Did Pope Benedict XVI cave in on condoms?*
Dr. Mark S. Latkovic
February 17, 2014 (Fourth Revised Version)
[Note to the reader: Although Pope Benedict XVI stepped down as pope almost a year ago, I am reposting a now slightly revised essay of mine that deals with his controversial comments over the use of condoms to prevent AIDS. The controversy over the issue is still with us, and so to help clarify matters, it may be useful to revisit the issue almost three and a half years later. I have the left the original essay mostly unchanged, except for the addition of a sentence or word or two and some stylistic changes. I also modified the title a little].
In the age of the sound-bite and the 24-7 news cycle, the subtleties of Catholic moral theology are often lost. I am afraid that Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks to the German journalist Peter Seewald, excerpted in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano (November 20, 2010), on the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS have been subject to the same fate. The Pope’s comments, which are from a book-length interview, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times: A Conversation with Peter Seewald (Ignatius Press, 2010), published shortly after, have been interpreted by many in the media as an acceptance of condoms, and thus a “modification” of Church teaching, in this case. But this is far from the truth.
Benedict’s apparent “about face” on condoms, as well as what I perceive to be his authentic position on the matter, must begin with what Christians believe to be the starting point for all questions of morality: life in Christ. Benedict sees every man and woman as called to union with Christ. This call begins with God’s revelation of himself to humankind and humankind’s response of either a “no” or a “yes” in faith to him. With the “yes” of faith comes not only a set of beliefs, but a way of life. There is content, i.e., religious and moral truth, to the consent to follow the person of Christ. And this includes how we act sexually. From the New Testament to Benedict XVI, Christian faith says how we exercise our sexuality matters – it has earthly and heavenly implications.
So, given this perspective, Benedict’s alleged “reversal” must be given a second look. But first, what is the context of the Pope’s answer? It is in his response to a question whose assumption is that it is “madness” to prohibit a “high-risk population” to use condoms. Benedict wants to challenge this notion, as he has – both medically and morally – on other occasions. His message here, however, is consistent with what he has said to journalists and others before. The only thing different really, is the fact that the Pope gives us an example this time – the “male prostitute” – not to make some kind of an exception, but to point to Benedict’s real concern: this person’s eternal salvation (and every other sinner’s). The use of a condom, for this person, might evince an awakening conscience/consciousness that we are responsible to God for how we act sexually. But it is the fact that the prostitute does not want to transmit a potentially fatal disease – what Benedict describes as his “intention of reducing the risk of infection” – not that he wants to use a condom to realize that intention that the Pope is praising. This is a subtle distinction yes, but nonetheless a key one from a moral perspective.
Moreover, it should be noted, the Pope’s language throughout the interview dealing with the question is through and through conditional, contingent, qualified when discussing this intention: “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 moral response, “a first assumption of responsibility,” in “this or that case,” a “first step.” But when Pope Benedict addresses, in a direct way, the actual use of condoms as a means, he speaks in more absolute terms: The strategy of wearing a condom is “not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection.” His words could not be more clear and unambiguous.
Then, when asked very directly about whether the Church was not then opposed “in principle” to condom use in AIDS-related situations, the Holy Father again answers in an absolute way by saying that the Church does not view condoms as “a real or moral solution.” To say that they are not a “real” solution means that they are an ineffective way of stopping the transmission. And to say that they are not a “moral” solution means that they are not in keeping with the true love of God and neighbor, since the activity itself – homosexual sodomy or heterosexual fornication – is intrinsically immoral in every case whether a condom is used or not.
(Thus, even though the condom is obviously not contraceptive per se for two homosexuals, their activity is still morally bad. But – and Benedict does not address this here – even when condoms are proposed for heterosexuals [whether married or not] to stop HIV transmission, their act, in my judgment, is not only objectively closed to procreation [even if that’s not what they subjectively intend], it is closed to the other good the Church teaches that couples must be open to when engaging in sex: the unitive good. Hence, I take issue with moral theologian Edward Collins Vacek, S.J.’s argument that a male prostitute or a married man “can use a condom to prevent the spread of disease to a spouse. The intention makes the difference. A condom can be used if the intention is to combat disease, though not if intended to prevent conception” [See “The Condom Question,” America, January 3, 2011, http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=12649.])
Note carefully too how Pope Benedict speaks of sexuality. This is important for understanding his position on condoms. Twice he speaks of a “humanization” or a “more human” way of living sexuality. We can note three things here about his choice of words.
First, the Holy Father does not mean to say that our sexuality is not already human. Rather, he is using the term “humanization” to mean a way in which our sexuality respects our own bodies and the bodies of others; it’s his way of talking about morality and virtue, but from a much broader perspective.
Secondly, this broader anthropological perspective could explain why he speaks of “living” sexuality rather than “acting” sexually. It is to show that he has a much larger, integral vision – including the human and the divine, faith and reason – of what it means to be a human person.
Benedict expresses this holistic vision when he argues 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.”
The Pope is affirming that human sexuality is indeed a great good, but that it needs to be guided by moral virtue in order for it to contribute to humankind’s fulfillment. Technological fixes alone – e.g., condoms – are inadequate to deal with the control of man’s sexual powers. For that, the virtue of chastity is needed.
Thirdly, the talk of “humanization” also seems to implicitly address the critics of the Church’s sexual norms. Benedict is saying that the Catholic Church cares deeply about the life, health, and bodily integrity of every human being – and this is evident in her tireless care for AIDS patients around the world, as he emphasizes in the book. The Church wants all men and women to be fulfilled in these goods. But she is also reminding us that every human good – inestimable though they are – when seen from the perspective of God’s Kingdom, are not the only or even the highest goods. We must do all that we can to pursue and protect them, but not go so far as to do evil in doing so, thus sacrificing our very souls in the process (cf. Romans 3:8).
Original Blog Posting: November 22, 2010
Second Revised Version: January 4, 2011
Third Revised Version: February 6, 2013