Pope Benedict and Condoms: What He Did and Did Not Say

Over the weekend, L'Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of Vatican City (not, as some like to say, "the Pope's own newspaper"), broke the embargo on publishing excerpts from Light of the World (compare prices), a book-length interview of Pope Benedict XVI conducted by his longtime interlocutor, German journalist Peter Seewald. In so doing, L'Osservatore Romano set off a firestorm that will almost certainly guarantee that the book, which goes on sale today, will become a best-seller.

Around the world, headlines implied (and sometimes more than implied) that Pope Benedict had changed the Catholic Church's longstanding opposition to artificial contraception. The most restrained headlines still declared that the Pope had proclaimed that the use of condoms was "morally justified" or at least "permissible" to try to stop the spread of HIV, the virus generally acknowledged as the primary cause of AIDS.

The U.K. Catholic Herald has a good, balanced article on the Pope's remarks and the various reactions to them ("Condoms may be 'first step' in moralisation of sexuality, says Pope"), while Damian Thompson, writing on his blog at the Telegraph, declared that "Conservative Catholics blame media for condoms story" but asked, "are they secretly cross with the Pope?"

While I think that Thompson's analysis is more right than wrong—many conservative Catholic commentators, especially in the United States, tried to explain away the Pope's comments, and failed—I think that Thompson himself goes too far when he writes, "I simply don’t understand how Catholic commenters can maintain that the Pope did not say that condoms may be justified, or permissible, in circumstances where not using them would spread HIV." The problem, on both sides, comes from taking a very specific case that falls entirely outside the Church's teaching on artificial contraception and generalizing it to a moral principle.

So what did Pope Benedict say, and does it really represent a change in Catholic teaching? To begin to answer that question, we have to start first with what the Holy Father did not say.

What Pope Benedict Did Not Say

To begin with, Pope Benedict did not change one iota of Catholic teaching on the immorality of artificial contraception.

In fact, elsewhere in his interview with Peter Seewald, Pope Benedict declares that Humanae vitae, Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical on birth control and abortion, was "prophetically correct." He reaffirmed the central premise of Humanae vitae—that the separation of the unitive and procreative aspects of the sexual act (in the words of Pope Paul VI) "contradicts the will of the Author of life."

Moreover, Pope Benedict did not say that the use of condoms is "morally justified" or "permissible" in order to stop the transmission of HIV. In fact, he went to great lengths to reaffirm his remarks, made at the beginning of his trip to Africa in 2009, "that we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms." The problem is much deeper, and it involves a disordered understanding of sexuality that places sexual drives and the sexual act on a higher level than morality. Pope Benedict makes this clear when he discusses the "so-called ABC Theory":

Abstinence-Be Faithful-Condom, where the condom is understood only as a last resort, when the other two points fail to work. This means that the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalisation of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves.

So why have so many commentators, including the usually perceptive Damian Thompson, claimed that Pope Benedict has decided that "condoms may be justified, or permissible, in circumstances where not using them would spread HIV"? Because they have fundamentally misunderstood the example that Pope Benedict offered.

What Pope Benedict Did Say

In elaborating on his point about the "banalisation of sexuality," Pope Benedict stated:

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 moralisation, a first assumption of responsibility [emphasis added], on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.

He followed that up immediately with a restatement of his earlier remarks:

But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanisation of sexuality.

The problem here is that very few commentators seem to understand two important points:

  1. The Church's teaching on the immorality of artificial contraception is directed at married couples.
  2. "Moralisation," as Pope Benedict is using the term, refers to a possible result of a particular action, which does not say anything about the morality of the action itself.

These two points go hand-in-hand. When a prostitute (male or female) engages in fornication, the act is immoral. It is not made less immoral if he does not use artificial contraception during the act of fornication; nor is it made more immoral if he uses it. The Church's teaching on the immorality of artificial contraception takes place entirely within the appropriate use of sexuality—that is, within the context of the marriage bed.

On this point, Quentin de la Bedoyere had an excellent post on the Catholic Herald's website over the weekend. As he notes:

No ruling on contraception outside marriage, homosexual or heterosexual, has been made, nor has there been any particular reason why the Magisterium should make one.

This is what almost every commentator, pro or con, has missed. When Pope Benedict says that the use of a condom by a prostitute during an act of fornication, in order to try to prevent the transmission of HIV, "can be a first step in the direction of a moralisation, a first assumption of responsibility," he is simply saying that, on a personal level, the prostitute may actually be recognizing that there is more to life than sex.

One can contrast this specific case with the widely circulated story that the postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault, on learning he was dying of AIDS, visited homosexual bathhouses with the deliberate intention of infecting others with HIV. (Indeed, it's not a stretch to think that Pope Benedict may have had Foucault's alleged action in mind when speaking to Seewald.)

Of course, attempting to prevent the transmission of HIV by using a condom, a device with a relatively high failure rate, while still engaging in an immoral sexual act (that is, any sexual activity outside of marriage) is no more than a "first step" (and we might even say it's merely a baby step, at that). But it should be clear by now that the specific example offered by the Pope has no bearing whatsoever on the use of artificial contraception within marriage.

Indeed, as Quentin de la Bedoyere points out, Pope Benedict could have given the example of a married couple, in which one partner was infected with HIV and the other was not, but he did not do so. The fact that he chose instead to discuss a situation that lies outside of the Church's teaching on artificial contraception speaks volumes, but most commentators apparently weren't listening.

We can illustrate the point with one further example: Imagine if the Pope had discussed the case of an unmarried couple who have been engaging in fornication while using artificial contraception. If that couple gradually came to the conclusion that artificial contraception places sexual drives and the sexual act on a higher level than morality, and thus decided to quit using artificial contraception while continuing to engage in sex outside of marriage, could not Pope Benedict have rightly said that "this can be a first step in the direction of a moralisation, 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"?

Yet if Pope Benedict had used this example, would anyone have assumed that this meant that the Pope now believes that premarital sex is "justified" or "permissible," so long as one does not use a condom?

The debate over Pope Benedict's remarks will undoubtedly continue, and it may even lead to further clarifications from the Vatican (there have been two so far). But the misunderstanding of what Pope Benedict was trying to say has proved him right on another point: Modern man, including all too many Catholics, has a "sheer fixation on the condom," which "implies a banalisation of sexuality."

And the answer to that fixation, and that banalization, is found, as always, in the Catholic Church's unchanging teaching on the purposes and ends of sexual activity.

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