A Vatican condom conversion?

VATICAN CITY, VATICAN - OCTOBER 17: Pope Benedict XVI attends a Canonisation ceremony in St Peter's square, on October 17, 2010 in Vatican City, Vatican. The pontiff today named six new Saints; Stanislaw Soltys, Andre Bessette, Candida Maria de Jesus Cipitria y Barriola of Spain, Mary of the Cross (Mary Helen) MacKillop, Giulia Salzano and Battista Camilla da Varano. (Photo by Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

Well, that went well,” writes Amy Welborn, one of my favorite Catholic bloggers. She’s referring to the media maelstrom over “Light of the World,” Peter Seewald’s book-length interview with Pope Benedict XVI. Did you hear about it yesterday?

Long story short is that L’Osservatore Romano broke the embargo for releasing excerpts from the book. And all hell broke loose. Here are the first five headlines I grabbed off of Google News:

Pope says condoms sometimes permissible to stop AIDS

Pope Says Condoms to Stop AIDS May Be Acceptable

Pope Benedict says that condoms can be used to stop the spread of HIV?

Pope signals historic leap in fight against Aids: Condoms can be justified

Pope says some condom use ‘first step’ of morality

Earlier in the day Times (U.K.) religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill tweeted “About to do Sky News on Pope’s condom conversion!” A condom conversion! Wow, this is huge news!

Before we go on, you may want to read the actual remarks from Benedict, helpfully published by BBC. It’s not long and has plenty of discussion about how the media perverts news. And you might also note that you won’t find the words “permissible,” “justified” or “acceptable” in those remarks. You’ll note that there is literally nothing in there about procreative sex or birth control.

The remarks are terribly fascinating, and explain some of the somewhat complicated teaching on the church’s concern for an individual’s moral progress. And the remarks are clearly way too complicated for the media to understand. Even some of the professional folks went for drama over accuracy.

Here’s the first paragraph of The New York Times report:

ROME — Pope Benedict XVI has said that condom use can be justified in some cases to help stop the spread of AIDS, the first Vatican exception to a long-held policy condemning condom use. The pope made the statement in a series of interviews with a German journalist, part of an extraordinary effort to address some of the harshest criticisms of his turbulent papacy.

Well, the first sentence is where the problems arise. You really should read all of the remarks in context but the interview asks about the March 2009 trip to Africa media maelstrom over his comments that condoms won’t solve the African AIDS crisis. He expands on that, explaining his view that sexual immorality is the problem that go far beyond a condom fix. And then:

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.

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.

Anyway, even if some dumbing down of these comments by reporters is called for, they’re giving the impression that the Vatican has turned about on birth control and condom usage. And that’s really not the case at all. Even if they were accurately characterizing the comments, there needs to be a much more careful use of terms. I know that everyone likes to say “The Vatican” for anything happening within 200 miles of the Vatican, and yes, this is the Pope making these comments. But an interview with a journalist does not count as an ex cathedra official pronouncement. So to call this a Vatican exception is overstating.

Later in the story, the comments are actually explained well. But how many people get past the headline and first paragraph? I mean, at the end of the piece, the article quotes someone saying flat out that it would be wrong to say “Pope Approves Condoms” and that the Pope is saying condom use is immoral but could be an indication of an awakening that someone needs to be more conscious of their actions. That sounds right, it’s just in contrast with the beginning of the article that says the opposite.

The BBC said:

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.

And here’s the Associated Press:

Pope Benedict XVI says in a new book that condoms can be justified for male prostitutes seeking to stop HIV, a stunning turnaround for a church that has long opposed condoms and a pontiff who has blamed them for making the AIDS crisis worse.

So are these comments a stunning repudiation of previous Vatican policy or just a reiteration of basic Catholic teaching? Let’s check with Vatican reporter John Allen, quoted in the Catholic Herald:

Leading Vatican commentator John Allen said: “Pope Benedict XVI has signaled that in some limited cases, where the intent is to prevent the transmission of disease rather than to prevent pregnancy, the use of condoms might be morally justified.

“While that position is hardly new, in the sense that a large number of Catholic theologians and even a special Vatican commission requested by Benedict XVI have endorsed it, this is the first time the Pope himself has publicly espoused such a view.

“The comments do not yet rise to the level of official church teaching, but they do suggest that Benedict might be open to such a development.”

The rest of that article includes comments from others saying that Benedict’s comments are reiterations of Catholic teaching, for what it’s worth. Anyway, let’s see how coverage progresses. On the bright side, things can only improve from here.

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  • http://www.jochopra.blogspot.com Jo McGowan

    The announcement “Pope Approves Condoms” ran as a ticker tape at the bottom of the newscast I was watching here in India. Now very well-educated by Get Religion, I came straight here to check out what this could possibly mean.

    Many thanks, as usual, for the whole picture.

    I do enjoy this site so much and have come to depend upon it more and more.

  • Passing By

    My house faces east, so when I walk out my front door, I will take a step in the direction of Dallas, in this case. So I can have lunch at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, right?

    Said better than I could say it:

    utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+NCRegisterDailyBlog+%2540The+Daily+Register%2541#When:22:09:44Z" title="">A Catholic commentator in the other NCR, and a good descriptor for this whole business (noted through this blogger.

  • Passing By

    Corrected link for the NCR article:

  • Ben


    I’m kind of confused. If you compare John Allen’s quote to the lede in the NYT piece you quote disapprovingly they are almost identical. Allen clarifies that the distinction is regarding STDs vs contraception — but so does the NYT in paragraph … two!

    The headlines, too, mostly convey this is a limited case sort of thing.

    Now, one could argue — contra Allen — that the pope is not really saying ok to condoms even in the limited cases of STD concern, but is merely saying that condom use may represent a move in the right direction (still sinful, but better). In which case, Allen’s quote is just as misleading.

    What am I missing?

  • http://www.muchmorethanwords.com gfe

    Now very well-educated by Get Religion, I came straight here to check out what this could possibly mean.

    I just did the same thing.

    Some people just don’t get nuance.

  • Dave

    Contrary to what John Allen states, I don’t think that the pope is suggesting that this might be morally justified. I obviously have only read small pieces of what the pope said, but what I have read doesn’t seem to suggest moral legitimization. I will give an analogy.

    There is a thief who shoots his victims as he steals their wallets. One day he decides that maybe instead of shooting them he will just pistol whip them and run off. I would consider this “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.” However, that is a far cry from calling it a moral thing to do.

  • Julia

    This AP article cites people from all around the world who are now interpreting this section of the Pope’s interview as some kind of pronouncement.


    There is also the issue of whether the feminine gender which was used in L’Osservatore to denote the prostitute is correct or a typo. That could change what the Pope is saying. I don’t read German, but I wish somebody would read the original German and let us know which it is.

    The editor of L’Osservatore should be fired for printing this excerpt without any explanatory commentary. He had to know it would be used like this.

  • http://faithandreason.usatoday.com Cathy Grossman

    Nuance nuance nuance. If we writers insist on it, we can bring it to readers attention. I thought the news in Benedict’s quotes was that he repeated — and amplified — his 2009 comments that condoms are not the solution.

  • GregoryMurphy

    At least this episode has served to expose the “Emperor in his New Clothes” regarding two, seemingly untouchable and beyond criticism, areas of Vatican reporting.

    First, it should now be blindingly obvious to all that L’Osservatore Romano is no friend of the Benedictine papacy. It has had a dreadful year (truth be told, it has had a dreadful half century, as Prof. Romano Amerio so searingly demonstrated as long ago as 1985 and things haven’t improved since). How that works – that the Vatican newspaper can’t be trusted to defend Church teaching – is beyond me. That’s about the truth of the matter, though.

    Secondly, it’s about time to knock on the head the idea that John Allen is the “everyman” Vatican reporter of choice for all, and that he manages to pull off the near-impossible trick of uniting both the orthodox and innovating sections of the Church at the same time. He isn’t and he doesn’t. His agenda is screamingly liberal – it always has been – but he’s careful about saying so and previously he’s been a master of timing. This time Allen got his pace wrong. He thought he heard a starting pistol and raced ahead with his own version of what he thought (hoped?) the Pope had said. Unfortunately for Allen he was already already half way down the track before the Pope called him back into the blocks.

    For the poster (above) who wondered what they had missed about Allen’s words: you missed nothing; Allen, on the other hand, clearly missed a subtlety of Catholic teaching.

    It will be interesting to see both LOR and Allen backtracking in the days ahead.

  • Julia

    It seems that most of the press coverage misses the complexities of Catholic thinking on the morality of a person’s actions. It isn’t black and white. The Pope is speaking like a Catholic in that passage causing the brou ha ha. Imagine that.

    First day of criminal law class, professor says most defendants “did it”; that’s not what we’re here to discuss. We’re going to spend the semester learning about what “it” is.

    Is “it” manslaughter, 1st degree murder, justifiable homicide, an accident, aggravated murder, “depraved heart” murder, an action taken in the line of duty? Are there mitigating circumstances? Is the defendant not culpable due to mental illness?

    Similarly, the Catholic Church recognizes that the circumstances of people’s actions are all over the map. It’s not black/white or yes/no. We learn by the 3rd grade that mortal sin must concern very serious matter, and there is full knowledge and deliberate consent.

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses the gravity of sin beginning at #1854.

    A few snippets:

    The gravity of sin is more or less great: murder is more serious than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.

    Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove imputability of a grave offense. . . . The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressure or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the greatest.

    The entire section on Morality, Conscience, Sin etc. is here:

  • Julia

    Gregory Murphy:

    [I]’s about time to knock on the head the idea that John Allen is the “everyman” Vatican reporter of choice for all,

    He’s no theologian, but he does seem to explain the workings of “the Vatican” better than anybody else. However, I think trying to discern the theological points Benedict may be making is above his pay grade.

  • GregoryMurphy


    Yes, granted. His backgrounders and colour are indeed par-excellence.

  • Martha

    Hands up everyone who thinks that this means that the media believes a prostitute infected with HIV virus should continue working in the sex industry?

    Because you could as easily draw that conclusion from their enthusiasm over “The Vatican says…” as the conclusion they have drawn, i.e. the Pope okays condoms.

    Is there any hope of getting some kind of module taught in journalism courses about the difference between a person in office expressing an opinion in private conversation, a person in office expressing an opinion in an interview, and a person in office delivering an official statement?

    Would we see headlines about “Congress approves green umbrellas for all school children” if the President had made some remark to a nursery school class about “I think your drawing of a green umbrella is really great”?

    I’m nearly afraid we would!

  • http://tonylayne.blogspot.com/ Tony Layne

    In normal heterosexual transactions, it’s simply not possible to separate the contraceptive function of the condom from its use as a disease-control prophylactic. That explains why the Pope spoke of it within the context of a gay male prostitute: Given that the couple should not be engaging in gay sex, and given that the transaction should not be a sale of sex, a condom to prevent the transmission of th HIV virus is a very, very minimal moral response. That’s what the Pope said; that’s ALL the Pope said. Since he wasn’t speaking ex cathedra, and was only offering a personal observation on human moral development, papal infallibility shouldn’t even come into the matter.

  • Dan

    Here’s where you will see press bias: The press won’t call this an example of the Pope being gaffe prone when, in fact, it arguably is. The Pope plainly was not making a pronouncement on whether condom use mitigates the objective evil of sodomy and even more obviously was not endorsing the use of condoms as a means of making male prostitution more acceptable; his comments concerned only the subjective moral development of a hypothetical male prostitute. Nevertheless, it should be obvious that this would be interpreted as an endorsement of condom use. In my opinion it was not prudent for the Pope to have said what he said.

    What I found irritating about the NYT coverage is the suggestion that the Pope changed his views about condom use in reaction to criticism about his early statement that condoms are not the solution to the AIDS problem. The NYT apparently imagines that the Pope, like the NYT itself, looks to world opinion as a guide to what right and wrong are. In doing so, the NYT evidences its complete ignorance of the Pope and the Church.

  • Dave G.

    Im with Ben. How is:

    Pope Benedict XVI has said that condom use can be justified in some cases to help stop the spread of AIDS

    a problem, while this:

    Benedict XVI has signaled that in some limited cases, where the intent is to prevent the transmission of disease rather than to prevent pregnancy, the use of condoms might be morally justified.

    is not so much of a problem. Or am I just assuming that Allen wasn’t part of the problem? I want to make sure I’m getting the point of the post on this one, since Allen and the NYT seem to be on the same page about what was said.

  • Bill P.

    Just as fascinating—and to the point of this entry—is the shift in emphasis of this story as it was/is breaking. The headlines and openings from the major news outlets saw a progression that went something like this:


    Deftly, many in the MSM and the Catholic blogosphere jumped to a conclusion (which they seem to do anytime the word Pope and condom appear in the same sentence), then realized that the conclusion was wrong, then changed the subject. Has anyone seen a correction or a self-critical blog entry about how the nuances of the Holy Father’s comments were and reamin so misinterpreted?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    No matter what the pope said, off-the-cuff statements in a publication for the popular book trade is not an “ex cathedra” (official) Church doctrinal statement–especially if it is clear from his whole statement that the pope was ruminating on particular pastoral situations.
    Why was I sure the mass media would jump on such a pastoral comment invoving personal moral evolution issues be “headlined” as something it wasn’t to promote its own wishes?? (Or maybe to advertise that serious discussion of religion is well above many reporter’s pay grade).
    One local newspaper here, the Boston Herald,(a tabloid) used almost its whole front page to scream: “Pope Shock.”

  • MichaelV

    Oi… I wish the Holy Father read this blog. Not only do journalists need to get religion, but religious leaders need to get what journalists don’t get about religion.

  • Dave G.

    Bill P.

    FWIW, here’s how my humble little post followed the story:


  • Bill P.

    Michael V: AMEN!

    Dave G: Very well done. You have my vote to be the head religion reporter at AP. :)

  • Hector

    My understanding is that Catholic teaching doesn’t, and never has, held that the use of a condom to facilitate gay sex is a sin. The gay sex, in itself, is a sin (in the eyes of the RC church), and the use of a condom by a heterosexual couple is a sin, but I’m not sure that the gay couple using the condom would be an additional sin on top of the actual gay sex. (Homosexual intercourse has no procreative capacity to begin with, so the argument that the condom frustrates the procreative capacity of intercourse wouldn’t seem to apply).

    I’m not sure whether an unmarried heterosexual couple using a condom would be considered to be adding an additional sin on top of the actual sex.

    N.B. I’m not RC, of course, and I don’t agree with them that gay sex is sinful in and of itself (though prostitution is, of course), so any Roman Catholics are welcome to correct me if I’m wrong about what the teaching is, at this point.

  • Dave G.

    Bill P.

  • http://www.pilgrimage.subcreators.com Lori Pieper

    The big problem is that the Italian translation of the text — put out by the Vatican’s own publishing house no less — which was leaked in L’Osservatore Romano, does use the word giustificati or “justified” to refer to the condom use. This is what all the news agencies originally got their data. So they were probably honestly responding to what they thought the Pope had said.

    Except that official English version put out by Ignatius Press, does not have the word “justified,” in addition to have “male” prostitute instead of female. That’s a big difference. So why is the Italian text so different? What does the original German say? (I haven’t yet seen it).

    Once again a huge translation problem derails a Vatican news story. And what do you bet all copies of the Italian version might be recalled shortly?

    I have more here.


  • MJBubba

    I am with Jo McGowan and gfe in my reliance on GetReligion as a news source. When I saw the headline in my local paper and noticed it was an AP story, I read the first two paragraphs, and then stopped. I figured I could save myself the time and the misinformation to just wait until I could check in to see how this was covered as breaking news, and to get a link to better coverage or original material. That is my approach to any religion story from any other than a local source. I am much better-informed for routine review of GetReligion. Thanks to the whole team here.

  • Ben

    Same for MJBubba — except I find there are two places like that to turn, GetReligion and NRC’s John Allen. And in this case there’s a disagreement. I guess I’m going to assume GetReligion thinks Allen messed up, even though the tone of the writing didn’t lead me to read it that way originally.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Sorry for not responding sooner, guys. I included Allen because I think he tends to have a good read on things. And while I thought Allen’s comments were more properly nuanced, I thought his final comment might have been a bit confused.

    In any case, I should have been more clear, I guess. I just think he tends to get a more accurate read on these things and didn’t want to give the impression that these comments weren’t newsworthy at all — they were. Just not in the way that most media types ran with it.

    I’ll have an update in a new post with a few more links for us to look at, too.

  • Julia

    Lori Pieper:

    Great post on this situation.

    BTW I love the Victory waits poster.

  • Julia

    One more newspaper gets it wrong – the Wall Street Journal:

    unprecedented departure from the Church’s long-time practice of condemning any form of condom use.

    There has never been a ban on “any form” of condom use.

    There is nothing intrinsically evil about condoms.

    What is a Catholic no-no is the use of anything to prevent the possible transmission of life.

    Doh. Gay sex cannot result in pregnancy.

    And putting a condom on a bannana or using it as a water balloon is just stupid, not forbidden in the Catholic Church.

    Since the first widespread use of the birth control pill in the mid 1960s, we have finally reached the point where news reporters no longer connect hetero-sexual intercourse with getting pregnant AND do not recognize that it is qualitatively different from other forms of sexual activity.

  • http://decentfilms.com SDG

    The best commentary to date on the real import of B16′s comments is from Jimmy Akin at NCRegister.com (link 1 | link 2).

    Both the Church’s teaching regarding condoms and the pope’s comments have a much smaller scope than is widely imagined. The Church’s teaching in Humana Vitae is directly concerned with the integrity of the conjugal (marital) act; in Catholic belief, condoms violate both the unitive and the procreative meaning of the marital act.

    Obviously in the case the pope mentions, a male prostitute, procreative meaning is excluded by the nature of the case, and so, certainly by Catholic lights, is unitive meaning; so there’s no reason to construe the Church’s teaching as directed toward that situation in the first place.

    However, the whole media perspective on the pope’s comments (“Pope blesses condom use” from the Boston Herald is the worst I’ve seen!) radically distorts B16′s comments. As Janet Smith has pointed out, construing the pope as saying “male prostitutes may be justified in using condoms” is a little like saying “bank robbers may be justified in using unloaded guns.” One could make a case that a bank robber using an unloaded gun is moving in the direction of a more moral outlook, but there is no moral way to rob a bank, and no moral way to be a male (or female) prostitute.

  • Hector

    Re: However, the whole media perspective on the pope’s comments (“Pope blesses condom use” from the Boston Herald is the worst I’ve seen!)

    For the record (speaking as someone from Boston), the Herald is the city’s Republican, conservative newspaper (the alternative to the Globe) so this can’t easily be blamed on witless liberals. I agree with your point, though,

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I’m surprised no one has made any comments about The Sunday Telegraph’s headline on this, which, as far as I can tell, was the first one out with this: “The Pope drops Catholic ban on condoms in historic shift”. Talk about lack of nuance!

    As Michael Cook at MercatorNet said, “He was just making the psychologically realistic point that if (for instance), the Iranian government were to commute the punishment for adultery from stoning to beheading because it was swifter and more merciful, that would mark a moral advance.” Why is this so difficult to understand?

  • Name: Mark

    This problem arises by considering action and inaction morally neutral by default – it isn’t; a human being is graced by their very existence and nature scarred by original sin – nothing is inherently morally neutral; but morally ambivalent – the condom use does not merely NOT tip the balance into further moral disorder; it tips it the other way albeit the minutest fraction – Therefore His Holiness is correct in his assessment of it being a movement towards…