Analysis: What the Pope really said about condoms

ppbxvi29 Pope Benedict XVI

Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on condoms in a new book-interview have whipped the media into a frenzy.

Many reports interpreted the words as a dramatic shift from Church teaching, but experts say that nothing has changed.

On the afternoon of Nov. 20, the Vatican's semi-official newspaper L'Osservatore Romano released a series of excerpts from the new book-interview called "Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and the Signs of the Times," by the German journalist Peter Seewald.

The newspaper, jumping the scheduled world release, chose to publish only two paragraphs of what is a more extensive response from the Pope to the question of whether the use of condoms could be justified to confront the problem of AIDS transmission.

This fragmented presentation did not give a full view of the Pope's words. But it said enough to lead some international media sources to conjecture that the pontiff had made a "U-turn" on Catholic teaching against contraception.

The actual text of the Pope’s remarks extends over two full pages. It begins with interviewer Peter Seewald asking the Pope about his statement to a reporter during his March 2009 trip to Africa that condoms are not a solution to the AIDS pandemic.

The Pope responds by reaffirming his answer. “People can get condoms when they want them anyway,” the Pope told Seewald. “But this just goes to show that condoms alone do not resolve the question itself. More needs to happen.”

Secular thinking about AIDS involves a “fixation on the condom” that implies a trivialization of sexuality, he said. As a result, sexuality is no longer seen as “an expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves.”

The remark that caused such a stir follows this. The Pope mentioned a situation in which condom use could be positive but still an immoral act. He used the example of condom use by male prostitutes.

Pope Benedict said: “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.”

Seewald followed this up with a question about whether the Church is “actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms.”

Pope Benedict responded, "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."

These words — and extremely varied interpretations given to them by commentators — have sent shock waves out from Rome to the world.

But it is apparent that the Pope’s words have been misunderstood or worse, badly distorted. While he said clearly that the use of condoms "is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection," he conceded that they could be used "in the intention of reducing the risk of infection."

Unable to wait for further explanations, the Australian daily, The Age, reported: "Pope lifts ban on condoms." This became the common theme in the reporting.

However, the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said Nov. 21 that "the reasoning of the Pope certainly cannot be defined as a revolutionary turning point."

He said that, instead, it offers an "original contribution" and a "far-sighted vision" of taking small steps to "a more human and responsible exercise of sexuality."

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Janet Smith, an ethicist at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, published a statement on the website of Ignatius Press, the English language publisher of Seewald's “Light of the World.”

She said the Pope "is simply observing that for some homosexual prostitutes the use of a condom may indicate an awakening of a moral sense; an awakening that sexual pleasure is not the highest value, but that we must take care that we harm no one with our choices.

The Pope, she added, is not talking about morality, but the psychological state of those who make use of condoms. "If such individuals are using condoms to avoid harming another, they may eventually realize that sexual acts between members of the same sex are inherently harmful since they are not in accord with human nature.

"The Holy Father does not in any way think the use of condoms is a part of the solution to reducing the risk of AIDS. As he explicitly states, the true solution involves 'humanizing sexuality'.”

A former student of the Pope's, Father Joseph Fessio, editor-in-chief of Ignatius Press, said the Pope's comment on condoms is "very carefully qualified."

“It would be wrong to say, ‘Pope Approves Condoms'," Fr. Fessio said. "He’s saying it’s immoral, but in an individual case the use of a condom could be an awakening to someone that he’s got to be more conscious of his actions.’’

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, writing in “On the Square,” the blog for the magazine First Things, explained: “The Church holds that condom use is morally flawed by its nature, and that, equally important, condom use does not prevent AIDS and can actually enable its spread by creating a false sense of security.”

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"In the context of the book's later discussion of contraception and Catholic teaching on sexuality, the Pope's comments are morally insightful,” Archbishop Chaput continued. “But taken out of context, they can easily be inferred as approving condoms under certain circumstances," he said.

Archbishop Chaput said the Pope’s aides should have been better prepared for the controversy over his remarks.

“One might reasonably expect the Holy Father's assistants to have an advance communications plan in place, and to involve bishops and Catholic media in a timely way to explain and defend the Holy Father's remarks,” he said. “Instead, the Vatican's own semi-official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, violated the book's publication embargo and released excerpts of the content early. Not surprisingly, news media instantly zeroed in on the issue of condoms, and the rest of this marvelous book already seems like an afterthought.”

Seewald himself is expected to explain his viewpoint and give more context from the interview in a press conference at the Vatican on Nov. 23.

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