A Pope who seems fallible

From offending Jews and Muslims to saying condoms could make Africa's Aids crisis worse, Benedict XVI appears destined to blunder

On his first pontifical visit to Africa this week, Pope Benedict XVI set off another storm of controversy when he said that condoms were not only not the solution to the continent's Aids crisis but that they actually "make matters worse".

It was just the latest in an endless succession of high-profile gaffes that have made the brainiest pope of modern times also by a wide margin the most accident-prone.

In previous pratfalls the Bavarian theologian has welcomed back into the Church a bishop who flatly denies the existence of the Nazi gas chambers, refused to sign UN declarations on the rights of homosexuals and the disabled, denied the possibility of inter-religious dialogue after praying in a mosque, insulted Muslims en masse, and failed to mention the Jews while visiting Auschwitz.

Benedict's gaffes are becoming as frequent and predictable as Silvio Berlusconi's. And while Joseph Ratzinger has never cultivated the image of clown and raconteur so dear to the Italian PM, there is something else that the two men share: they wait for the grand occasion, when the world is hanging on their words, to drop their peculiar bombshells.

It was always going to be interesting to hear what Berlusconi had to say, standing alongside Russia's President Medvedev, about newly-elected President Obama. Berlusconi picked that moment to say that Obama "has a good tan". He chose the spotlight of a joint press conference to tell President Sarkozy, sotto voce but audibly, that Carla Bruni was his personal gift to the Frenchman.

Likewise, Pope Benedict picked his first trip to Africa to drop his condom bomb. Given the huge amount of flak the Church has received from Aids campaigners over the years for its failure to endorse the use of condoms in any circumstances, even within a marriage in which one partner is infected, this was not a subject that the pontiff could ignore.

Nor was it one on which there was the slightest likelihood that the Pope would change his mind. "God's rottweiler", as he was known during the 28 years when he advised Pope John Paul II on theology, is not for turning. But this is also the Pope who has told close colleagues that he sees his mission as, "protecting the integrity of the faith and conveying the message that Christianity is joy". This is the Pope whose only encyclical so far in his four-year reign was on love – and yes, that includes sexual love.

A Pope, in other words, who seems to understand the need to project the positive aspects of faith, and to have some thought for the feelings of those affronted or disappointed by his hugely predictable views. And yet who repeatedly, at moments of great expectation, finds ways to injure the feelings of millions of people. His "make matters worse" comment immediately provoked a flood of criticism. Alain Fogue, an Aids campaigner in Cameroon, said: "The people will not follow what the Pope is saying. He lives in heaven and we are on earth. To claim that condoms 'aggravate' the problem of Aids goes totally against all the efforts made by the Cameroonian government and other actors involved in the struggle against Aids in Cameroon."

Such remarks were foreseeable. Less predictable, and a great deal more worrying for the Vatican, were the stark denunciations from France and Germany. Eric Chevalier, of the French foreign ministry, said there was "enormous worry about the consequences" of the Pope's comments for the struggle against Aids. "France expresses its very strong disquiet about the consequences of Benedict XVI's declaration," he said. In Berlin, Ulla Schmidt of the health ministry, responded bluntly: "Condoms save lives, as much in Europe as in other continents."

Elizabeth Pisani an epidemiologist who has criticised international charities for their approach to combating Aids in Africa described his claim as "a shocker". Attacks from the highest levels are becoming another feature of Ratzinger's gaffes. And they get results. When Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel took the Pope to task over his rash re-admittance of the schismatic Society of Saint Pius X, including the British Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson, his first response was an angry, "none of your business".

In a seven-page letter to all Catholic bishops the Pope showed he was still smarting from the attacks, including those from inside the Church. "A discussion of such vehemence," he admitted, "had not been experienced for a long time." But when it became clear that at least some of those re-admitted preserved the anti-Semitic views espoused by the Church up until the second Vatican Council, the Pope took the trouble to re-rebuild his bridges to the Jews.

That is the other repetitive feature of the Pope's attacks of foot-in-mouth: his eventual willingness to back down. During a learned discourse to theologians at his old university in Germany in 2006, Benedict quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor as saying that Mohamed brought, "things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". For several weeks the papacy became the Islamic world's punchball of choice. And, as in the Williamson affair and the Auschwitz blunder, eventually the Pope climbed down. And that in itself is an unedifying sight.

While the concept of papal infallibility is widely misunderstood, and certainly does not apply to off-the-cuff remarks to journalists, it is damaging to the great prestige of his office when the Pope has to eat his words. But he often does it, eventually, and with a will. Why does a Pope of such great intellectual gifts, whose published works are hailed by many who disagree with his doctrinal positions as works of sensitivity and illumination, make so many mistakes?

One answer may be that Pope Benedict XVI is notoriously shy, and while he goes through the papal motions gamely enough, he has never developed any relish for the grand theatre of the Church. In an intimate setting – presiding over an outdoor Mass at Ephesus in Turkey in 2006 for example, before a few dozen people – he came across as warmly paternal. But when the whole world is watching, he seems to lose the plot.

Close observers of the Vatican claim that a lot of it is down to his solitary style of governing: so sure is this Pope of his great powers that nobody can over-rule his decisions. "He's shut up in his study," one cardinal said off the record. "He's a theologian, not an executive. A great theologian may not necessarily have his finger on the pulse of reality."

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