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Bob Keeler: Deciphering Pope Benedict

The world knows Pope Benedict XVI as a quiet and careful theologian. But he also knows how to kick up a fuss now and then, like the buzz for his new book.

No, the pope himself didn't set up a publicity campaign around two newsy quotes from the book, a long interview with German journalist Peter Seewald. But those were the bits the news cycle gave us, and they sure got our attention.

The biggest flap was over condoms. The hot issue now is their use in preventing AIDS. But four decades ago, it was about preventing pregnancy.

In the 1968 encyclical "Humanae Vitae," about "the transmission of human life," Pope Paul VI affirmed the church's opposition to contraception - even though the 1966 majority report of a papal commission recommended easing the ban.

So, what did Benedict just say? "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."

That odd example triggered much debate over how much Benedict intended to signal. Bottom line: It may make it easier for some bishops to accept condom use against the spread of AIDS, but the basic directive to families is unchanged.

"If you were going to change the fundamental teaching, no pope is going to do it in a book," said the Rev. Charles Curran, a moral theologian at Southern Methodist University, who lost his right to teach as a Catholic theologian over "errors" in his work on sexuality. Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was his inquisitor.

In his other buzz-maker, Benedict said we must acknowledge that Pope Pius XII "was one of the great righteous men and that he saved more Jews than anyone else." The result: pained statements from the Anti-Defamation League and other key Jewish groups.

It's a fight we need to avoid.

This issue didn't heat up until a 1963 play, "The Deputy," demonized Pius as silent in the face of the Holocaust. Then in 1967, a book by Israeli journalist Pinchas Lapide offered a counter view, saying Pius had saved 800,000 Jewish lives.

Those are the issue's broad boundaries. But we won't know the whole story until all of the Vatican's World War II-era archives are made available.

A group of Catholic and Jewish scholars seeking a more definitive answer to Pius' role in the Holocaust studied the 11 volumes that had been released so far and in the year 2000 raised 47 questions. Answering them would have required more documents. But the Vatican said it wouldn't release the other documents soon, partly for lack of archival staff. So the scholars suspended work in 2001.

Last year, it heated up again, when Benedict recognized the "heroic virtues" of Pius and John Paul, putting both on the path to canonization. On Pius, Jewish leaders said, "Whoa!"

And they're right. We made too much real progress on Catholic-Jewish relations under John Paul - with Ratzinger's collaboration - to damage it now.

And what's the big rush? "My plea to the 'canonize him now' people is to show some patience, admit he made mistakes and wait for the material to be analyzed professionally," said Paul O'Shea, an Australian historian who wrote a book on Pius, "A Cross Too Heavy."

Whatever the final verdict - probably a lot softer than "The Deputy" - moving Pius' sainthood too fast is unnecessary and insensitive to our elder brothers in the faith, to use John Paul's lovely phrase.

Instead, let's move fast on candidates who evoke more fervid devotion: Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, and the four church women martyred in El Salvador 30 years ago today. And let's tone down the Pius rhetoric, on both sides.


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