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Don't mock the frock - Benedict speaks from the heart

Date

Gerard Henderson

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.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.

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100 comments

  • Yes Gerard, we get it... you just love the pope to bits!

    Correctly stating the church's reason for prohibition of condoms is "sneering", is it? I see.

    And your suggestion that "no one is forced to be a Christian" is simply wrong... Gay marriage, anyone? Remember that according to the Pope the gays are more evil and dangerous than global warming, and must be stopped at all costs!

    And yes, I think we can all overlook the church's appalling record of child abuse since he Pope had a nice chat... without talking points! Gosh!!

    Well done on truly sniveling column, Gerard!

    Commenter
    Jimmy
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    December 07, 2010, 6:24AM
    • If Benedict turns a blind eye to the plight of those in Africa, all the more reason to condemn him and those who prop him up as an authority figure. The Catholic church is a massive organisation and as such is easily able to distribute condoms widely throughout Africa and other regions where HIV is prevalent. We know that the good catholics doing the work on the ground in these regions must distribute contraceptives with secrecy since they act in contravention to church policy. How much easier would everything be if they could encourage the use of condoms, rather than just accept that "people can get condoms when they want them anyway."

      Clearly the catholic church could do much more to prevent the spread of HIV, rather than just treat the victims after they become infected.

      Commenter
      adam ansell
      Location
      melbourne
      Date and time
      December 07, 2010, 6:31AM
      • The sneering secularists like Adams and Dawkins only ever ridicule Christians. They never bother to seriously engage, they ridicule distorted caricatures.

        They are totally gutless when it comes to Islam. They preach tolerance but will not tolerate Christians and will not criticize Muslims.

        I don't agree with the Roman Catholic Church on many issues, but they sure do a lot of good works....

        Commenter
        James
        Date and time
        December 07, 2010, 6:34AM
        • We said Gerard,

          Now wait for the mad panic of anti catholics as they try to howl you down.

          It is a nervous reflex that they have.

          Commenter
          Damian
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          December 07, 2010, 6:46AM
          • So...has the Vatican previously exercised its moral authority to encourage a refraining of the use of condoms, or not? It has of course. And that's the more salient inconvenient truth.

            Commenter
            Bren
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            December 07, 2010, 6:49AM
            • this article is pretty unpleasant.

              I don't mind a person liking a Pope, or being Catholic, but I dislike intensely the compartmentalization of responsibility - which can only really hold water if you don't actually believe Catholic Dogma - i.e. the pope's infallibility.

              If you suffer this dogma, that means everything that occurs, is spoken by the Church, is the POPE's responsibility. If you don't acdept the dogma, you may still be a Christian, but hardly a Catholic.

              Commenter
              WhiteWash
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              December 07, 2010, 6:50AM
              • (Post is in two parts)
                Gerard,
                Your most accurate statement in this whole article is the right near the beginning "the Catholic Church is very bureaucratic."

                Everything else here descends into fawning narrow minded apologetic farce. Benedict's opening comments as pope were that he wanted to heal the rift between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. Unfortunately events have overtaken this and the ongoing, near daily recounts of the catholic bureaucracy being used to hide paedophile priests is played out in the newspapers of the world. Whilst the pope may be appalled at the filth IN HIS RANKS he hasn't done enough to end the problem or heal the problem. How about a full admission, "without bishops adding talking points" that the Catholic Church is:
                Wrong in its treatment of paedophile priests and brothers;
                Wrong in its covering up of said priests and brothers;
                Wrong in its process of dealing with the victims;
                Wrong in its view on the problems in the world;
                Remember, the catholic bureaucracy took 400 years to say that Galileo was right and it was wrong in its treatment of him.

                Commenter
                Rhino
                Location
                Not Bible Land
                Date and time
                December 07, 2010, 6:55AM
                • (Part two)

                  Sorry Gerard, the Catholic Church is astoundingly irrelevant in today's society. I freely acknowledge the good the charitable branches of the church perform. The problem is, the charity branches are not the leadership of the church. The leadership is a closed minded group of men from mostly a few European countries, who seem to believe they can dictate their views to the world and we will follow it, whilst committing or participating in the covering up individual acts of a depraved nature which taken in totality border on crimes against humanity. They slavishly adhere to pagan traditions bound up in the religion of a bunch of Bronze Age Middle Eastern herders and try to tell me it's relevant to today. Wind it out Gerard, the pope may have good intentions and his view on the world, but his indoctrination stymies it from coming out or has modified it and the catholic bureaucracy behind him, kills any progress dead, faster than the HIV/AIDS virus kills its victims.

                  It's best this cancer on society is quarantined from its good parts (the charities) for the good of all.

                  Before any believers get stuck into me (which you are free to do) please go to: http://brokenrites.alphalink.com.au/

                  Commenter
                  Rhino
                  Location
                  Not Bible Land
                  Date and time
                  December 07, 2010, 6:55AM
                  • This article skims over a number of issues, so it is hard to know what the point is. The Catholic church had had and does have a large influence with regard to HIV/AIDs, yet a lot could be seen as superficial palliation, rather than effective integration with the likes of the UN AIDs efforts.

                    Sneering at the likes of Adams by pejoratively calling him a "secularist" - secularsim meaning of the times - or having a dig at Dawkins out of context of his responses to Benedict's atheist-Nazi jibes upon landing in the UK is poor form, Gerard,

                    Commenter
                    Freddie
                    Date and time
                    December 07, 2010, 6:56AM
                    • Everyone is critical of the Catholic Church these days. But is it the Church that deserves the criticism, or some of the people who run it? I think the latter - and if we know who they are, we should attack them for abrogating Christian principles, rather than the organization they serve. The Church itself is blameless. The principles on which it is based are those of faith, love, hope and charity. By and large it stays faithful to those principles. So do most of the people who serve it.

                      Commenter
                      bj
                      Location
                      Edgeworth NSW
                      Date and time
                      December 07, 2010, 6:58AM

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