the late twentieth century, which saw the end of Communism and a brief moment of optimism about the human future. He sees a world that, contrary to that optimism, has tended to shutter its windows and lock its doors against the light: the light of truth, the light of Christ, the light of God in whom there is no darkness. To vary the imagery, Benedict, from the unique vantage point of the papacy, sees a world yearning for love but attaching itself to false loves. To this, he counterposes that with which Dante closed the greatest poem ever written: “l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle” [the Love that moves the sun and the other stars].

Benedict XVI has met this Love, embraced it, and given his life to sharing it. It is loving this Love that has made Joseph Ratzinger — again, contrary to the cartoon — a joyful man, who wants others to share in the joy of the Lord. He knows full well, as he puts it to Peter Seewald, that we all live “the Christian situation, this battle between two kinds of love.” At the moment, it seems to him that, in many parts of the world he surveys, the false loves have gained the upper hand. But he also knows that “love is the key to Christianity” and that true loves, and Love itself, will win the final triumph, which has already been revealed in the Resurrection. Our task, he reminds us, is not to demand immediate victories, but to bear witness to the truth, the love, and the joy that comes from conversion to Christ.

For such a reminder, and for such a witness, Christians, and indeed all men and women of good will, can only be grateful.

George Weigel
Distinguished Senior Fellow
William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies
Ethics and Public Policy Center,Washington, D.C.

[back to TOP]

Read the Question Topics

... 2. The Abuse Scandal ... 9. Ecumenism and the Dialogue with Islam ... more

Meet the Authors

Peter Seewald is a veteran German journalist... more

Read the Official Blog

See the latest news and reviews... more

Get the Book