The conversation between Pope Benedict and the German journalist Peter Seewald published as Light of the World has no precedent in papal history.
Never before has a Pope given his views in one book on so many neuralgic issues facing the Church, ranging from the use of condoms, the scandals of sexual abuse and of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, through to the Williamson debacle, the different challenges of secularism and Islam, proper exegesis and the role of the liturgy in Church renewal.
The interviewer is persistent but respectful, and does not descend to the levels of rudeness and aggression we occasionally encounter on Australian television.
The Holy Father has the gifts of simplicity, indeed elegance in his speech and writing and the book makes for easy reading. It will be a best seller in many languages.
This interview continues a practice the Holy Father began when he was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of teaching widely and positively. This too was an innovation because the traditional practice of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was to define a theological error precisely and condemn it with an anathema. One could theologise widely on the issue as long as you avoided the view that was condemned. While this approach is scarcely positive, it minimises misunderstanding and risks.
As Cardinal and Pope, Joseph Ratzinger has explicitly chosen another path, well aware of the risks of misunderstandings, controversy and the ambiguities that will occasionally arise about the status of his teachings.
His priority is to continue the dialogue between faith and reason, to make his contribution to expressing ancient truths in a language which is accessible, not only to Christians, but to modern secularised minds. As the successor of St Peter his duty is to give regular witness to the truths of the gospel. And as a matter of fact, a spot of controversy, even a firestorm, can often entice extra readers to examine exactly what he did write or say.
The publicity about this book has been dominated by the furore provoked by the Pope's careful few words about a homosexual prostitute using a condom to lessen the chances of infection from his immoral activity. All would agree that there is no moral benefit in spreading infection further.
The Holy Father was responding to an earlier controversy when he visited Africa and claimed that condoms, through encouraging promiscuity and exaggerating the safety they provide, might be making the situation worse. He was keen to respond to the calumny that the Church's opposition to condoms was a major cause of the AIDS deaths in Africa. In fact, one quarter of all AIDS victims around the world are cared for in Catholic institutions and it is ridiculous to assert that those who are ignoring the basics of Christian sexual morality will refuse to use a condom for religious reasons.
Pope Benedict pointed out that the problem of AIDS cannot be solved by distributing condoms and that when sexual activity is separated from love and self-restraint, it becomes like a drug, deceptive and destructive.
He commended the ABC approach endorsed by some governments, which has been more effective, for example, in Uganda, than flooding the cities with condoms as has happened in South Africa. "A" stands for abstinence for those who are unmarried and "B" stands for "Be faithful" for those who are married. The governments recommended condoms for prostitutes and drug addicts.
The role of a government differs from the Church's as it is not the Church's role to instruct people to sin more effectively. The danger in Church institutions distributing condoms is that it would seem to endorse the immoral activity (of heterosexual or homosexual promiscuity) as well as providing only limited health protection. Condoms are available in many other places. The Church preaches ideals and forgiveness, not harm minimisation.
A subsequent clarification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith repeated points made in this book that the traditional Catholic teaching on sexual activity remains in place, including Church teaching against artificial contraception.
The Holy Father stated explicitly that the use of condoms is not "a real or moral solution". Hard cases, such as the male prostitute or a wife with a HIV infected husband who insists on intercourse, make legislation difficult. Because of limited human understanding, pastoral support sometimes has to tolerate moral ambiguity as a step in the right direction, provided the moral principles remain in place.
The discussion on condoms only features on a few pages in this excellent little book, which is filled with wisdom and nuggets of information.
I did not know that Germany now has twice as many priests per practising Catholic as in 1960, or that the actress Raquel Welch believes that the pill has weakened marriage and family to "situations of chaos".
The Holy Father is right to point out that sexual abuse is not just a Catholic or Christian problem, that Pope Pius XII saved more Jews than anyone else, and that the two vital issues for Islam are their attitudes to violence and reason.
The Holy Father is right to warn of Catholic employees in whom the spring of faith flows only faintly, in a few scattered drops. I remember being lectured by an employee of a European Catholic development agency on the futility, indeed impossibility, of believing in God, as we visited a refugee asylum in Sri Lanka. The Pope also insists that we need to support one another in Christian islands, oases, Noah's arks.
In this book Pope Benedict explains why he believes mankind is at a crossroads in the confrontation between two kinds of love, where false love is gaining ground through the anti-Christian dictatorship of public opinion.
Why, he asks, do Christian majorities allow themselves to be dominated by secular minorities? It is not a bad question.
Light of the World is available from Freedom Publishing (see page 19 for details).