A landmark shift in the Catholic church’s hardline position on the use of condoms was published on November 23, 2010.
The pontiff makes the condom comments in a book-length interview with a German journalist, Peter Seewald, in “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times.” In the interview, which took place in July 2010, the pope made clear that he didn’t consider condom use a “moral solution” to fighting the spread of infection, citing statements that put abstinence first.
But, the pope added: “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.”
In his statement on condom use the Pope Benedict infused morality with common sense–use protection to prevent the spread of the disease. Protecting your partner from a deadly and fatal disease is more important than the notion of being “open to life” during the sex act.
Benedict’s statement will save lives, prevent suffering, and help to make the Church relevant in Africa, Europe and North America; where for too long fantastical church statements took priority over the lived experience–and common sense–of ordinary Catholics.
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi told a news conference on November 23, 2010 that he conveyed the media’s “perplexity” directly to the pope, asking whether or not it made a difference if the prostitute in question was male or female. He said the pope said his reasoning applied to both sexes.
“The point is to take a step towards responsibility, to take into consideration the risk of the life of the person with whom you have relations whether it’s a man, woman or transsexual,” Father Lombardi said.
Pope Benedict’s decision to articulate his views on condoms to a journalist, rather than formulating a doctrinal document, may be an unusual attempt to stir debate. But it was also a way for the Pope to speak directly to Catholics, health care professionals, and media with his comments being subject to “interpretation” from the Curia and their conservative Catholic allies.
As early as 1988 then Cardinal Ratzinger tried to speed up the process to get rid of sexually abusive and pedophile priests. Ratzinger complained that church law made it exceedingly difficult to remove abusers if they didn’t request to be laicized voluntarily. He asked to get around the problem by finding “a quicker and simpler procedure” than a cumbersome church trial. He was turned down on the grounds that the priests’ ability to defend themselves would be compromised.
Given that, and the ensuing holocaust of sexual abuse revelations he has had to deal with as pope, I am not at all surprised by Pope Benedict’s decision to speak to a journalist rather than formulating a doctrinal document. The pope made “only small corrections” to the text, Mr. Seewald writes in a preface to the book.
Though Pope Benedict did not endorse the general use of condoms, or change official church teaching –which still strongly opposes contraceptives — his words ricocheted around the globe, greeted with anger and dismay from some conservative Catholics and enthusiasm from clerics and health workers in Africa, where the AIDS problem is the worst.
“We’re in a new world,” said the Rev. Jon Fuller, a Jesuit priest and a physician at the Center for H.I.V/AIDS Care and Research at Boston Medical Center. The pope is “implicitly” saying, he said, “that you cannot anymore raise the objection that any use of the condom is an intrinsic evil.”
It took the pope to say what he did to change the debate on the issue of condoms. In 1987, the U.S. bishops’ conference issued the statement, “The Many Faces of AIDS,” that stressed limiting sex to marriage as the best protection against the virus, but said public education “could include accurate information about prophylactic devices” to prevent transmission. The document was criticized at the time by conservatives and some Vatican officials.
Catholic conservatives who believed Catholic teaching against contraception to be inviolable were reeling over Pope Benedict’s remarks. “This is really shaking things up big time,” said Dr. John M. Haas, the president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, who serves on the governing council of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life.
Dr. Haas, a moral theologian, said he had seen an embargoed copy of a new book in which the pope conceded there might be extreme cases in which there were grounds for the use of condoms. “I told the publisher, ‘Don’t publish this: it’s going to create such a mess,'”he added.
The president of “Les Femmes – The Women of Truth,”an independent media apostolate of orthodox Roman Catholic laity in the Diocese of Arlington, VA weighed in on the pope’s condom kerfuffle: “Certainly, a gay prostitute is not using a condom for birth control so that is simply irrelevant,” she said. “On the other hand, homosexual sex is unnatural, degrading, and morally sinful. Can using a condom out of concern for transmitting AIDS make it less sinful? I think I understand the point that it might signal an awakening sense in the sinner of concern for the partner in sin; but what kind of concern is it when one is in the act of buggery? What times we live in! I’d rather debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. At least the thought of dancing angels in lovely.”
Lisa Sowle Cahill, a professor of theology at Boston College, said the pope’s new openness about condoms was significant even if it did not change church teaching. “I see it as a shift in attention, so that the politics of AIDS is larger on the radar screen than the politics of contraception, and to me that is a needed and appropriate shift,” she said. She added that the church had held firm against the use of condoms even to prevent AIDS because the birth control issue took so much precedence politically.
Dr. Haas could barely contenance Father Lombardi’s comments that broadened the debate to include women. “I don’t think it’s a clarification; it’s a muddying of the waters,” he said. “My opinion is that the pope purposely chose a male prostitute to avoid that particular debate.” And if Benedict was in fact opening that debate? – “I think the pope’s wrong,” Dr. Haas flatly stated.
“This is a game-changer,” declared the Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit writer and editor. “By acknowledging that condoms help to prevent the spread of HIV between people in sexual relationships, the Pope completely changed the Catholic discussion on condoms,” Martin said.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi said he asked Pope Benedict why he agreed to the Seewald interview. The pope’s answer was that “obviously it wasn’t just to respond to Seewald’s questions, but because he thought that speaking to people today in a language that was simple, colloquial, on many questions that people pose would be a service he could render.”
“There is a type of magisterium found in official documents that are written, studied and rewritten; there is the magisterium in the homilies and catechesis of the pope; and then there is the communication of Pope Benedict in a colloquial, direct way” found in “Light of the World,” Father Lombardi said.