Saturday, November 20, 2010

Benedict On Condoms Part II

Benedict's condom statement really means something different if this is the kind of male prostitute he actually meant.  The AP and John Allen aren't as specific as was the BBC. In this kind of Catholic debate one word makes a world of difference.

The National Catholic Reporter has just posted John Allen's analysis of Benedict's dip into new thinking on condoms.  The following is the meat of his analysis.  The entire post can be read here.

Excerpts from the Seewald interview were published today by L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper.

The question of condoms arises in chapter eleven, in the context of Benedict’s March 2009 journey to Africa. That trip was largely overshadowed by controversy over comments the pontiff made to reporters aboard the papal plane, to the effect that condoms actually make the HIV/AIDS crisis worse.

Benedict is clearly still annoyed by that reaction, saying he felt he was being “provoked” by the question about condoms. The suggestion was that the church is indifferent to HIV/AIDS, when in reality “the church does more than anyone else,” Benedict says. ( He picks his own questions to answer on these plane interview opportunities. How was he provoked?)

Benedict goes on to say that his point was simply that one cannot solve the problem of HIV/AIDS merely by distributing condoms, something that even secular AIDS experts would concede. (He said quite a bit more than this.  He said condoms may even increase HIV transmission.)

While broadly defending traditional Catholic teaching against artificial birth control, Benedict also suggests that in some limited instances the use of a condom might be morally defensible.

“In this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality,” the pope says.

Benedict offers the example of a male prostitute. In that situation, he says, the use of a condom “can be a first step in the direction of 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.”  (Interesting that the BBC article uses the term 'homosexual male prostitute' and Allen uses 'male prostitute'.)

Beyond the question of prostitution, many mainstream Catholic moral theologians have also argued for the moral acceptability of condoms in the case of a married heterosexual couple where one partner is HIV-positive and the other is not. In that set of circumstances, theologians have argued, condoms would be acceptable since the aim is not to prevent new life, but to prevent infection.

Back in 2006, Benedict asked the Pontifical Council for the Health Care Pastoral under Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, who has since retired, to examine precisely that question. Having polled the doctors and other health care professionals, as well as theologians, who consult with the council, Barragán presented the pope with a tentatively positive response – that in the case of couples where one partner is infected with HIV and the other is not, condoms could be justified. (Which is a logical inference on Allen's part, unless the BBC has quoted Benedict correctly.  Then it's not.)

To date that position has not been officially codified, and some Vatican officials have said on background that they worry doing so would be seen publicly as a blanket endorsement of condoms. Yet Benedict’s comments to Seewald suggest that the pope himself is at least positively inclined to such a development.


If John Allen is right, and the BBC got it wrong,  there may actually be some hope in Benedict's statement for heterosexual couples dealing with HIV.  If the BBC has it right, then there is little to no hope.  Benedict would then still see condoms for heterosexuals as primarily a birth control measure and illicit under Humanae Vitae---which is why he would have been intentionally specific in referencing 'homosexual' male prostitutes.

My bet is Benedict was this intentionally specific precisely because he listens to the people in the Vatican who worry such a move for married heterosexual couples 'would be seen publicly as a blanket endorsement of condoms'. These Vatican men would also see this kind of step as a very real chink in the armor of papal authority and the notions of infallibility it is now based on. Preserving the illusion of papal infallibility is much more important to them than the reality of mothers and children dieing from AIDS. 

Of course they won't actually say anything like that publicly.  They will instead say things like it's better to die than to jeopardize one's eternal soul by choosing life and using a condom. They tend to ignore the additional moral issue that a resultant child born with HIV has actually had it's right to life compromised in it's very conception.  HIV marriages present their own moral difficulties to say the least. Gay relationships are much cleaner in this sense.  If I were advising Benedict right now, I would bring these points up and tell him condoms can also be considered morally neutral for married HIV heterosexual couples because they:  “can be a first step in the direction of 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.” 

Now that I've actually digested that last quote of Benedict's, that 's really the kind of attitude I wish the Church would take on all so called sexual sins. An attitude which recognizes growth towards an ideal is far more reasonable than one which insists on the ideal as the first and only step. 

In any event it will be most instructive to have the Vatican clarify just what kind of male prostitute Benedict was referencing.  Actually it's kind of amazing to think a major teaching change might revolve around a male  prostitute. How utterly novel.

For more on the entire interview with Benedict try this link from TIME.  There's a lot more than condoms of interest in this interview. Such as this quote in women priests:  "The Church has 'no authority' to ordain women. The point is not that we are saying that we don't want to, but that we can't" - that is, because there is no biblical or historical basis for it. Even though he says that "Jesus brought women into a closer relationship with him than had been thinkable before his time," he says that women can shape the Church in more powerful ways than men without having to be priests.  I wonder how prophetic this statement might be fifty years from now when women and men of like mind will have dumped the trentan priesthood all together as a completely corrupt and lost cause.


  1. Isn't that something. That alomost shows some smarts. BUT here is what I expect to happen. Since this comment stirred in me a bit of hope that the church might actually still be humanly spiritual, they will now say or do something that will slash and dash that hope and create more of a nausiating feeling in my gut, than what I had about them before they inspired some hope. Seems start to feel safe and hopeful again, so you start to get a little close again, then they beat you again....I will give this some time before I ever consider going to mass again.

  2. "Benedict is clearly still annoyed by that reaction, saying he felt he was being “provoked” by the question about condoms."

    Poor baby. It is dreadfully inconvenient to have to come up with convoluted theological reasons against the use of proven methods to halt the spread of disease. Why would anyone listen to anything these guys have to say regarding human sexuality let alone anything involving epidemiology?

  3. Prostitutes who use condoms for the very worthy moral cause of preserving their own and their customers' health show more moral maturity than the Vatican, and will enter the Kingdom of Heaven before the Popes who had African bishops exclaiming "We say No to Condoms!" and Filipino bishops organizing condom bonfires, and who pressured politicians not to legalize the sale of condoms, doing all they could to impede access to condoms by wives threatened with infection, and to sow guilt and confusion about this important health issue.

  4. Absolutely Joe. I think we need to start making the point about the difference between juvenile concepts of sin and the idea of moral maturity since Benedict himself has raised this issue. They are hardly the same.