Did Pope Benedict Just Change Church Teaching about Condoms?

Did Pope Benedict Just Change Church Teaching about Condoms? November 20, 2010

The internet, it is safe to say, is now abuzz with the news that, according to the Associated Press title, Pope Benedict has suggested that “condoms can be justified in some cases.”  (Heck, I couldn’t even win the race here at Vox Nova.)  I feel some responsibility to weigh in here, and with some haste.  Every time this kind of story breaks, we are inundated with the same tired misconceptions about Catholic teaching.  This one, in particular, will give the impression to many of being the beginning of a slippery slope, for good or ill.  So, what exactly did Pope Benedict say, and what are the implications?

First the caveats.  It is quite difficult to treat this in a fulsome manner due to the limited nature of our sources at this point.  Further, it is difficult to treat this with the depth it deserves because of time constraints, both personal (I have other commitments today) and societal (if this waits two weeks, the storm will have passed).  I beg the reader’s indulgence if I overlook anything serious in my haste.  You are welcome to offer your corrections and comments, as always.

In any case, here is what the Pope has said:

“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.

Interviewer Peter Seewald: Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?

“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 infection, a first step in the movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”

Does this constitute a genuine change in the teaching of the Church?

At this point, I don’t think so.

As far as I can tell, the Church, despite loud assertions to the contrary, has never said that male prostitutes can’t use condoms to prevent the spread of infection.  (See this article by Martin Rhonheimer, suspected of being heretical by exactly no one.)  What the Church has said is that the best way to prevent the spread of infection and (surprisingly enough) to live morally is to not engage in promiscuous (and in this particular case, homosexual) sex.

The question of whether those who are already living contrary to Church teaching should further contravene Church teaching in order to lead their contrary lifestyles more safely is simply not broached in official teaching.  (One should probably note that a book-length interview hardly constitutes official teaching and so, it seems, this pattern continues.)  The Church is concerned, of course, that giving people instructions on how to better and more safely contravene the moral law as the church understands it sends a mixed message.

Questions such as these are not dealt with at an official level, but at the personal, pastoral level.  Any parish priest who is absolutely convinced that someone in his pastoral care is going to be engaging in homosexual prostitution would not be following Church teaching by insisting that that person do so without a condom.  Rather, while doing his best to help the individual to escape the dangerous lifestyle, he could quite legitimately suggest (perhaps by the refusal to deny?) that using a condom in his current situation is better than not using one.  Let’s face it, every pastor knows (or should) that the Church’s concerns about the “fertile structure of the marital act” are a little academic at this point.

So no.  The Church’s and, as far as I can tell, the Pope’s attitudes towards condoms haven’t changed.  But something has.

It seems to me that, while this new comment by the Pope is quite easily reconciled with the Church’s official position on contraception (I almost wrote “condoms,” before remembering Father Rhonheimer’s comments that Church teaching is not about condoms per se), it is not so easily reconciled with the Church’s typical communications strategy.

The strategy to this point, has been to keep quiet about the careful distinctions Father Rhonheimer makes in his article.  It is quite certain that introducing these distinctions into the public discourse will lead to more confusion and more inaccurate reporting about Church teaching on human sexuality.  The Church is understandably gun shy.  It worries that these careful distinctions could lead to all kinds of rationalizations for the use of condoms in the hands of the unscrupulous.

It looks to me like Benedict has become convinced that the old communications strategy has led to enough confusion itself.  If I had to guess, I’d say that the public response to his comments about condoms during the papal trip to Africa was the turning point.  The Church really is between a rock and a hard place here.  In the post-modern secular West, only the most sympathetic readers even attempt to understand Church teaching about sexuality on its own merits.  We are sure to be misrepresented and misinterpreted no matter what our communications strategy.

On the whole though, and if I’m reading him correctly, I am with Benedict on this one: let’s try to be as open and transparent as possible.  At least in that case, we bear less of the responsibility for the confusion that, inevitably, ensues.  We must give people the best opportunity to hear us.  I am hopeful this new strategy does that.

Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto.  He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.

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