In an exclusive commentary provided to CNA, Fr. Joseph Fessio, publisher of Pope Benedict XVI's books in English, responds to the international media controversy prompted by the Pope’s new book, “Light of the World.” His full remarks are published below.
In the great condom debate, no change in the Church’s beautiful but difficult teaching
By Father Joseph Fessio, S.J.
The Great Condom Debate has entered Round Two. Now it looks like Pope Benedict XVI has really said something he has never said before. That would be news. But it looks like it’s really, really news because now the apparent change (or at least the camel’s nose wedge) in Church teaching is even more dramatic.
It would be sad, wouldn’t it, if in fact the Pope was simply “clarifying and deepening” (Vatican spokesman Father Lombardi’s words on Nov. 21), that same old boring Church teaching? And wouldn’t it be even sadder if this new statement by the Pope were even less unusual than the original one seemed to be?
But that’s the case. Once again Catholic truth is stranger than media fiction.
“But, Fr. Fessio, that’s impossible. This is some Jesuit trick. You Jesuits have always been defenders of the popes, even the worst of them. You even take a vow to say what looks white is black if the pope says so. We know your game. You’re not fooling us.”
Let’s see if I can “clarify and deepen” this. Of course, it’s understandable that the news media would like to see some change in the Church teaching. This isn’t necessarily because of their “pleasure in exposing the Church and if possible discrediting her,” as the Pope says in his new book, “Light of the World.” By profession, and even by definition, they are seeking “news.” What’s not new is not news. So there is a very strong predisposition to find in the Pope’s written text (the book) and in his oral statement (to Fr. Lombardi) something new.
Unfortunately there is not only nothing new here (except perhaps a new level of incomprehension on the part of many otherwise intelligent people). But the second statement (about heterosexual sex) is paradoxically less unusual than the first (about homosexual sex).
First, the Vatican spokesman, who on Nov. 23 said, "I asked the pope personally if there was a serious distinction in the choice of male instead of female and he said 'no.’ Whether a man or a woman or a transsexual does this, we’re at the same point,” had written two days previously about “the same point” we’re at, namely, that the Pope’s contribution “maintains fidelity to moral principles.” Translation: is nothing new.
But we don’t need to take Fr. Lombardi’s word for that. It can be demonstrated.
In the original German text of “Light of the World,” and in the English translation, the Pope refers to a “male prostitute.” Everyone I’ve read so far has assumed, and I believe rightly so, that this refers to homosexual acts. So now that the Pope is said to have said that the distinction between male and female does not affect the point he’s making (and I believe that we can rightly assume that this second statement refers to heterosexual acts), this appears to be a “broader” statement. It applies not just to homosexual but also to heterosexual acts.
This is where the paradox enters. The Pope’s second statement now appears broader, but it’s actually no broader at all. It may include more persons, but it adds nothing to the doctrine. The Church has always clearly taught — to the consternation of many — that the use of condoms in procreative acts is immoral. But the Pope’s initial statement explained that even if the sexual act is not procreative, the Church still opposes condom use. That is really provocative and has been universally taken to be so. Much more provocative than the prohibition of condom use in heterosexual acts.
Put in another way: some may concede that when the Church forbids condoms in procreative acts, at least a reasonable case can be made that this is because the Church opposes the separation of the unitive (sex) and procreative (children) factors in sexual intercourse; but when these factors are already separated, then what’s the problem? The condoms are being used only for protection. Why is the Church against that?
Well, the Pope took this harder case as an example in his initial statement about male prostitutes. That was seen as a possible “breakthrough” or even change in Church teaching. It wasn’t. The Pope merely said that the intention of preventing infection could be a sign of an awakening moral conscience.
The act of sex with a condom can still not be “considered [by the Church] a real or moral solution,” he said in the interview. That is, it is immoral; which is another way of saying that it is an act that is evil in itself.
But the point I’m making here is that the second statement is less surprising than the first, not more. And it doesn’t “broaden” the application of his principle to include heterosexuals as well as homosexuals. The condom prohibition has always applied to heterosexuals, and for stronger reasons because it involves the evil of contraception.
But didn’t the Pope say that sex with a condom to prevent infection is a lesser evil? Well, the Pope didn’t say that, at least in his book. Fr. Lombardi said it. But the Pope could have said it, because in one sense it’s true. (I’ll explain why this is only “in one sense” in a moment.) Unfortunately, however, for those whose profession is reporting news, there is nothing new in this at all.
What may be new is the fact the many educated people no longer understand the ethics of the “lesser evil.” It’s not difficult to understand, though. The crucial distinction is: one may tolerate a lesser evil; one may never morally do something which is a lesser evil.
An example: A gunman is holding 10 hostages. He says that unless I kill the police chief, he will kill the 10 hostages. The death of one person is, in this case, the lesser evil. But I cannot morally kill the police chief. One can never do something that is evil in itself to achieve something good or to avoid some evil, even a greater evil.
In the case of condom usage, the good of protecting against infection cannot justify the immoral sexual act, even though performing that act with a condom may be a lesser evil than performing it without one.
The “may be” in that last sentence refers to what I said above: that condomized sex is in one sense a lesser evil. That is, in the case of a single individual act, the prevention of infection by condom usage makes that particular act less evil. However, it has been shown (and it makes sense) that when there is widespread use of condoms, the sense of security against risk leads to greater promiscuity: more frequency; more partners. And this leads to overall greater risk of disease among the sexually active population. So in this sense, condom usage is the greater evil.
So: Round One went to the Pope: no change in Church teaching, just “clarifying and deepening” the same old, unchanging, beautiful but difficult Catholic teaching about the true meaning of sexuality.
Round Two goes to the Pope as well. Still no change in Church teaching. No broadening of exceptions (there are no exceptions in either case). Still the same old, unchanging, beautiful but difficult Catholic teaching about the true meaning of sexuality.
And no news.
Is it too much to hope that now we can hear about what really is new: a pope responding to so many interesting or controversial questions in a published interview?
Father Joseph Fessio, SJ, is a theologian in residence at Ave Maria University, and the founder and editor of Ignatius Press, the English language publisher of Pope Benedict’s books, including his latest, “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times.”