Pope Benedict’s new book, Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and The Signs Of The Times, isn’t even officially out yet but is already at the center of an online media controversy.
The controversy erupted Saturday morning when L’Osservatore Romano unilaterally violated the embargo on the book by publishing Italian-language extracts of various papal statements, much to the chagrin of publishers around the world, who had been working on a carefully orchestrated launch for the book on Tuesday.
And so we were treated to headlines like:
* Pope says condoms sometimes permissible to stop AIDS
* Pope: condoms can be justified in some cases
* Pope says condoms can be used in the fight against Aids
Particularly egregious is this statement by William Crawley of the BBC:
Pope Benedict appears to have changed the Vatican’s official stance on the use of condoms to a moral position that many Catholic theologians have been recommending for quite some time.
Okay, first of all, this is an interview book. The pope is being interviewed. He is not engaging his official teaching capacity. This book is not an encyclical, an apostolic constitution, a papal bull, or anything of the kind. It is not published by the Church. It is an interview conducted by a German-language journalist. Consequently, the book does not represent an act of the Church’s Magisterium and does not have the capacity to “change the Vatican’s official stance” on anything. It does not carry dogmatic or canonical force. The book (which is fascinating and unprecedented, though that’s a subject for another post) constitutes the Pope’s personal opinions on the questions he is asked by interviewer Peter Seewald.
And, as Pope Benedict himself notes in the book:
It goes without saying that the Pope can have private opinions that are wrong.
I don’t point this out to suggest that what Pope Benedict says regarding condoms is wrong (we’ll get to that in a moment) but to point out the status of private papal opinions. They are just that: private opinions. Not official Church teaching. So let’s get that straight.
Among the disservices L’Osservatore Romano performed by breaking the book’s embargo in the way it did was the fact that it only published a small part of the section in which Pope Benedict discussed condoms. As a result, the reader could not see the context of his remarks, giving the reader no way to see the context and guaranteeing that the secular press would take the Pope’s remarks out of context (which they would have anyway, but perhaps not this much). Especially egregious is the fact that L’Osservatore Romano omits material in which Benedict clarified his statement on condoms in a follow-up question.
So L’Osservatore Romano has performed a great disservice to both the Catholic and non-Catholic communities.
Fortunately, now you can read the full text of the Pope’s remarks.
Also, in anticipation of the controversy that these statement would produce, Dr. Janet Smith has prepared a helpful guide to what the Pope did and did not say.
Let’s look at the Pope’s remarks and see what he actually said.
Seewald: . . . 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.
Benedict: . . . 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. [EMPHASIS ADDED] 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.
Note that the Pope’s overall argument is that condoms will not solve the problem of AIDS. In support of this, he makes several arguments:
1) People can already get condoms, yet it clearly hasn’t solved the problem.
2) The secular realm has proposed the ABC program, where a condom is used only if the first two, truly effective procedures (abstinence and fidelity) have been rejected. Thus even the secular ABC proposal recognizes that condoms are not the unique solution. They don’t work as well as abstinence and fidelity. The first two are better.
3) The fixation on condom use represents a banalization (trivialization) of sexuality that turns the act from being one of love to one of selfishness. For sex to have the positive role it is meant to play, this trivialization of sex—and thus the fixation on condoms—needs to be resisted.
So that’s the background to the statement that the press seized on:
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. [EMPHASIS ADDED]
There are several things to note here: First, note that the Pope says that “there may be a basis in the case of some individuals,” not that there is a basis. This is the language of speculation. But what is the Pope speculating about? That condom use is morally justified? No, that’s not what he’s said: that there may be cases “where this [condom use] can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way to recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed.”
In other words, as Janet Smith puts it,
The Holy Father 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. He is not speaking to the morality of the use of a condom, but to something that may be true about the psychological state of those who use them. 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.
At least this is the most one can reasonably infer from the Pope’s remarks, which could be phrased more clearly (and I expect the Vatican will be issuing a clarification quite soon).
Second, note that the Pope immediately follows his statement regarding homosexual prostitutes using condoms with the statement, “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.”
By “a humanization of sexuality,” the Pope means recognizing the truth about human sexuality—that it must be exercised in a loving, faithful way between a man and a woman united in matrimony. That is the real solution, not putting on a condom and engaging in promiscuous sex with those infected with a deadly virus.
At this point in the interview, Seewald asks a follow-up question, and it is truly criminal that L’Osservatore Romano did not print this part:
Seewald: Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?
Benedict: 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.
So Benedict reiterates that this is not a real (practical) solution to the AIDS crisis, nor is it a moral solution. Nevertheless, in some cases the use of a condom displays “the intention of reducing the risk of infection” which is “a first step in a movement toward . . . a more human way of living sexuality.”
He thus isn’t saying that the use of condoms is justified but that they can display a particular intent and that this intent is a step in the right direction.
Janet Smith provides a helpful analogy:
If someone was going to rob a bank and was determined to use a gun, it would better for that person to use a gun that had no bullets in it. It would reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries. But it is not the task of the Church to instruct potential bank robbers how to rob banks more safely and certainly not the task of the Church to support programs of providing potential bank robbers with guns that could not use bullets. Nonetheless, the intent of a bank robber to rob a bank in a way that is safer for the employees and customers of the bank may indicate an element of moral responsibility that could be a step towards eventual understanding of the immorality of bank robbing.
There is more that can be said about all this, but what we’ve already seen makes it clear that the Pope’s remarks must be read carefully and that they do not constitute the kind of license for condom use that the media would wish.
More to come.