Russell ShawA public relations flub, but no seismic shift in teaching

The first and perhaps most important thing to say about Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks on the subject of condoms and AIDS is that they in no way change the Church’s teaching that contraception is wrong.

If the Pope’s comments were a “game changer,” as Father James Martin, SJ, of America magazine says, this wasn’t the game.
 
Nor did Pope Benedict depart from his previously stated position — the position of the Church — that abstinence is the morally correct course of action for someone infected with HIV.

Sexual abstinence may not be popular today, but morality is about what’s right, not what’s popular.
 
So what did the Pope say about these matters that was new in his book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald, published in English as “Light of the World” (Ignatius Press)? Just this.

If someone infected with HIV nevertheless persists in sexual activity despite its wrongness, at least it should be in a way that involves the least potential harm to the other party — by using a condom, that is. This is a minimal step in the direction of responsibility. It was here that Pope Benedict offered his now-famous example of a male prostitute.
 
I don’t mean to dismiss the newness of this papal statement. It will be discussed for a long time to come. But to call it a “seismic shift” in Church teaching, as an AP story did, was over the edge. What the Church has long taught remains fully intact.
 
Contrary to some of the commentary, Pope Benedict was not advocating the choice of the “lesser evil.” Evil, whether lesser or greater, may never be chosen.

If it’s necessary to lift a phrase out of the moral theology manuals, try “double effect.” In a double effect situation, the same action produces two results, one good and one bad, and in certain circumstances it can be allowable to perform the action for the sake of the good, though never the bad. Condom use to prevent HIV transmission could be something like that.
 
The Pope’s remarks do not apply to the situation of a married couple who believe that pregnancy would threaten the woman’s life. Preventing conception (something good in itself) and preventing the transmission of a deadly disease (something bad in itself) are radically different in a moral perspective. The only right —and responsible — course of action for a couple like this is abstinence.
 
A lot of people have blamed the media for the confusion that has surrounded this incident. In some instances, the media did indeed blow it, but that was hardly their fault.

Seewald’s book carried a Nov. 23 embargo. On Nov. 20, L’Osservatore Romano published excerpts — reportedly with authorization from the Vatican publishing house — and thereby broke the embargo. This in turn led to an eminently predictable media frenzy.
 
As far as I can tell, moreover, the Vatican had no plan in place to provide journalists with an  authoritative background briefing by experts in order supply explanation and interpretation of what the Pope had said. Instead, the director of the press office issued a statement and then went ahead with a previously scheduled Nov. 23 news conference to plug the book. The result of that was to keep the story alive and give some newcomers a well publicized opportunity to get their oars in and add to the confusion that already existed.
 
In sum, nothing fundamental has changed. Pope Benedict shed some new light on a relatively new question. The Vatican flubbed its media relations one more time. That’s about all.  

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