Interview: James Carroll

By ADAM REILLY  |  April 1, 2009

I also can't help thinking of his bizarre statement about condoms making the problem of AIDS worse.
I talk about this in the book. Pope Benedict is clearly a gentle, kindly, lovable man. If we were in the room with him, we'd feel positive energy. And yet the effect of his positions — his doctrinaire commitment to extreme manifestations of what he would call the tradition, but I would argue is not the tradition — his attention to those things has the effect of terrible cruelty. He really hurts people. When he excommunicated, as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, a loyal, lifelong servant of the church like Tissa Balasuriya, the Sri Lankan theologian — when he excommunicated a man like that over an argument over dogma, and the meaning of Jesus, the effect of it was terrible cruelty. And it was frivolous, because the excommunication was lifted after a brief time; it was only enforced long enough to break this old man's heart.

So Benedict goes to Africa, and brings up the subject of the church's position on condoms. Frankly, no one expected him to go to Africa and say he was changing that position — but why did he have to bring it up? Why does he have to go in front of mill of Africans, many of whom are HIV-positive, and who are inflicting the disease on their sexual partners — why does he have to bring up condom use?

Why doyou think he does?
It's — it's bizarre. It's like, why does he have to go to Cologne, as he did, and blame the Holocaust on neo-paganism? Why does he do these things?

Why does he, on the anniversary of 9/11, which could mark the beginning of a world-historical conflict between what we call the West and the world of Islam — why does he choose that occasion to trash Islam in a way that's so outrageous he has to back off it? Why does he do these things? Well, this is a man who has — what — the visceral reactions of a frightened, pre-Enlightenment traditionalist, who knows that the page of history has turned, and he's on the wrong side of history.

So whyare you confident that heis on the wrong side of history?
Well, it may be a bit of optimism on my part — and I don't mean to say any future return to reform in the Catholic Church is automatic or inevitable. I don't mean to say that. But there are plenty of signs of life in the Catholic Church, which show that the reform movement begun at the Second Vatican Council, under Pope John XXXIII, is still vital among Catholics.

We saw that most powerfully in the way lay Catholics — in America, but not only in America — responded, over the last seven or eight years, to this scandal of priest sexual abuse. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lay Catholics found it possible to really reject the corrupt authority of the bishops. Remember that the scandal was defined not only by a relatively small number of priests abusing children, but also by the vast majority — almost all — of bishops protecting the priests instead of the children. There's the defining scandal. And the Catholic people saw through that.

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