Faith and reason, for Benedict, are not only reconcilable, but must be reconciled for a viable human society to flourish. The Church, he told a group of Italian priests in 2007, was uniquely positioned to do that: Catholicism’s historical strength is its passion for synthesis, its rejection of either/or oppositions like faith or reason. In October, the Pope created a new Vatican department aimed at “re-evangelizing” the most secular regions of the globe, in particular areas of Europe that have become “de-Christianized” in his words.
And in March he addressed, by video hookup, one result of that effort: the first Courtyard of the Gentiles meeting, held at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. The name—taken from the outer space around the great Temple in ancient Jerusalem—is laden with symbolism: it was in the courtyard that Jews and gentiles could engage with each other. The Pope wants the faithful and atheists to have an ongoing series of such (literal) common-ground encounters to discuss what he called “the great human questions of our time” in his address. “Those of you who are non-believers want to take believers to task, demanding from them the witness of a life consistent with what they profess and rejecting any deviation that makes religion inhuman. You who are believers want to say that the question of God is not a threat to society, it does not threaten human life! You have much to say to each other. I profoundly believe that the meeting between the reality of faith and reason allows man to find himself.”
Virtually everything Benedict says or does can be linked to furthering this central goal. After a shaky start, he has become fully aware that whatever a pope signals is parsed by Vatican watchers as detail-obsessed as the Kremlinologists of old. In December 2005, during his first Christmas season as Pope, when Benedict wore a camauro, a fur-trimmed hat popular among 17th-century pontiffs, it was cited as proof he favoured a more traditional—meaning authoritarian—papal monarchy. (He later said his head was cold, and he never wore the hat again.) But the Pope still at times allows one arresting statement to deflect attention from another.
His November comments about condoms were surprising both in substance and in timing: the clerical sexual abuse issue had made 2010 Benedict’s personal annus horribilis, and a pope in less of a hurry might well have responded by deliberately fading from the news cycle. Instead, he gave a lengthy interview in which he stated that the use of condoms in the age of HIV could at times be morally right. He gave the startling (for a pope) example of a male prostitute wearing one for a client’s sake. His meaning—as a Vatican spokesman later confirmed—was that the use of condoms by people infected with HIV, female or male, could be “the first step of responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk to the life of the person with whom there are relations.”
Although his statement did nothing to alter Church opposition to contraceptives, Benedict’s words still angered conservative Catholics adhering to a hard and fast position on the immorality of condom use, even as they were welcomed by many clerics and health care workers in the developing world. The media uproar, however, acted to obscure another comment in the interview. After years of persistent rumours over his health—past strokes and possible current heart disease—Benedict also asserted that resignation for reasons of health was a viable papal option, a remark that went almost unnoticed.
It’s noteworthy that Michael Coren’s robust apologia for Catholic teaching devotes several pages to Benedict and condom use in AIDS-ravaged Africa, but not to the Pope’s newer comments. Instead, Why Catholics Are Right defends Benedict’s 2009 remark to journalists that AIDS was “a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms.” Coren points out that Benedict was correct to note that condoms have not worked as a public health intervention in reducing HIV infections at what scientists call the “level of population,” whatever difference they might make in an individual’s life. (This is a conclusion shared by Edward Green, director of the Harvard AIDS Prevention Research Project, who added, “This is hard for a liberal like me to admit, but yes, the best evidence we have supports the Pope’s comments—I first put emphasis on fidelity instead of condoms in Africa in 1988.”)
The absence from Coren’s book of this particular instance of Benedict backing away from absolutist thinking marks the author as more Catholic than the Pope. Coren’s entire book is a line in the sand separating true Catholicism from everything else, including other branches of Christianity and cultural Catholicism—the practices and beliefs of those raised Catholic and still (occasionally) attending mass, but not following Church doctrine. Among orthodox traditionalists, Benedict’s reputation for doctrinal conservatism serves him as well as it condemns him in among their liberal co-religionists, while ultra-conservatives think he flirts with liberal heresy. In short, Benedict is in a relatively strong Nixon-goes-to-China position to open leftwards. But his room to do so is far from infinite: pontiffs, clearly, have right as well as left flanks to consider.