The Vatican Settles the Condom Debate

The Congregation for Doctrine and Faith, Pope Benedict’s old stomping grounds as Cardinal, has issued a statement clarifying the obvious: the pope’s comments, contrary to the media reports, never suggested a change in the Church’s position, nor is there going to be one.  From the English press release:

Following the publication of the interview-book Light of the World by Benedict XVI, a number of erroneous interpretations have emerged which have caused confusion concerning the position of the Catholic Church regarding certain questions of sexual morality. The thought of the Pope has been repeatedly manipulated for ends and interests which are entirely foreign to the meaning of his words – a meaning which is evident to anyone who reads the entire chapters in which human sexuality is treated. The intention of the Holy Father is clear: to rediscover the beauty of the divine gift of human sexuality and, in this way, to avoid the cheapening of sexuality which is common today.

Some interpretations have presented the words of the Pope as a contradiction of the traditional moral teaching of the Church. This hypothesis has been welcomed by some as a positive change and lamented by others as a cause of concern – as if his statements represented a break with the doctrine concerning contraception and with the Church’s stance in the fight against AIDS. In reality, the words of the Pope – which specifically concern a gravely disordered type of human behaviour, namely prostitution (cf. Light of the World, pp. 117-119) – do not signify a change in Catholic moral teaching or in the pastoral practice of the Church.

As is clear from an attentive reading of the pages in question, the Holy Father was talking neither about conjugal morality nor about the moral norm concerning contraception. This norm belongs to the tradition of the Church and was summarized succinctly by Pope Paul VI in paragraph 14 of his Encyclical Letter Humanae vitae, when he wrote that “also to be excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.” The idea that anyone could deduce from the words of Benedict XVI that it is somehow legitimate, in certain situations, to use condoms to avoid an unwanted pregnancy is completely arbitrary and is in no way justified either by his words or in his thought. On this issue the Pope proposes instead – and also calls the pastors of the Church to propose more often and more effectively (cf. Light of the World, p. 147) – humanly and ethically acceptable ways of behaving which respect the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meaning of every conjugal act, through the possible use of natural family planning in view of responsible procreation.

On the pages in question, the Holy Father refers to the completely different case of prostitution, a type of behaviour which Christian morality has always considered gravely immoral (cf. Vatican II, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, n. 27; Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2355). The response of the entire Christian tradition – and indeed not only of the Christian tradition – to the practice of prostitution can be summed up in the words of St. Paul: “Flee from fornication” (1 Cor 6:18). The practice of prostitution should be shunned, and it is the duty of the agencies of the Church, of civil society and of the State to do all they can to liberate those involved from this practice.

In this regard, it must be noted that the situation created by the spread of AIDS in many areas of the world has made the problem of prostitution even more serious. Those who know themselves to be infected with HIV and who therefore run the risk of infecting others, apart from committing a sin against the sixth commandment are also committing a sin against the fifth commandment – because they are consciously putting the lives of others at risk through behaviour which has repercussions on public health. In this situation, the Holy Father clearly affirms that the provision of condoms does not constitute “the real or moral solution” to the problem of AIDS and also that “the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality” in that it refuses to address the mistaken human behaviour which is the root cause of the spread of the virus. In this context, however, it cannot be denied that anyone who uses a condom in order to diminish the risk posed to another person is intending to reduce the evil connected with his or her immoral activity. In this sense the Holy Father points out that the use of a condom “with the intention of reducing the risk of infection, can be a first step in a movement towards a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.” This affirmation is clearly compatible with the Holy Father’s previous statement that this is “not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection.”

Some commentators have interpreted the words of Benedict XVI according to the so-called theory of the “lesser evil”. This theory is, however, susceptible to proportionalistic misinterpretation (cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Veritatis splendor, n. 75-77). An action which is objectively evil, even if a lesser evil, can never be licitly willed. The Holy Father did not say – as some people have claimed – that prostitution with the use of a condom can be chosen as a lesser evil. The Church teaches that prostitution is immoral and should be shunned. However, those involved in prostitution who are HIV positive and who seek to diminish the risk of contagion by the use of a condom may be taking the first step in respecting the life of another – even if the evil of prostitution remains in all its gravity. This understanding is in full conformity with the moral theological tradition of the Church.

In conclusion, in the battle against AIDS, the Catholic faithful and the agencies of the Catholic Church should be close to those affected, should care for the sick and should encourage all people to live abstinence before and fidelity within marriage. In this regard it is also important to condemn any behaviour which cheapens sexuality because, as the Pope says, such behaviour is the reason why so many people no longer see in sexuality an expression of their love: “This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also 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” (Light of the World, p. 119).

It’s nice to have the controversy laid to rest.  But I can’t help but wish that the media, which so perverted and distrorted the pope’s initial comments, take some responsibility for their poisonous role in all this, and apologize — or at least run a front-page retraction.  To get a feeling for how bad the coverage was, here’s a sample. It’s an AP news story from November 23rd (it appeared in nearly identical form in the D.C. paper, and many others), and it’s entitled “Vatican: Condom use less evil than spreading HIV,” the very interpretation that the Vatican has denounced. Here are the first eleven paragraphs:

In a seismic shift on one of the most profound — and profoundly contentious — Roman Catholic teachings, the Vatican said Tuesday that condoms are the lesser of two evils when used to curb the spread of AIDS, even if their use prevents a pregnancy.

The position was an acknowledgment that the church’s long-held anti-birth control stance against condoms doesn’t justify putting lives at risk.

“This is a game-changer,” declared the Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit writer and editor.

The new stance was staked out as the Vatican explained Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on condoms and HIV in a book that came out Tuesday based on his interview with a German journalist.

The Vatican still holds that condom use is immoral and that church doctrine forbidding artificial birth control remains unchanged. Still, the reassessment on condom use to help prevent disease carries profound significance, particularly in Africa where AIDS is rampant.

“By acknowledging that condoms help prevent the spread of HIV between people in sexual relationships, the pope has completely changed the Catholic discussion on condoms,” said Martin, a liberal-leaning author of several books about spirituality and Catholic teaching.

The development came on a day when U.N. AIDS officials announced that the number of new HIV cases has fallen significantly — thanks to condom use — and a U.S. medical journal published a study showing that a daily pill could help prevent spread of the virus among gay men.

“This is a great day in the fight against AIDS … a major milestone,” said Mitchell Warren, head of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition.

Theologians have debated for years whether it could be morally acceptable for HIV-infected people to use condoms to avoid infecting their partners. The Vatican years ago was reportedly preparing a document on the subject, but it never came out.

The groundbreaking shift, coming as it does from the deeply conservative pontiff, would appear likely to restrain any public criticism from Catholic conservatives, who insisted Tuesday that the pope was merely reaffirming the church’s moral teaching.

Conservatives have feared that a comment like this would give support to Catholics who want to challenge the church’s ban on artificial contraception in an environment where they feel they are under siege from a secular, anti-Catholic culture.

In those eleven paragraphs, all of two sources are quoted: a Jesuit that even the AP writer acknowledges as liberal (which is almost certainly a euphemism for “in open disagreement with the Vatican on condoms and most everything else”), and a non-Catholic AIDS activist.  The Catholic view is never presented from someone who reasonably represents that view.  Instead, we’re just told what the Vatican’s comments mean, long before the author even tells us what the comments were.  In fact, nothing that the pope – or Vatican – said included a “seismic shift” that condoms were now to be considered “the lesser of two evils.”  Martin’s words to the contrary, this is anything but a game-changer.

Do you think we’ll see a retraction from AP?  Or even eleven paragraphs (total) outlining what the pope’s position actually is?  I’m doubtful.  Sadly, it’s unlikely that non-Catholics (who were made painfully aware of Pope Benedict’s alleged shift) will ever hear that this was all a media creation with no foundation in fact. It just adds to the ignorance and misconceptions that most non-Catholics have about the Catholic faith.  This will reaffirm the canard that the pope can just change Catholic doctrine whenever he likes, and Catholics are bound to follow.

What’s unfortunate is that in the midst of this silliness, there really is a rather important debate that needs to be had, about what role – if any – condoms may play for non-contraceptive purposes in preventing the spread of AIDS.   For what it’s worth, Luke Gormally, of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and Fr. Martin Rhonheimer, an Opus Dei priest-professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, have been having a rather heated debate on just that subject.  Unlike the priests who are media favorites, these two men are, as far as I know, serious about orthodoxy, and strive to be totally Catholic.

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