The complete words of the Pope in context
Here is the actual text of the Pope's remarks:
[Peter Seewald] On the occasion of your trip to Africa in March 2009, the Vatican’s policy on AIDs once again became the target of media criticism.Twenty-five percent of all AIDs victims around the world today are treated in Catholic facilities. In some countries, such as Lesotho, for example, the statistic is 40 percent. In Africa you stated that the Church’s traditional teaching has proven to be the only sure way to stop the spread of HIV. Critics, including critics from the Church’s own ranks, object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms.
The media coverage completely ignored the rest of the trip to Africa on account of a single statement. Someone had asked me why the Catholic Church adopts an unrealistic and ineffective position on AIDs. At that point, I really felt that I was being provoked, because the Church does more than anyone else. And I stand by that claim. Because she is the only institution that assists people up close and concretely, with prevention, education, help, counsel, and accompaniment. And because she is second to none in treating so many AIDs victims, especially children with AIDs.
I had the chance to visit one of these wards and to speak with the patients. That was the real answer: The Church does more than anyone else, because she does not speak from the tribunal of the newspapers, but helps her brothers and sisters where they are actually suffering. In my remarks I was not making a general statement about the condom issue, but merely said, and this is what caused such great offense, that we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms. Much more needs to be done. We must stand close to the people, we must guide and help them; and we must do this both before and after they contract the disease.
As a matter of fact, you know, people can get condoms when they want them anyway. But this just goes to show that condoms alone do not resolve the question itself. More needs to happen. Meanwhile, the secular realm itself has developed 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 banalization 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. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.
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.
Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?
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.
Predictably, many within the secular media took the Pope's words out of context and ran with it, portraying it as a sea-change in Church teaching on condom use, anouncing that the Pope's words reflected his "personal approval" of condom use and even a "shift in Vatican policy" (New York Times). The UK's Daily Mirror trumpeted: Pope Benedict XVI gives OK to condoms for Aids prevention (11/24/10):
Just days after the historic change of attitude to sex, he declared the contraception can be used by anyone if it prevents HIV.Phil Lawler (CatholicCulture.org) aptly summarized the situation as it now stands, asserting that the Pope's mesage had been effectively turned "upside down":
It was initially thought last week that he said condoms could be worn only in exceptional cases by male prostitutes.
But in the Italian translation of his German book, it has now been revealed he believes they can be used by women sex workers too to combat Aids.
Today, what the world thinks Pope Benedict said is almost exactly the opposite of what he clearly intended.
In Chapter 11 of his new book, Light of the World, Pope Benedict mounts a strong defense of his argument that condom use is not the appropriate means of fighting the AIDS epidemic.
This week, millions of people received the impression that the Pope made precisely the opposite argument-- that he recommended condoms as a defense against AIDS—due to the most spectacular public-relations bungling of this pontificate.
L'Osservatore Romano: "journalistically sound" or incompetent?
A subplot involves the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, which published (and highlighted) the Pope's remarks on condoms prior to the official release of the book. Dr. Ed Peters (In The Light of the Law) weighed in on the continuing mess at L'Osservatore Romano:
I want to ask a few questions about the occasion of this public relations fiasco, namely, the decision by L’Osservatore Romano to publish prematurely, out of context, and without commentary, the single most controversial paragraph of the pope’s book?And Phil Lawler (Catholic Culture) demanded, as a necessary first step to address the continuous public-relations bungling at the Vatican, the resignation of L’Osservatore Romano's editor Giovanni Maria Vian.
I frankly wonder whether, even now, L’Osservatore Romano yet realizes what a serious disservice it has committed by arrogating to itself the role of introducing the pope’s book, Light of the World, and by its making that introduction in such a palpably incompetent manner?
But John Allen Jr. (National Catholic Reporter) wrote in staunch defense of the Vatican newspaper:
... as a purely factual matter, the Vatican paper did not “violate” an embargo. It simply got a better deal from the publisher, in this case the Vatican Publishing House.Did the Pope approve, or didn't he?
Several media outlets around the world were given permission to publish extracts from the book on Sunday, but had to restrict themselves to chapters one, six and seventeen, which don’t contain any major news flashes. L’Osservatore, because of its special status, was allowed to comb through the entire manuscript, and obviously made some journalistically sound judgments about which sections would be of widest public interest, including the lines on condoms (which come from chapter two). The paper waited until Sunday to run the extracts, though because L’Osservatore is always released the evening before its publication date, it actually came out Saturday night.
In other words, L’Osservatore played by the rules it was given. (If you want to be mad at somebody over the timing, try the Vatican Publishing House.) Frankly, some of the grumbling about a “violation” of an embargo may be no more than raw journalistic envy at getting beat to the punch.
Bracketing the predictable response of the press, the myriad reactions among Catholic circles, seems largely (perhaps loosely) divided among two particular camps. Those who interpret the Pope's words as affirming the use of condoms in "exceptional" circumstances -- and those who say he meant nothing of the sort. But this is not simply a division between "progressives" and "conservatives". Even those who would consider themselves orthodox, faithful adherents to Church teaching and admirers of Pope Benedict are divided.
Position #1: In exceptional cases, where the sole intent is to prevent the transmission of disease (rather than to prevent pregnancy), the use of condoms might be regarded as commendable as "the first assumption of responsibility." The Pope's remarks have brought public attention to an "open question" (largely suppressed until now), about which the Church has yet to take a decisive stand.
The Pope's words have inspired a renewed look at a controversial article by the Swiss theologian Fr. Martin Rhonheimer (priest of the Opus Dei Prelature who teaches at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome): "The truth about condoms" (The Tablet July 10, 2004):
The teaching of the Church is not about condoms or similar physical or chemical devices, but about marital love and the essentially marital meaning of human sexuality. It affirms that, if married people have a serious reason not to have children, they should modify their sexual behaviour by at least periodic abstinence from sexual acts. To avoid destroying both the unitive and the procreative meaning of sexual acts and therefore the fullness of mutual self-giving, they must not prevent the sexual act from being fertile while carrying on having sex.But what of promiscuous people, sexually active homosexuals, and prostitutes? What the Catholic Church teaches them is simply that they should not be promiscuous, but faithful to one single sexual partner; that prostitution is a behaviour which gravely violates human dignity, mainly the dignity of the woman, and therefore should not be engaged in; and that homosexuals, as all other people, are children of God and loved by him as everybody else is, but that they should live in continence like any other unmarried person.See also "The Pope and Martin Rhonheimer" (America "In All Things"), in which Dr. Ivereigh solicits Fr. Rhonheimer's opinions on the present controversy and whether then-Cardinal Ratzinger was aware of his article in the Tablet.
But if they ignore this teaching, and are at risk from HIV, should they use condoms to prevent infection? The moral norm condemning contraception as intrinsically evil does not apply to these cases. Nor can there be church teaching about this; it would be simply nonsensical to establish moral norms for intrinsically immoral types of behaviour. Should the Church teach that a rapist must never use a condom because otherwise he would additionally to the sin of rape fail to respect mutual and complete personal self-giving and thus violate the Sixth Commandment? Of course not.
In an earlier article, Dr. Ivereigh provides the background on the Pope and condoms (America "In All Things" November 21, 2010):
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor shortly before becoming Pope that "we can't have cardinals disagreeing about this" and set up a commission of moral theologians to look into the question.Ivereigh appears delighted that the Pope has opened the door to public discussion on the topic, "saluting him for his courage." Dr. Ivereigh himself is particularly emphatic about beating this drum, announcing the dawning of "a new morality" in the latest edition of The Tablet.
And there the issue lay, and no more was heard.
In 2008, while at a conference in Rome, I happened to meet a senior CDF official (I won't give his name) and asked him what had happened to the commission. "Everyone knows that theologically there is a strong case for clarifying that teaching," he told me, "but there's just no way of doing it publicly without it being misunderstood." Do you mean, I pressed him, that the Vatican feared the headlines that would result? "Exactly," he said. ...
In February this year, it came to light that the commission had been stood down, and that the report had "never got off the ground" in the word's of the Health Council's deputy, Bishop Redrado.
Fr. Federico Lombardi's "clarification" -- more harm than good?
In his clarification on remarks on AIDS and condoms Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, head of the Holy See Press Office, expressed the position that the use of a condom might be seen in a positive light:
... the pope considers an exceptional situation in which the exercise of sexuality respresents a true risk to the life of another. In that case, the pope does not morally justify the disordered exercise of sexuality, but holds that the use of a condom in order to diminish the threat of infection is “a first assumption of responsibility,” and “a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality,” rather than not using a condom and exposing the other person to a threat to their life.As was later reported, a second statement by Fr. Lombardi to the press broadened the Pope's statement on condom use to include heterosexuals and "transsexuals":
In that sense, the reasoning of the pope certainly cannot be defined as a revolutionary shift. Numerous moral theologians and authoritative ecclesiastical personalities have sustained, and still sustain, similar positions. Nevertheless, it’s true that until now they have not been heard with such clarity from the mouth of the pope, even if it’s in a colloquial rather than magisterial form.
Benedict XVI therefore courageously gives us an important contribution of clarification and deepening on a question that has long been debated. It’s an original contribution, because on the one hand it remains faithful to moral principles and demonstrates lucidity in rejecting “faith in condoms” as an illusory path; on the other hand, it shows a comprehensive and far-sighted vision, attentive to discovering the small steps – even if they’re only initial and still confused – of a humanity often spiritually and culturally impoverished, towards a more human and responsible exercise of sexuality.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters Tuesday that he asked the pope whether he intended his comments to apply only to men. Benedict replied that it really didn't matter, the important thing was that the person took into consideration the life of another.
"I personally asked the pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine," Lombardi said. "He told me no. The problem is this: ... It's the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship."
"This is if you're a man, a woman, or a transsexual. ... The point is it's a first step of taking responsibility, of avoiding passing a grave risk onto another," Lombardi said.
Additional proponents of the "justified use of condoms in limited circumstances, as endorsed by Pope Benedict" view include:
- Fr. James Martin, SJ assisted readers of the Huffington Post understanding the Pope's "new stance" on condoms":
"It's the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship [or are "in relations]." This is something of a game-changer when it comes to the Church's discussion on the overall use of condoms. While it doesn't mean at all that Pope Benedict XVI -- or the Catholic church -- has approved condoms for use in terms of birth control, it is the first time that a pope has given voice to what many moral theologians and bishops have been saying for years -- and have gotten into trouble for saying.
- Italian columnist Sandro Magister (Chiesa):
At this point, one would expect Benedict XVI to reiterate the absolute condemnation of the condom. And instead no. Taking the reader by surprise, he says that in various cases its use can be justified, for reasons other than contraception. ... If this loving understanding applies to a sinner, it could apply all the more to the classic case encountered in Africa and elsewhere by pastors and missionaries: that of two spouses, one of whom is sick with AIDS and uses a condom to avoid endangering the life of the other. Among the cardinals who so far have conjectured, more or less surreptitiously, the permissibility of these and other similar behaviors are the Italians Carlo Maria Martini and Dionigi Tettamanzi, the Mexican Javier Lozano Barragán, the Swiss Georges Cottier.
- Damien Thompson (The Telegraph) -- who announced: "The news is confirmed: Pope Benedict XVI is modifying the Catholic Church’s absolute ban on the use of condoms."
- Tom Heneghan (The Tablet), who says matter-of-factly:
Pope Benedict XVI has used a book-length interview with a trusted Catholic journalist to clarify the church position on using condoms to prevent Aids, saying they could be justified in limited circumstances such as prostitution ...
And the list could go on -- because the prevailing view is that, yes, the Pope DID affirm the justified use of condoms in particular circumstances.
The Pope was engaging in speculation that a prostitute, using a condomn to ward off the transmission of disease, would in so doing take "a first step in the direction of moralization". The Pope's emphasis here is on the psychological: the alleged sign of altruistic concern for (and to curb the reckless endangerment of) the other, even in the engagement of immoral sexual activity, may be laudable as approaching moral awareness.
Dr. Janet Smith was among the first to take this position in Pope Benedict on condoms in "Light of the World" (Catholic World Report Web Exclusive):
Would it be proper to conclude that the Holy Father would support the distribution of condoms to male prostitutes? Nothing he says here indicates that he would. ...
Is Pope Benedict indicating that heterosexuals who have HIV could reduce the wrongness of their acts by using condoms? No. In his second answer he says that the Church does not find condoms to be a “real or moral solution.” That means the Church does not find condoms either to be moral or an effective way of fighting the transmission of HIV.
The president Ignatius Press (the Pope's North American publishing house), weighed in with an imaginary interview characterizing the mainstream media's obsession with condoms:
Mark: Notice that the pope says that the Church doesn’t regard condoms as a “moral solution”. How can you say, then, that the Pope says condom use may be “justified”? Justified means “morally justified”. How can something that is not a moral solution be morally justified?
Mainstream Media Ok. But he goes on to say that condoms are ok if they’re a first step toward doing the right thing.
Mark No. He says the intention of reducing the risk of infection, in this or that case, can be a first step in the right direction. It’s the intention of protecting another human being that the Pope commends, not the use of condoms.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the court of final appeal at the Vatican, endeavored to explain "what the Pope REALLY meant":
He’s simply making the comment that if a person who is given to prostitution at least considers using a condom to prevent giving the disease to another person — even though the effectiveness of this is very questionable — this could be a sign of someone who is having a certain moral awakening. But in no way does it mean that prostitution is morally acceptable, nor does it mean that the use of condoms is morally acceptable.
In an interview with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, Fr. Fessio also rebutted the proposition that the Pope's words signified a "change in policy":
KELLY: Are you saying that the pope was perhaps using some sort of sliding scale here? That while not condoning contraception, not condoning homosexuality, he's signaling that they are not the worst evils, and that passing on HIV is worse?Fr. Fessio also made his point clear in an op-ed to Reuters' Faithworld blog: Did the Pope "justify" condom use in some circumstances? -- responding in the negative:
Father FESSIO: He's not giving a scale of evil or good here. But let me give you a pretty simple example. Let's suppose we've got a bunch of muggers who like to use steel pipes when they mug people. But some muggers say, gosh, you know, we don't need to hurt them that badly to rob them. Let's put foam pads on our pipes. Then we'll just stun them for a while, rob them and go away. So if the pope then said, well, yes, I think that using padded pipes is actually a little step in a moral direction there, that doesn't mean he's justifying using padded pipes to mug people. He's just saying, well, they did something terrible, but while they were doing that, they had a little flicker of conscience there that led them in the right direction. That may grow further, so they stop mugging people completely.
KELLY: A lot of the media coverage over the past few days has presented the pope's comments as representing a big shift in the policy of the Roman Catholic Church. It sounds like you don't see it that way.
Father FESSIO: I don't see it that way. The pope doesn't see it that way. And it's not that way. There's no shift here.
a solution which is not “moral” cannot be “justified”. That is a contradiction and would mean that something in itself morally evil could be “justified” to achieve a good end. Note: the concept of the “lesser evil” is inapplicable here. One may tolerate a lesser evil; one cannot do something which is a lesser evil.Finally, Dr. Steven A. Long, professor of theology at Ave Maria University, published a must-read article criticizing the position (assumed to be the Pope's) "that the disordered sexual act of sodomy is morally bad, but condom use, as something incipiently responsible and moral, is nonetheless good." According to Dr. Long, this is precisely what the Pope is NOT saying:
What, then, of the papal language? Can a gravely evil act really be such that "there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement towards a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality"? Certainly in the epistemic order, a person who is morally coarse and living sinfully, may in beginning to reflect on the consequences of his action for others and beginning to take responsibility for these, move in such a way that were it to continue he would eventually enter into genuinely moral considerations. If this is what the Pope means, then it is surely defensible, although the language even so seems somewhat rhetorically over-freighted: simply doing an evil act in a way that prevents infection does not necessarily suggest anything other than that the homosexual prostitute does not wish his customer to die, which frankly could be from venal or vicious motives; and if it is from a better motive, the act is still similar to a strangler who gives all his victims the opportunity to make a good act of contrition, and whom he calms and kills in as gentle a fashion as possible: all of which hardly seems to count as "a first step in a movement towards a different way, a more human way" of living. The Church is not in the business of endorsing grave evils when they are "lesser"--because grave moral evil may never rightly be done by anyone. The rhetoric of "first step" towards "a more human" sexuality makes the epistemic motion seem more proximate to the good of a more human sexuality than in fact it is. The "first step" is, in the epistemic order, toward a moral awareness generally speaking, which must be developed and enriched far more in order to constitute any specific movement in the practical moral order toward a "more human" sexuality.The same judgement stands in the case of Federico Lombardi's announcement that the Pope's words are applicable to heterosexual activity:
Nonetheless one must give due credit to the "can" of the Pope's formulation--something that expresses raw possibility. And it is true that those who do move from moral evil to moral good, must epistemically at some point begin to be aware of their responsibility, and such a beginning might be found in someone who before had cavalierly exposed others to infection whilst sodomizing, who then tries to minimize the occasion for giving infection. But "first step"? Normally the first step toward a purpose partakes of the genus of that purpose. If the end is genuinely moral, then the use of the condom is not a "first step" any more than the gentler strangler is taking a first step toward a moral way of living and honoring the good of life. The "first step" of the Pope's example must be understood as nakedly epistemic, not in the least moral, but with the possibility that it could lead at some point to the genuinely moral. All the efforts to speak of the instance to which the pope refers as an exceptional case or circumstance for which the Holy Father has distilled the right moral theological understanding seems thus utterly wrong, because the Pope is not saying that condom use is morally good.
Here, of course, there is a contraceptive species added to the act; and this makes all the clearer why the Pope's point is directly epistemic and only remotely moral. It also shows how dangerous it is to start speaking of these as "exceptional" situations and promulgating dubious moral judgments of them. Nonetheless, the same point obtains: epistemically, a female prostitute too might become more aware of consequences to others and responsibility, which followed all the way out lead toward moral modes of engagement. But it alters nothing of the moral evil that constitutes the acts being performed. To treat the lesser evil as a moral good, to speak of it in terms of an "exceptional situation" in which somehow because of its epistemic implications for possible moral consciousness it is therefore good, is a great mistake. This is a mistake toward which Lombardi's comments seem to verge.
Obviously, the much cited words of the Pope should be taken in the context of the Q-&-A that preceded it, on the question of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Here the Pope clearly states: "we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms"; that "the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality", and that the condom "it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection" and later, that even in such circumstances it can neither be regarded as a "real or moral solution."
But all of this is getting lost in the mix, buried by those with the desire to read within the Pope's remarks an affirmation of condom use.
- 11/21/10: Prostitute or male prostitute? -- Grammar experts needed for pope comment on condoms Reuters FaithWorld's Tom Heneghan on the difficulties of foreign grammar and translation in rendering the Pope's remarks in English.
- 11/21/10: Pope's remarks in book open new chapter in condom debate, by John Thavis. (Catholic News Service).
- 11/22/10: Dr. Jeff Mirus (Catholic Culture) - "The Pope, the Condom, and the Elephant":
So let’s stare it straight in the eye. The elephant in the room is the conviction that if Pope Benedict acknowledges the possible moral good of using a condom in one situation, then he is fundamentally weakening or retreating from the Church’s teaching that contraception is intrinsically evil. This conviction is a great and gleeful hope among those who uphold contraception, but it is also an intense fear among those who have perceived the evil of contraception all along. The elephant, then, is this huge, gigantic, enormous conviction—whether welcome or unwelcome—that the Pope has put the Church’s teaching on contraception in jeopardy.
But this elephant exists only in the minds of those, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who do not fully understand the Church’s teaching on contraception.
- 11/22/10: DarwinCatholic @ The American Catholic: "When are points not worth making?":
On the one hand, what the pope said is completely true. On the other, the way in which it became publicized will doubtless lead more people into error than into truth. Does this mean that such nuanced discussion of high profile moral issues should simply not happen? Or that it should not be undertaken by someone as high profile as the pope?
- 11/22/10: George Weigel, who wrote the foreward to Light of the World, deflates the New York Times condom scoop", exposing 3 false assumptions of the authors:
Not that it's going to deter future speculation on their part and their continued obsession with, as Weigel puts it, "Salvation by Latex."
- "that the Church’s settled teaching on sexual morality is a policy or a position that can change, as tax rates can be changed";
- "that all papal statements of whatever sort are equal, such that an interview is an exercise of the papal teaching magisterium"
- "that a “historic change” in Catholic teaching of the sort that was misreported to have taken place would be announced through the medium of an interview"
- National Catholic Reporter's John Allen Jr. also explains Why condom comments are no earthquake in Catholic teaching (11/22/10):
In practice, that means that if someone were to ask a Catholic priest, "Is it okay to use a condom?" the answer is still supposed to be "No." Catholic teaching holds that to be fully consistent with God's plan, sexuality should occur only inside marriage and should be open to new life.Allen adds, however, some additional important qualifiers -- "until some formal edict comes down the pike, Benedict's language has to be seen as interesting but non-binding" and does not hold any magisterial weight. Also, the propensity of the media to distort the nuances of Catholic teaching on this matter will likely deter the Church from issuing any formal ruling on pastoral care for HIV/AIDS:
If the question, however, is, "I'm HIV-positive and will have sex regardless of what the Church thinks, so is it better to use a condom to try to save lives?" the Pope has implied that a pastor might legitimately say "Yes," while still stressing that condoms ultimately are not, as Benedict says in his interview, a "real or moral solution."
... it may well be precisely those reformers most thrilled by what Benedict has said, most inclined to spin it as a "revolution," who actually make it less likely that even his limited concession sees the official light of day.
For those who would like the Catholic Church to become more flexible on condoms, therefore, a word of caution: hype doesn't help.
- 11/23/10: The Pope’s new book should not be reduced to one remark the pontiff makes about condoms, protests Rino Fisichella, president of the newly established Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization (Catholic News Agency):
“Reducing the entire interview to one phrase removed from its context and from the entirety of Benedict XVI's thought would be an offense to the Pope's intelligence and a gratuitous manipulation of his words."(And yet here we are ...)
- 11/24/10: "Condoms! Condoms! Condoms!" - Fr. Robert Barron weighs in on the media's obsession for the Chicago Tribune:
One of the stupidest and most dispiriting expressions of the media culture that I have ever encountered is the “coverage” of Pope Benedict’s recently-published interview entitled Light of the World. I can’t really say that I was surprised.
I had received an advance copy of the book and had prepared a piece on it when I met a woman involved in organizing the publicity for its release. "They’re going to talk about condoms,” I said.
"But it’s such a minor theme and it’s mentioned on, like, a quarter of a page at the end of one chapter,” she said.
"They're going to talk about condoms,” I replied.
- 11/24/10: "Did Benedict stir the water on purpose?" -- The Anchoress (blogging @ First Things) poses the question.