Vatican condomania: the day after

We already looked at the major inaccuracies with mainstream media coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on condoms. But there are a few other points that are worth sharing.

USA Today religion reporter Cathy Grossman nailed it. In her first post on the matter, she wrote:

Pope Benedict’s unexpected citing of a rare exception to the church’s no-condoms teaching makes no change in Catholicism’s teachings on contraception. And he reiterates his controversial comments from his visit to Africa that condoms are not the answer to combating HIV/AIDs.

I just read the Vatican spokesman’s clarifying remarks on the matter and he pretty much says just that. You can read that statement here.

But there was one angle that we didn’t really explore in yesterday’s discussion. The whole brouhaha began because L’Osservatore Romano — Vatican City’s daily newspaper — violated the embargo on the new interview book of Benedict. They published Italian-language passages, which angered many folks who have been keeping the embargo. Official launch for the book was supposed to be on Tuesday.

I think there’s probably a fascinating story about just what in the heck is going on with L’Osservatore. At best, it’s known for praising American pop culture (The Simpsons! The Blues Brothers!). But sometimes its news judgment is lacking, to say the least. In this case, part of the media firestorm was due to L’Osservatore‘s flawed translation of what Benedict had said. For instance, by now everyone realizes that Benedict was apparently giving a particular statement about a male prostitute. But in L’Osservatore, they had him talking about female prostitutes. Tom Heneghan at Reuters tried to make sense of that mess in “Grammar experts needed for pope comment on condoms“:

The problem is that the pope gave the interview in his native German, which is not 100% clear on this issue. The key phrase about condom use reads in the English translation: “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be the first step in the direction of a moralisation.”

He explains how different languages have different rules for gender (in the language sense). Benedict used a word with a masculine casegender. But, of course, the weirdness is that L’Osservatore translated it so as to give the impression he was singling out female prostitutes. Why does this matter?

The difference isn’t just grammatical. If Pope Benedict means only male prostitutes, he is speaking about gay sex, which cannot lead to procreation. The Church rejects artificial methods that block procreation, such as condoms and contraceptive pills. Since that doesn’t apply between two men, a condom could be condoned even though the Church thinks homosexual sex is wrong anyway.

But if he means male or female prostitutes, then he is allowing condum use for a sex act that could possibly led to pregnancy, i.e. when a male visits a female prostitute. From there, it’s only a short step to condoning it in a marriage where the man is HIV-positive. And then the question will arise, why not allow condoms for heterosexuals who aren’t infected?

Since he rules out artificial birth control in another chapter, a good grammarian would have to conclude from the context that Benedict does indeed mean masculine gender here in the sexual sense. I’m curious to see how the Vatican explains that its own newspaper used the feminine. Maybe a long essay about Italian grammar?

I’ll be posting later this week about the Vatican and press management, but it seems like the Vatican should explain just what was going on with L’Osservatore. The translation is one thing but the broken embargo is another. It’s hard to criticize the mainstream media for ignorance when L’Osservatore was the first to flout the embargo, mistranslate the Pope’s actual words, and provide no context. It’s not that — contra the implication above — L’Osservatore is “The Vatican Newspaper,” but there is a relationship between the Vatican and the paper.

In related news, one same-sex attracted GetReligion reader shared his personal experience with Catholic counseling on the issue Benedict addressed here. And here’s another interesting read about how media representation of Catholic teaching about contraception in general has been flawed for a long time. Jimmy Akin at National Catholic Register also has a post on that point.

George Weigel, who wrote the forward to the book in question, diagnoses the “false assumption(s) beneath the latest round of media condomania”: that the Church’s teaching on sexual morality is a policy position that can change, like tax rates; that all papal statements of whatever sort are equal; and that a change in Catholic teaching would ever be announced in an interview (“It will perhaps come as a blow to the self-esteem of the fourth estate to recognize an elementary fact of Catholic life, but the truth of the matter is that no pope with his wits about him would use the vehicle of an interview with a journalist to discuss a new initiative, lay out a pastoral program, or explicate a development of doctrine.”).

And the biggest problem, he says, is the media obsession with “the notion of Salvation by Latex.” He points out that in the last media maelstrom over condoms for AIDS, the media mostly forgot to discuss the efficacy of abstinence and fidelity:

What humane purpose is served by this media obsession with condoms? What happens to the press’s vaunted willingness to challenge conventional wisdom when the issue at hand is anything touching on sexual license? It seems to disappear. And one fears that a lot of people are seriously hurt — and die — as at least an indirect result. Consciences indeed need to be examined in the matter of condoms, Catholics, and AIDS. But the consciences in question are those of the press.

So even if most readers just went for the headline and will forever be confused about the matter, the press can’t help but be aware at how many of them flubbed the story. How should they handle it now? Run corrections and clarifications on the same front-page the other stories ran? Examine their consciences, as Weigel suggests? Or what?

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  • Julia

    Just wanted to point out a strange passage in the Boston Herald where the reporter is attributing a reaction to the condom meme that doesn’t jibe with the citation given.

    Boston Herald:

    C.J. Doyle, executive director of the conservative Catholic Action League, was in shock over Benedict’s reported statements and said he’ll seek a clarification.

    “The Catholic Church has always and everywhere opposed every form of contraception and continues to do so and there is no evidence that has changed,” Doyle said. “It’s not a change in Church doctrine.”

    Where did they get “was in shock”? The quote doesn’t sound like it comes from a person “in shock” – rather from a knowledgeable person who is doubting what he’s being told.

  • Henry

    At the end of the paragraph under the third quote block, you wrote “there is a relationship” twice and it doesn’t seem you meant to. Edit it and feel free to delete this comment

  • Julia
  • Mollie

    Thanks, Henry!

    And wow is that article bad, Julia.

  • Jerry

    Something is going on with the web site. My prior attempt disappeared. Trying again.

    There are a couple of important points here.

    The first is that some of the media did get the distinction right in spite of the mis-translation. Tracking down how that happened would be interesting.

    The second is an important frame-of-reference point made by the gay blogger:

    the Church does not teach condoms are evil, and for the very simple reason that no “thing” can be a moral evil, only acts can be. A condom is not an act and so, like all the things men make, has no intrinsic moral qualities.

  • CourageMan

    Thanks for the link, Mollie.

    I knew immediately when I first read the headline that Pope Benedict must have REALLY said something like what Father X and Father Y had said to me.

  • lottie

    i’m sure doyle was in shock. so was i. very much so. you have to understand that catholic theology or scholasticism is really philosophy, and that philosophy is built brick by brick. in a lot of ways it’s very sophist, because at the end of the day they’re not allowed to disprove/reprove anything that’s already been established as dogma. so their theology/philosophy is more accurately a circular wall that’s built brick by brick and round and round. what BXVI has essentially done is add another brick, and if more bricks aren’t added quickly by the magisterium, then secular scholastics will be forced to do it. of course, another way to look at it is to say that BXVI actually REMOVED one of the bricks, and it’s only a matter of time before the rest of them come tumbling down. this is HUGE. i can’t stress that enough. i’m sure the conservative secular theologians are flipping their wigs. my mouth hung open after i heard it, and i heard it the way he actually said it. to even acknowledge the intricacies of homosexual sex acts, in itself is mind blowing. to relate it to HIV/AIDS is even more staggering. and then to say it’s even tacitly acceptable to use condoms is darn near heresy. but of course, the pope is infallible.

    then again, it’s been established that over 1/3 of the clergy are practicing homosexuals and the vatican is aware of that fact. something tells me that he was speaking to his own, and i’m sure i’m not the first person that’s occurred to. and so, we have more hypocrisy from the pope on sex and clergy versus sex and the laity. notice how “procreation” is their stated concern, yet none of them would deign to soil their holy stature by procreating. it’s just one more double standard: one for the same-sex clergy and one for the “breeders.”

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    Lottie: “then again, it’s been established that over 1/3 of the clergy are practicing homosexuals and the vatican is aware of that fact.

    I don’t know about the 1/3 figure. That seems rather high to me.

    Here’s something that’s related to what you wrote:

    “AIDS has quietly caused the deaths of hundreds of Roman Catholic priests in the United States although other causes may be listed on some of their death certificates, the Kansas City Star reported today. The newspaper said its examination of death certificates and interviews with experts indicates several hundred priests have died of AIDS-related illnesses since the mid-1980s. The death rate of priests from AIDS is at least four times that of the general population, the newspaper said. Kansas City Bishop Raymond Boland says the AIDS deaths show that priests are human.”

    Read the rest at The Gay Priest Problem.

    Perhaps some of the Catholic priests who died from AIDS might not have died if both they and their partners had worn condoms.

  • Jerry

    The plot thickens? I have to say that this uproar reminds me very strongly of the Kremlin watchers of my youth who looked for subtle signs about policy and political changes. The following is a classic example of the phenomenon since it’s based on a leak by Vatican insiders. It appears to fit quite neatly into the definition of a trial balloon and I wonder if that is what he intended.

    Pope Benedict XVI wanted to “kick-start a debate” when he said some condom use may be justified, Vatican insiders say, raising hopes and fears that the church may be starting to back away from its condom ban for its flock of 1 billion Catholics.

  • Julia


    If Doyle was shocked, he was reacting to whatever the reporter said to him, not to what the Pope actually said.
    The quote sure didn’t sound like he was shocked.

    Why on earth would a gay person using a condom be a moral problem? Like Jerry pointed out, condoms in and of themselves are not evil.

    The Boston Herald did a story on how male prostitutes are reacting. Why would they care what the Pope says?

  • Martha

    Lottie, I can’t even begin to parse out what you’re saying, although this line of yours – “then again, it’s been established that over 1/3 of the clergy are practicing homosexuals and the vatican is aware of that fact. something tells me that he was speaking to his own, and i’m sure i’m not the first person that’s occurred to.” – makes me wonder if you’re the same person as commented on Damian Thompson’s blog with a similar line?

    Okay, back to the sane people. In the case of the question in the excerpt above: “And then the question will arise, why not allow condoms for heterosexuals who aren’t infected?”

    That’s very easily answered. The principle of double effect. Condom usage by a non-infected couple would not be for the purpose of avoiding infection but for preventing conception, which (I trust we are all clear on) the Church teaches is not permissible?

    Now, in the case of an infected spouse in a marriage desiring to use condoms to prevent passing on the disease to the uninfected spouse, here comes that principle of double effect: in this instance (emphasis that), the intention is primarily to use condoms for their prophylactic effect, not their contraceptive one. That is, like prescribing the Pill to treat menstrual irregularities, the effect sought and the intention of use is for health purposes. The secondary effect of preventing conception (in both the case of condoms and the Pill) is an unintended consequence.

    Finally, for the love of St. Francis de Sales, will somebody – anybody? – *please* teach journalists the difference between (a) private opinion given in interview (b) official teaching ex cathedra invoking infallibility? Please?

    And as an aside: what is the point of events like “Condomania”? So they’re having a rave and handing out free condoms? Yeah, but aren’t the clubbers who’ll go to this the kind of people who will already be using condoms and have access to them? What’s the point? If it was an event in the Third World where they were going out to distribute condoms at a family planning clinic, sure, but this kind of thing just strikes me as an ego-stroking event where all involved can feel that they’re being ‘activists’ and striking all kinds of blows for sexual emancipation and sexual health, without actually doing anything of note at all.

  • Steve S

    “Benedict used a word with a masculine case.”

    You don’t mean masculine case, but masculine gender.

    From Wikipedia:

    In grammar, the case of a noun or pronoun is a change in form that indicates its grammatical function in a phrase, clause, or sentence. For example, a noun may play the role of subject (“I kicked the ball”), of direct object (“John kicked me”), or of possessor (“My ball”).

  • Lori Pieper

    For the record, it should be pointed out that the folks at OR didn’t do the Italian translation. The article as printed on the Vatican web site makes it clear that they used the official Italian translation of the book, which is being put out by the Vatican’s own press, the Libreria Editrice Vaticana. This translation has been in preparation for some time.

    The real question is why the Italian translation is so different from the English, and both so different from the German original? Did the Italian translator have an agenda in saying that condoms are “justified” in a particular case, when that’s not in the German original? Or did someone in the Vatican have an agenda?

    You can read all three versions here:

  • Mollie

    Steve S. — thanks — I fixed.
    Lori — that’s fascinating information. So now we need more info on who did the Italian translation, I guess?

  • Jerry

    I have to add that this topic is a classic example of the power of crowdsourcing because there are many illuminating facts that people are adding to the basic story.

  • Mollie


    Also a testament to the awesomeness of our readers.

  • Robert

    The German word “Prostituierter” with an “r” at the end, refers to a male prostitute. Without the “r,” the word could refer to either a male or female.

    Further, the pope’s mention of a condom suggests that he was talking about a male, and not a female, prostitute. Otherwise, he might have said, “a female prostitute insists that her john wear a condom,” or something.

    The pope’s reference of condom use among male prostitutes is the moral equivalent of suggesting that heavy drinkers hand over their car keys before they go on a binge. He’s not suggesting that contraceptive hetero sex is OK, gay sex is OK, or that prostitution is OK.

    In short, the pope has not essentially changed Church teaching.

    The book’s author, L’Osservatore Romano, and the world press should have asked the pope for a clarification before to creating such a scandal.

    Robert at

  • Hector

    Re: The pope’s reference of condom use among male prostitutes is the moral equivalent of suggesting that heavy drinkers hand over their car keys before they go on a binge. He’s not suggesting that contraceptive hetero sex is OK, gay sex is OK, or that prostitution is OK.

    Good point, Robert.

    I do _hope_ that the RC Church will eventually change its position on contraception and on gay sex (I don’t think either one is inherently wrong) but this isn’t it. This is a clarification of the existing church teaching, not a change of it.

  • Lori Pieper


    Yes, I think it would be possible to find out the translator’s name with a little internet sleuthing.

    However, I think the problem possibly goes either further back. This is actually a question (if you read all three versions) not just of a difference in translation, but of an interpolation in the original German text. There is a whole clause in the translations that is not found in the original. And the interpolation itself says different things in the two versions. What’s up with this? I have a theory and hopefully will write about it.

  • Name: Mark

    Fr John’s seeing this condom use as not aggravating an already gravely immoral situation – therefore merely a prevention of further disorder ; bearing no laudible credit whatsoever…a neutralising of aggravation is not direct moral agency – like kicking a cat into the road but waiting till the bus passes rather than kicking it under it.

  • MikeL

    Speaking of L’Osservatore Romano, canon lawyer/blogger Ed Peters has an interesting post on their role in this controversy:

  • Julia

    Clarification from vatican press office:

    Looks like the Pope was not limiting his observations to only male prostitutes.

    Lost the link, but somebody likened it to “designated driver”. Nobody thinks people should go out and get stinking drunk, but if they do they should have a designated driver so at least they are not a danger to other people on the road going home.

    A drug counselor in the comments says that it is often the case that you can’t get an addict to totally abstain, but you go for working on the worst of the problems first.

  • Julia
  • Chip

    It looks like there was an alternative that you did not imagine, Mollie:

    “I personally asked the pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine,” Father Lombardi said. “He told me no.” Father Lombardi added that for Benedict, the heart of the matter was of “taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk to the life of the person with whom you are having a relationship.”

    “This is if you’re a woman, a man, or a transsexual,” Father Lombardi said.

  • Will

    Something which might get the point across even to the MSM: A rapist who uses a condom to avoid leaving “evidence” does not make the act MORE sinful.

  • Will

    “The Boston Herald did a story on how male prostitutes are reacting. Why would they care what the Pope says? ”

    Why, for the same reason that all those generic Africans would let “the Pope’s ban on condoms” deter them from using condoms while they are ignoring “the Pope’s ban” on adultery and fornication, thereby causing “millions of deaths”.