Misunderstanding Benedict on Condoms

Benedict’s words have sparked a debate over what exactly he meant. (Photo courtesy of Marek Kosniowski via Wikipedia)Some interesting statements have been emanating from the Vatican of late. Just two weeks after Dr. Tim Flanigan visited the College to deliver a lecture on the Catholic Church and its role in the AIDS crisis (“A Catholic Sign of Contradiction in Africa,” Nov. 12), Pope Benedict XVI has made waves in the media due to some comments he made pertaining to condom use. In a newly-released book-length interview entitled Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times, Benedict states that “in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom,” the use of a condom to avoid spreading HIV may be “a first step in a movement” towards more moral living.

Naturally, the media has jumped on this statement, with the AP calling it a “seismic shift on one of the most profound – and profoundly contentious – Catholic teachings.” A motley assortment of AIDS activists, religious commentators, and liberal Catholics have praised the decision for supposedly paving the way for a more general reassessment of Catholic teaching on contraception.

However, as happens quite often with the Pope, it seems that the media is misunderstanding his words (or, if one wishes to be less charitable, distorting them). Benedict is very much an intellectual and is therefore prone to precisely breaking down the particulars of moral questions; if one does not read carefully, they can come away with the wrong impression. Some more restrained commentators have pointed out that all Benedict really said is that when a person already engaging in an immoral action (such as prostitution) at least seeks to prevent HIV spreading, they are showing some degree of moral awareness that could hopefully blossom into a more moral lifestyle. As Sacred Heart Major seminary professor Janet Smith has put it, the situation is similar to if a bank robber were to rob a bank using an unloaded gun. While the robbery would still be manifestly unjust, the desire to avoid harming people in the process would show a degree of moral responsibility which could hopefully grow into fuller understanding that bank robbery is immoral as well.

Nevertheless, the Pope’s comments figure to ignite a lot of debate and confusion. Even Catholics who consider themselves rather devout are unlikely to follow every emanation from Rome, and may come to believe that the Church has indeed significantly loosened its doctrine of contraception. The statements are also ammo for the large cadre of self-proclaimed Catholics who assert that Church doctrine is not absolute and therefore not authoritative either. With some priests already contradicting the Church line on contraception, the Church would do well to issue a firm restatement of its position if it wishes to avoid general chaos on the parish level.

Blake Neff