Sunday, November 21, 2010
Everyone needs to take a deep breath.

By now you have seen the headlines suggesting that the Pope has signaled some approval of condom use under certain circumstances owing to comments made (during a very long and complex answer) to journalist Peter Seewald in the soon to be released book, "Light of the World."

Pope Benedict was responding to a question about whether it is folly to deny condoms to those who are part of a "high-risk population" (IE HIV infected people). Here is the much trumpeted Papal response from page 119 of the book:

POPE BENEDICT: "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, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality."

SEEWALD: Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?

POPE BENEDICT: "She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality."

From my e-mail and the calls of panting journalists I am well aware of the confusion all of this has spawned. First off, the problem with pulling a short byte from Pope Benedict is that you are likely to miss his point entirely. This is not a Pope or a mind accustomed to, or best understood in sound bytes. There is much nuance to what the Pope said which I will unpack momentarily, but let me just say upfront: after studying these comments, it seems to me that absolutely nothing has changed.

The Church is still opposed to condom use because it intrudes on the self-giving of marital relations. And despite the Pope's example above, this is in no way an endorsement of sexual acts outside of marriage, including homosexual acts.

As for the first quote concerning the male prostitute; the Pope probably chose the example so as not to confuse his pastoral musings with a shift in Church teaching on artificial contraception. He could have easily used the example of a husband or wife with HIV and made the same point. But I would imagine that he specifically chose the example of a male prostitute (presumably with a male client base) since there is no possibility of conception. The only reason for such an individual to use a condom would be to prevent the spread of disease. Now be sure to note that the Pope does not say this is a good thing, a wise thing, or even a helpful or licit thing. He merely describes it as "a first step in the direction of moralization." That doesn't mean that it is a moral act. In fact he says clearly: " is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality."

Then there is the second answer where His Holiness basically repeats himself. At worst, the Pope is pastorally softening his answer to Seewald. But make no mistake, as he says right off the top: The Church does not "regard (the use of condoms) as a real or moral solution." He then adds (and here's where the confusion arose) if the intention of using a condom is to reduce the spread of disease it may be a "first step" on the road to practicing a life giving, healthy sexuality. But this is like saying that shooting a smidgen of crack as opposed to a full pound is a sign of moral progress. Whatever it is, it is not an endorsement of the behavior. Contrary to what you are hearing from my colleagues in the media, the Pope is not authoritatively sanctioning condom use, homosexual sex, or male prostitution.

Let's not confuse theological musings to a friendly journalist with infallible moral teaching-- which I think is what has happened here.

Let me know your thoughts at UPDATE: Here is the Vatican Spokesman's Clarification from CNS:

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