A story broke over the weekend in L’Osservatore Romano publishing excerpts of a new book, Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and The Signs Of The Times, which consists of interviews with Pope Benedict XVI conducted by German journalist Peter Seewald. Though the interviews touched on a myriad of subjects, the book has caught the attention of the media because of some brief questions on the issue of condom use.
Pope Benedict speculated that there are circumstances where the use of a condom for the purpose of preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases might be, for a person bereft of moral sensitivity, 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.” The full text of the Pope’s statement with cogent commentary can be found on Fr. John Zuhlsdorf’s excellent blog, What Does the Prayer Really Say.
What DIDN’T the Pope Say?
There are several things to note about the quote. First, Pope Benedict was apparently speaking about a male prostitute using a condom. This mitigates most of the controversy at the outset because of the implication that the Pope was thinking of the context of homosexual relations. If that was the case, this news is no news at all because homosexuals using a condom are not using a contraceptive.
Since there is no possibility of conceiving anything, a condom is not stopping the natural processes of fertility, rather it is preventing the spread of disease. As such, it’s not acting as a contraceptive any more than if one was to put a condom on one’s finger. But, for a person in such a morally bereft place as a prostitute, the very awakening of conscience that might move him to use a condom could be an act of respect for his client and therefore a first step on the road to a more responsible life.
This observation in no way constitutes a loosening of the Church’s stance on contraceptives. In fact, although he acknowledge in the interview that the decision to use a condom might be a step down a moral path for a male prostitute, he explicitly said in a follow-up question that condoms were not the solution to the AIDS epidemic. Unfortunately, many have taken these statements out of context as an endorsement of the use condoms for disease prevention, but that was neither the Pope’s intention nor even a plausible reading of what he said.
What DOES the Pope Advocate?
In fact, the Pope was really just reiterating with a bit of nuance what he said last March when he visited Africa, that condoms are not the solution to the AIDS problem, and in fact likely exacerbate it. A leading Harvard researcher agreed with the Pope’s analysis that, though it seems counter-intuitive, greater condom use leads to riskier sexual behavior that leads to the spread of AIDS. I highly recommend reading the whole Catholic News Agency article on that story.
Not only are condoms not a practical solution to the AIDS problem, the Pope says in the Light of the World interviews that condoms are part of the problem because they perpetuate a banalization of sexuality. That is, the use of condoms treats people like animals who cannot control themselves and their sexual appetites.
The Pope’s proposed solution to the AIDS crisis is the same as it ever was, what he calls a “humanization” of sexuality. Essentially, Pope Benedict advocates that people follow the Catholic Church’s historic teaching on sexuality that requires the recognition of the humanity of the other in every sexual encounter and that human sexual activity be confined to marriage.
Why Does the World Care?
It’s interesting to note the frenzy the secular media has gone into at the mere possibility that the Pope would have given his OK to the use of contraceptives. Why is that? Because the Catholic Church is the only institution in the world that has always and will always teach the clear and basic message of chastity for everyone in all walks of life.
The Church’s consistent, unwavering stance on these issues is a constant reminder to a sex-obsessed world that they are behaving in a way that short-changes their human dignity and falls short of their calling as human beings made in the image and likeness of God. The Catholic Church is the last institution standing that constantly calls them to the high adventure of spousal love and complete self-donation, and as long as she does, they will seek to bring distort her message and bring her down. Why? Because hedonism is no fun when someone is reminding you that the selfish pursuit of pleasure doesn’t really fulfill the soul.
Gaffe or Kickstarting Dialog?
That brings us to the final question of why Pope Benedict would go into this level of nuance on a topic that the world is virtually guaranteed to misunderstand and distort. As I see it, there are really only two possibilities.
It may be the case that Pope Benedict and the Vatican press office truly don’t understand modern media and the breakneck speed of internet communications. Perhaps nobody realized that this would cause the kind of misunderstanding of Catholic teaching that it seems to have caused.
But the other possibility, which I find both more plausible and more comforting, is that the Pope knew exactly what he was doing when he made these comments. Sure, some people will misunderstand, but some people will always misunderstand. But what is the internet ablaze about today? The Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality. How often does that happen?
In a world where most people would never ask themselves why the Church holds to its sometimes difficult teachings on sexuality, they’re asking. Pope Benedict has started a global conversation on human sexuality from a Catholic perspective that no amount of encyclicals or magesterial statements ever could.
In closing, I’d encourage you to check out the links below for more perspective on the issue. And for more on the harms of contraception, check out the League’s Contraception Is Not the Answer conference CDs that feature leading experts explaining why contraception does not solve the problems of abortion and STDs, but rather exacerbates them.
- Vatican Response to Pope Benedict’s Comments on Condoms
- What does the Holy Father really say about condoms in the new book?—Dr. Janet Smith, Catholic World Report
- The Pope Did Not Endorse the Use of Condoms—Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, What Does the Prayer Really Say
- The Pope Said WHAT About Condoms???—Jimmy Akin, National Catholic Register