'Light of the World' Excerpts

The Pope on:

Abuse Scandal

Christ's Church


Williamson Case

No More Truth

Papal Faith

Condoms and Aids

A clarification by Dr. Janet Smith

About the Author

Accompanying our review of "Light of the World": The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times" (Ignatius, $21.95) are samples from the book.

Journalist Peter Seewald spent six hours this July interviewing the pope at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. The resulting 239-page book contains the pontiff's sometimes surprising answers.

Abuse Scandal

How great is this crisis? Is it really, as we occasionally read, one of the greatest in the history of the Church? 

Yes, it is a great crisis, we have to say that. It was upsetting for all of us. Suddenly so much filth. 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 and every priest was under the suspicion of being one like that too. Many priests declared that they no longer dared to extend a hand to a child, much less go to a summer camp with children. 

For me the affair was not entirely unexpected. In the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith I had already dealt with the American cases; I had also seen the situation emerge in Ireland. But on this scale it was nevertheless an unprecedented shock. Since my election to the Chair of Peter I had already met several times with victims of sexual abuse. Three and a half years ago, in October 2006, in my address to the bishops of Ireland, I had called for them to bring the truth to light, to take whatever steps necessary to prevent such egregious crimes from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of law and justice are fully respected and, above all, to bring healing to the victims. Suddenly to see the priesthood so defiled, and with it the Catholic Church herself, at the very heart — that was something that we were really just beginning to cope with. But it was imperative not to lose sight of the fact that there is good in the Church and not only those horrible things. 


Author Peter Seewald interviews Pope Benedict at the summer residence
Peter Seewald interviews Pope Benedict XVI

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.

The archbishop of Dublin told me something very interesting about that. He said that ecclesiastical penal law functioned until the late 1950s; admittedly it was not perfect — there is much to criticize about it — but nevertheless it was applied. After the mid-’60s, however, it was simply not applied any more. The prevailing mentality was that the Church must not be a Church of laws but, rather, a Church of love; she must not punish. Thus the awareness that punishment can be an act of love ceased to exist. This led to an odd darkening of the mind, even in very good people. 

Today we have to learn all over again that love for the sinner and love for the person who has been harmed are correctly balanced if I punish the sinner in the form that is possible and appropriate. In this respect there was in the past a change of mentality, in which the law and the need for punishment were obscured. Ultimately this also narrowed the concept of love, which in fact is not just being nice or courteous, but is found in the truth. And another component of truth is that I must punish the one who has sinned against real love.

Christ's Church

Doesn’t the study of Christ’s life and teaching always have to be a question for the Church as well? Isn’t it the case, especially when as an author you take a fresh look at these topics, that you inevitably start reeling when you realize how far the Church has repeatedly strayed from the path that the Son of God showed her? 

Well, right now, in the midst of the scandals, we have experienced what it means to be very stunned by how wretched the Church is, by how much her members fail to follow Christ. That is the one side, which we are forced to experience for our humiliation, for our real humility. 

The other side is that, in spite of everything, he does not release his grip on the Church. In spite of the weakness of the people in whom he shows himself, he keeps the Church in his grasp, he raises up saints in her, and makes himself present through them. I believe that these two feelings belong together: the deep shock over the wretchedness, the sinfulness of the Church — and the deep shock over the fact that he doesn’t drop this instrument, but that he works with it; that he never ceases to show himself through and in the Church.

Communion on the Tongue

As pope, you have begun to administer Communion on the tongue, while the communicants receive the Sacrament on their knees. Do you regard this as the appropriate posture?

The first point that needs to be made is that time has a structure that is common for all believers. The Old Testament prescribes this structure already in light of the creation account, presenting the Sabbath as the day when God rests and men rest with him. For Christians, time gets this structure from Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, when he encounters us and we encounter him. Once again, the most important act here is, as it were, the moment when he unites himself to us through his self-gift.

I am not opposed in principle to Communion in the hand; I have both administered and received Communion in this way myself. The idea behind my current practice of having people kneel to receive Communion on the tongue was to send a signal and to underscore the Real Presence with an exclamation point. One very important reason is that there is a great danger of superficiality precisely in the kinds of mass events we hold at St. Peter’s, both in the Basilica and in the Square. I have heard of people who, after receiving Communion, stick the Host in their wallet to take home as a kind of souvenir. In this context, where people think that everyone is just automatically supposed to receive Communion — everyone else is going up, so I will, too — I wanted to send a clear signal. I wanted it to be clear: Something quite special is going on here! He is here, the One before whom we fall on our knees! Pay attention! This is not just some social ritual in which we can take part if we want to.

Williamson Case

Would you have signed the [2009] decree lifting the excommunication if you had known that among the four bishops [of the Society of St. Pius X] there was a person who denied the existence of the Nazi gas chambers? 

No. If I had known, the first step would have been to separate the [Richard] Williamson case from the others. Unfortunately, though, none of us went on the Internet to find out what sort of person we were dealing with.

No More Truth

The distinction between genuine and fake seems to have been abolished. Everything is to some extent negotiable. Is that the relativism against which you were warning so urgently?

It is obvious that the concept of truth has become suspect. Of course it is correct that it has been much abused. Intolerance and cruelty have occurred in the name of truth. To that extent people are afraid when someone says, “This is the truth,” or even, “I have the truth.” We never have it; at best it has us. No one will dispute that one must be careful and cautious in claiming the truth. But simply to dismiss it as unattainable is really destructive.

A large proportion of contemporary philosophies, in fact, consist of saying that man is not capable of truth. But viewed in that way, man would not be capable of ethical values, either. Then he would have no standards. Then he would only have to consider how he arranged things reasonably for himself, and then at any rate the opinion of the majority would be the only criterion that counted. History, however, has sufficiently demonstrated how destructive majorities can be, for instance, in systems such as Nazism and Marxism, all of which also stood against truth in particular.

Papal Faith

Has your faith changed since you have become responsible for Christ’s flock as the supreme shepherd? Sometimes people get the impression that now it has become more mysterious somehow, more mystical.

I am no mystic. But it is correct that as pope one has even more cause to pray and to entrust oneself entirely to God. For I see very well that almost everything I have to do is something I myself cannot do at all. That fact already forces me, so to speak, to place myself in the Lord’s hands and to say to him: “You do it, if you want it!” In this sense prayer and contact with God are now even more necessary and also even more natural and self-evident than before.

To put it in worldly terms: Is there now a “better connection” to heaven, or something like a grace of office?

Yes, one often feels that. In the sense of: Now I have been able to do something that did not come from me at all. Now I entrust myself to the Lord and notice, yes, there is help there, something is being done that is not my own doing. In that sense there is absolutely an experience of the grace of office.

Condoms and Aids

In Africa [in 2009] 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.

Sidebar: What is Pope Benedict Saying?

by Janet Smith

Pope Benedict XVI does not in any way think the use of condoms is a part of the solution to reducing the risk of AIDS. As he states, the true solution involves “humanizing sexuality” (see excerpt above).

We must note that the example that Pope Benedict gives for the use of a condom is by a male prostitute; thus it is reasonable to assume that he is referring to a male prostitute engaged in homosexual acts. The pope is simply observing that for some homosexual prostitutes the use of a condom may indicate an awakening of a moral sense; an awakening that sexual pleasure is not the highest value, but that we must take care that we harm no one with our choices. He is not speaking to the morality of the use of a condom but to something that may be true about the psychological state of those who use them. If such individuals are using condoms to avoid harming another, they may eventually realize that sexual acts between members of the same sex are inherently harmful since they are not in accord with human nature. 

Perhaps a useful example:

If someone was going to rob a bank and was determined to use a gun, it would better for that person to use a gun that had no bullets in it. It would reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries. But it is not the task of the Church to instruct potential bank robbers how to rob banks more safely and certainly not the task of the Church to support programs of providing potential bank robbers with guns that could not use bullets. 

Nonetheless, the intent of a bank robber to rob a bank in a way that is safer for the employees and customers of the bank, may indicate an element of moral responsibility that could be a step toward eventual understanding of the immorality of bank robbing.

Janet E. Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

About the Author

Peter Seewald grew up Catholic in Germany’s Bavaria region, but as a young man embraced Marxist thought.

He worked for various German magazines and newspapers, including the influential Der Speigel, Stern and Süddeutschen Zeitung, eventually becoming a full-time freelance writer in 1993.

It was in 1996 that he landed a lengthy interview with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI). The interview became the book “Salt of the Earth” (Ignatius, $12.95), and served as an impetus for Seewald to return to the Catholic Church.

A second lengthy interview with Cardinal Ratzinger became in 2002 “God and the World” (Ignatius, $19.95).

“Light of the World” is the second book-length interview with a pontiff; the first was“Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” with Pope John Paul II and Vittorio Messori (Knopf, $16).

Read Russell Shaw's review of the book here»