Benedict, Condoms, Humanae Vitae – UPDATED

“O Lord, in your light we see light itself.”
–a 1st Antiphon of Lauds

In the comments section of the post below, the subject of Humanae Vitae has arisen. I am of the opinion that Paul VI’s encyclical was prophetic, but poorly taught and too quickly dismissed; its message was unwelcome in an “if it feels good do it” era.

Deacon Greg notes that what Pope Benedict has said in Light of the World is not appreciably different from what Paul VI proclaimed in 1968:

“The Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from–provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.”

Humanae Vitae is not a long encyclical; perhaps it is time for people to really read it.

Meanwhile the AP has some reaction coverage, but I recommend going over to America and reading Austen Ivereigh’s terrific bit of background on this pronouncement by Benedict. As usual, intention matters:

The point argued by moral theologians was always this. The Church is opposed to artificial contraception, not condoms per se. Just as, in Humanae vitae, the Pill may be used for medical purposes (to prevent heavy bleeding, say), if the intention of using a condom is to prevent infection, not pregnancy, then it was not contraceptive in intention. The point is obvious that — not to put too fine a point on it– a condom used between two men can hardly be considered contraceptive in its purpose; and the same would be true if a husband who returns from the mines infected with HIV uses one to stop his wife getting infected…

…In 2008, while at a conference in Rome, I happened to meet a senior CDF official (I won’t give his name) and asked him what had happened to the commission [set up to explore the issue of condom use to prevent AIDS]. “Everyone knows that theologically there is a strong case for clarifying that teaching,” he told me, “but there’s just no way of doing it publicly without it being misunderstood.” Do you mean, I pressed him, that the Vatican feared the headlines that would result? “Exactly,” he said. “It would be confusing for the faithful.” There was “just no way”, he said, that the Vatican could make this clarification without seeing headlines like “Pope backs condoms” or “Church in reverse on contraception”.

His remarks depressed me — although I understood the communications difficulty.

In February this year, it came to light that the commission had been stood down, and that the report had “never got off the ground” in the word’s of the Health Council’s deputy, Bishop Redrado. I wrote an indignant piece here, entitled “The suppression of theological truth”. It frustrated me that, as a media commentator, I could not articulate what I knew the Vatican believed without being attacked by some Catholics for failing to uphold church teaching.

Now, it seems, Pope Benedict has decided to use the relatively informal, under-the-wire format of a book interview to signal what seems to the outside world as a historic shift but which is no more than expressing what is obvious. But it is a risky thing to do, and Pope Benedict’s courage is to be saluted.

But at least we can now have a real discussion about the issue — and the Church can speak with the moral authority which, as the organisation which does more than any other for Aids sufferers in Africa, it surely has.

All emphasis mine. Read the whole thing.

Then read the report Ivereigh references in his piece in his piece, written by Fr. Martin Rhonheimer, of Opus Dei:

The teaching of the Church is not about condoms or similar physical or chemical devices, but about marital love and the essentially marital meaning of human sexuality. It affirms that, if married people have a serious reason not to have children, they should modify their sexual behaviour by at least periodic abstinence from sexual acts. To avoid destroying both the unitive and the procreative meaning of sexual acts and therefore the fullness of mutual self-giving, they must not prevent the sexual act from being fertile while carrying on having sex.

But what of promiscuous people, sexually active homosexuals, and prostitutes? What the Catholic Church teaches them is simply that they should not be promiscuous, but faithful to one single sexual partner; that prostitution is a behaviour which gravely violates human dignity, mainly the dignity of the woman, and therefore should not be engaged in; and that homosexuals, as all other people, are children of God and loved by him as everybody else is, but that they should live in continence like any other unmarried person.

But if they ignore this teaching, and are at risk from HIV, should they use condoms to prevent infection? The moral norm condemning contraception as intrinsically evil does not apply to these cases. Nor can there be church teaching about this; it would be simply nonsensical to establish moral norms for intrinsically immoral types of behaviour. Should the Church teach that a rapist must never use a condom because otherwise he would additionally to the sin of rape fail to respect ?mutual and complete personal self-giving and thus violate the Sixth Commandment?? Of course not.

I think it is a very good thing that Pope Benedict
has spoken about this issue via the book – it takes the whole matter out of the world of encyclicals and exhortations (which are often either unread or mischaracterized) and brings it into the light of the public square and open discussion. If it gets a few people to pay attention, smack their foreheads and say, “wait…you mean the church was never as unreasonable and inhumane as we’d been told?” That will be something, won’t it?

The Holy Spirit uses what is at its disposal for its own purposes, and moves as it will. This pope has been all about giving the Holy Spirit room to move and work.

And in retrospect, now that we see his remarks in The Light of the World sort of confirms my sense of what Benedict was saying between the lines of his Letter to Seminarians: don’t worry about the passing times; have faith in the light, eternal and ever-dawning.

The importance nowadays of ecumenical theology, and of a knowledge of the different Christian communities, is obvious; as is the need for a basic introduction to the great religions, to say nothing of philosophy: the understanding of that human process of questioning and searching to which faith seeks to respond. But you should also learn to understand and – dare I say it – to love canon law, appreciating how necessary it is and valuing its practical applications: a society without law would be a society without rights. Law is the condition of love . . . love the study of theology and carry it out in the clear realization that theology is anchored in the living community of the Church, which, with her authority, is not the antithesis of theological science but its presupposition. Cut off from the believing Church, theology would cease to be itself and instead it would become a medley of different disciplines lacking inner unity.

Meanwhile, Lisa Graas–in a nice post–uses an example of a loving mother and two sons, to help flesh out the pope’s meaning, and notes unusual unity on the Catholic blogs:

Pope Benedict was expressing the position of the good Catholic mother in his remarks, but certainly, was in no way saying that the Church has changed her position on the matter of condom use. It’s not all that difficult to understand if one takes time to try to understand it, but it was widely and grossly distorted. So are the perils of living in a pluralistic society, but also of living in a society that despises the Church and seeks to misrepresent her at every turn.

I’d like to emphasize again that the Pope noted that even though we do have this understanding in regard to condom use, it is not the way to solve the AIDS problem. Further, as I noted in my previous article, the Catholic record on that is clearly better than that of those who disagree.

I’d also like to make mention that while the mainstream (non-Catholic/anti-Catholic press) immediately jumped on the Pope’s words and mischaracterized them, the Catholic media jumped on the Pope’s words and offered clarity. I believe this is an amazing testimony to Catholic unity and our ability to understand independently the teachings of our Faith. Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice.” The Catholic sheep heard the shephard’s voice and understood. Everyone else, eh, not so much.

John Allen: Benedict is his own best spin doctor.

UPDATE: Archbishop Chaput:

In the context of the book’s later discussion of contraception and Catholic teaching on sexuality, the Pope’s comments are morally insightful. But taken out of context, they can easily be inferred as approving condoms under certain circumstances. 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.

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.

Don’t let that happen. Don’t let confusion in the secular press deter you from buying, reading for yourself, and then sharing this extraordinary text. It’s an astonishing portrait of an astonishing man.

Related: Some “seat warmer”!

Books by Benedict

About Elizabeth Scalia
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  • Bender

    It saddens me to say it, but you, our dear Anchoress, are only ADDING to the confusion with these posts — as is people like Ivereigh.

    If used in marriage, condom usage is morally wrong because of the contraceptive intent and effect. If used outside of marriage, condom usage is morally wrong because it facilitates other wrongful activity, and it is contrary to love and to truth, both in matters of contraception and in infection control. A condom is a lie, it is always a lie, it is always contrary to truth, even when it promotes that fraudulent idea that there is such a thing as “safe sex,” as well as the idea that sexual activity is the be all and end all of human existence. Usage might not involve a wrongful contractive intent, but it nevertheless involves other wrongful intents.

    But there are many out there who want to obfuscate, who want to try to find loopholes, who want to do what they want to do (use condoms) with a wink and a nod.

    The popes have understood this — Pope Benedict understands this — the African bishops understand this. Unfortunately, the enlightened white man of the West who wants to condomize the entire world refuses to understand it.

    [Bender, people who want to willfully misunderstand always have, and always will. But truth is truth, always. And it is always there for people to finally turn to. The church can't MAKE anyone turn to it, only the Holy Spirit can. And I believe the Holy Spirit is whirling. -admin]

  • Florin

    I work with women and girls who are sexually active – one out of four 12 year old girls who are sexually active have an STD – condoms do not prevent AIDS, they do not prevent sexually transmitted diseases, they only encourage a false sense of safety and a more promiscuous lifestyle – the only safe way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is chastity until marriage…so the Church is absolutely right to continue to reject the use of condoms as a safety measure against STDs …

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    I think any discussion about condoms/prostitution must take into account the fact that the sex trade is supplied by human trafficking, and the abuse of underage children; those forced into it haven’t chosen it freely, nor are they able to leave.

    As I point out at the end of the previous thread, prescribing condoms does nothing to cure this particular evil; the thing itself is so bad, it should simply be abolished.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    And, I am frankly puzzled by the story of the loving mother who has a son who’se a prostitute; it’s nice she still loves him, but we need more of a backstory here! Why does a young man from a loving home become a prostitute? Was he forced into it? If so, why isn’t his loving mother going after his pimp? doesn’t she want him freed from this slavery?

    Is he free to leave his profession, if he wants to? Is he addicted to the easy money? Is he addicted to drugs, for which he needs easy money? And, if so, has his “loving” mother rebuked him for this?

    Prostitution is, by its very nature, physically unhealthy, and demeaning both to those sell, and those who buy. Condoms don’t solve a darn thing!

  • Jeff

    The intention fallacy was pushed by people like Judge Noonan of the 9th Circuit, formerly of the commission advising Paul VI. You can’t have a proper intention to refrain from impregnating your spouse when you are using artificial contraception. You can when you are using natural methods. Artificial contraception requires no abstinence, NFP does.

  • Dan Tracy

    “I am of the opinion that Paul VI’s encyclical was prophetic, but poorly taught and too quickly dismissed; its message was unwelcome in an “if it feels good do it” era. ”

    Agree. I came across (and have in my possession) some pro-Birth control literature from the 1930s. It argues that access to birth control would 1) strengthen marriages, 2) result in more respect for women, and 3) end prostitution.

    False promises galore…

  • Saul

    Bender wrote:

    “If used outside of marriage, condom usage is morally wrong because it facilitates other wrongful activity, and it is contrary to love and to truth, both in matters of contraception and in infection control.”

    The Pope is saying: IF one had AIDS and is going to fornicate, THEN using a condom is better than not. Here I am using the IF/THEN in logical terms.

    You are saying: IF a person with AIDS has some likelihood of fornication, THEN the availability of a condom increases the likelihood that he will fornicate.

    The Pope is right. You are right, I think. How? The the two statements are not contradictory.

    Further, based on the above, if you ask me should the Church in any way promote the increased availability of condoms? My answer is no. The Pope’s answer is no. Again, this is consistent.

  • Mary K.

    Pope Paul VI isn’t a valid authority on anything since he deliberately funded the genocide of 1 MILLION Serb Christian “heretics” in WWII. Sadly, only Serb survivors, CIA/Nazi colluders in the Vatican ratlines, Nazi hunters in the Justice Dept. (like Catholic attorney/author John Loftus) and WWII researchers know this. MSM has completely ignored this explosive scandal, and if the truth ever gets promoted in a popular Hollywood movie, pro-lifers will look bad quoting Paul VI. Just a heads up on a future PR nightmare.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    I’m beginning to think this whole thing is getting a bit too complicated.

    I’m also distrubed by some of the comments on the Ivereigh article (not the article itself) which urge prostitution be regulated—you know, keep it all neat and clean and healthy, and make it more acceptable to society in general.

  • Jeff

    I always thought that one of the best, real world arguments against condoms was the Leslie Nielsen film Naked Gun. In the film he and his lover (Priscilla Presley) are wearing “full body” condoms, which prevent any actual contact between their bodies. So you can clearly see in an ad absurdum way that condoms not only interfere with the procreative aspect of marital intercourse, but also the unitive one.

  • Carole

    Still, it is a fact that condoms do not prevent the spread of AIDS. In places where condoms are being pushed to prevent AIDS, in fact it seems to be getting worse. Uganda is the only African country that has opted to push abstinence instead, and it is the only African country to reduce the incidence of AIDS.

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  • jm

    Hi, Anchoress.

    Thanks for keeping us up to date on this story and for providing some guidance. I still remain confused, however.

    As I understand it, the Pope’s comment used the example of a male prostitute, who in his sin of engaging in prostitution, might demonstrate some moral awakening by using a condom, thus lessening (not eliminating) the likelihood of transmitting HIV to his partner.

    Does this example assume the partner is also male, in which case there is no potential contraceptive value in the condom use, or does this example apply to a male prostitute whose partner is female as well?

    I think the Pope was using this example to comment on non-procreative sexual acts (e.g. male prostitute – male client), which are already considered immoral. In this case, using a condom to prevent disease transmission might be a sign of greater moral awareness in a transaction where a man is selling himself for sex and where a man is purchasing sex.

    Does this apply to male-male sexual encounters outside of the prostitution transaction (i.e. consensual, non-financially-based, sexual congress). Again, the acts are non-procreative and are already deemed sinful in their non-procreative nature. Does condom use here might represent a degree of moral awakening where one partner does not want to infect another or be infected by the other?

    Is condom use ever less impermissable (I won’t say permissible) in heterosexual, procreative sexual acts?
    Does the pope’s example refer to procreative sexual acts (e.g. male prostitute – female client) which are immoral (done outside of the marriage union)? Does it refer to procreative sexual acts (e.g. husband-wife) which would otherwise be considered moral?

    I remain puzzled where condom use might fit into acts which can be procreative in nature. It seems easier to think of their being less immoral in non-procreative sexual acts, but again, I remain puzzled by all of this.

    Keep up the good work, Anchoress!


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  • Boethius


    The Ivereigh article is not terrific. It is saying something that Pope Benedict is definitely not saying. Ivereigh says “and the same would be true if a husband who returns from the mines infected with HIV uses one to stop his wife getting infected.” No, no, no!

    This is not the same. If it were, Pope Benedict would have made this his example. Pope Benedict is very precise and that’s why he mentioned the male prostitute example.

    Catholic moral theology has always taught that one intends the natural consequences of one’s actions. One can’t simply strap on a condom and declare that one’s intent is to prevent the spread of STD’s and that any contraceptive effect is not intended. This is what Ivereigh is declaring, and is what Pope Benedict is careful not to declare.

    In commenting on a male prostitute, Pope Benedict is commenting on acts which cannot be procreative (if between two males) and acts which are already intrinsically evil, i.e. prostitution. A condom has no contraceptive effect when used between two males. Nevertheless, sex with a prostitute or sex between two males remains intrinsically evil. The Pope is simply pointing out that using a condom in an already evil situation will not increase the evil.

    An HIV man who comes home to his wife is an entirely different situation. Here, the moral choice is for him to abstain. The natural conseqence of having sex with his wife is that the sex has the possibility of being procreative. Using a condom renders this purpose impossible.

    Ivereigh is nevertheless correct that the Church has never had a ban on condoms, only on contraception. If that same HIV positive man came home from the mines to his post-menopausal wife, the use of a condom would have no contraceptive effect and I believe would be morally licit. Nevertheless, it’s probably still a bad idea due to the horrible inefficiency of condoms. If this man has sex enough times with his wife, there is a reasonable likelihood that he will expose his wife to the disease. Exposing one’s spouse to such a substantial risk seems inconsistent with marital love.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    jm, seriously, instead of worrying about condoms/when to use?/male-male/male-female/procreative/non-procreative/when not to use, your time really might be better spent worrying about the plight of Iraqi Christians, the rise of militant Islam or merely helping out your friends.

    This sounds like scholasticism, carried to its silliest, and pickiest.

    While doubtless well meant, the pope’s remarks are rather foolish, and wide of the mark, because:

    1. The MSM is going to take them, and run with them, as approving of contraception, and the more he goes on and on about it, the deeper he’s going to dig himself into a hole.

    2. As regards prostitution—prostitution, in and of itself, gay or straight, is a great evil. Nor are prostitutes always free to use condoms, even if they might want to; nor do condoms prevent the spread of disease, or the moral decay that accompanies prostitution. The pope would have done better to speak out clearly against human trafficking.

    3. Yes, using a condom in certain situations might be a move towards moral clarity—on the other hand, it might just be a way of kidding ourselves that that we’re “okay”, because we’re (supposedly) not spreading disease, and, hey, give us time, maybe we’ll have a real moral re-awakening some day.

    Or, maybe not. Again, I think this is a road the church should not go down. (I’m not Catholic myself, but I think the church might be getting into too deep waters, here.)

  • Jeff

    I think the books with Messori and Seewald were great when he was a cardinal, but now that he is pope, not so much. A cardinal can say things, can speculate and muse about certain topics, in a way that a pope just can’t. Before JP II I don’t think popes did book-long interviews with journalists touching on moral and doctrinal matters. I’m not saying that he doesn’t have the right, and to some extent even a pope can speak as a private theologian, but the world doesn’t make the necessary distinctions most of the time.

  • Shadrach

    I think many traditional Catholics, and I’m one myself, have fetishized the mechanics of not contracepting to the point of idolatry. Many take pride in this. They are the ones having a nutty about this. I think The Anchoress has knocked the nail on the head. If only those who post at Fr Z could look beyond their enclosed Chesterbelloc fantasy world they would be able to appreciate all of the ways in which His Holiness is wonderful. And this interview is one of the ways.

  • jae

    Dear Catholic Folks,

    Get the REAL STORY and not the spin from the media, here are some good catholic links:



    The Holy Pope could just have CITED those acts of the male prostitutes in using condoms, but he actually does NOT approve or adhere to that. He just CITED the thinking and intentions of those male prostitutes, but the Pope does NOT actually laud and praise those acts by the prostitutes because in the first place their sinful acts are abominable in the eyes of God.

  • 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.

  • Timon

    I didn’t think the Pope’s remarks were about double effect, and the objective morality of condom use, but merely an acknowledgment that one can see a glimmer of awareness of objective moral standards even among the most depraved (male prostitutes, the UN, etc.), and in that a desire to not cause a specific harm. More precisely, the example he chose illustrates a desire to avoid something murderous (the spread of HIV /AIDS), despite the gravely immoral sexual act. The implication may not be to say that the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV shows a rightly ordered will, but that sins against marital fidelity are less inimical to our humanity than sins directly against human life. But I thought the Church had always seen contraception as a sin against human life, and so, I think I agree with Bender.