Pope Benedict & condoms: the media strike again

Having finished our titular feast of King St Edmund, and celebrating now Christ the King, I had hoped to have a few days free from writing. However the media have struck again, with headlines announcing that Pope Benedict has allowed that condoms can be used in some cases. Such headlines are bound to attract attention and cause surprise or even shock, as I am sure they were intended to do. The catalyst has been the release of advance excerpts of a new book that contains a long interview with the Holy father by journalist Peter Seewald. Since we have only the released excerpts to go on, any comments I make, let alone those of the media, are provisional at best, as we await the release of the book in a few days.

However the BBC has published the particular question Seewald put to Pope Benedict and the Holy Father’s answer. A reading of that excerpt alone, out of its full context as it is, gives the lie to the headline. Popes, scholars or anyone who addresses issues in a detailed and logical way are difficult for the media to report. Such people do not work in the world of word-grabs and sound-bites and so are open to mis-representation. Except in the better standard of journal, the media provide only small, highly edited reports which of their nature cannot give a true picture of what was said but only the reporter’s interpretation of it. Whether this is because the media have short attention spans, or whether they think most of their readers and listeners do, is something I cannot answer yet.

So what did the Pope say? You will see if you go to the link given above that the Pope begins answering the first question by hearkening back to his controversial trip to Africa, during which he said, quite sensibly, the condoms are not the solution to the AIDS/HIV crisis in Africa:

In my remarks I was not making a general statement about the condom issue, but merely said, and this is what caused such great offense, that we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms. Much more needs to be done. We must stand close to the people, we must guide and help them; and we must do this both before and after they contract the disease.

As a matter of fact, you know, people can get condoms when they want them anyway. But this just goes to show that condoms alone do not resolve the question itself. More needs to happen.

His point is quite sound – the Church cannot prevent anyone getting condoms; despite free access to them there is still a problem; obviously condoms are not the solution. He then goes on to make a deeper observation on the clamour for condoms:

This means that the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.

Condoms, in the Catholic view espoused by Pope Benedict, reduces sexuality and its physical expression to a banal and lifeless self-gratification rather than an outflow of love of one for another in the context of a lifelong commitment of mutual self-giving between a man and a woman, of which sexual intercourse is the physical expression. And herein lies one of the great dangers at the heart of the contraceptive mentality: that we seek our own gratification without at the same time being prepared to accept the social and biological consequences of our actions. It is a pursuit of action without consequences, an avoidance of personal responsibility. Whether we like it or not, as free individuals we are always responsible for our actions, even if we are not brought to face our responsibility till after death.

Now we come to the part of the Pope’s answer that has caused the frenzy:

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.

It must be read carefully as the Pope has chosen his words also carefully. In highly limited situations, such as a male prostitute, use of a condom can be the “first step” in the “direction” towards the goal of “moralization”, that is, “a first assumption of morality”. This is quite clearly not an approval of condom use, nor does it grant it any moral validity other than seeing in it, perhaps in some cases, the first glimmerings of an emerging personal responsibility, a first realisation that one’s actions have consequences for which one is responsible. In the example the Holy Father uses,then, the male prostitute in using a condom shows the first signs that he realises that his sexual activity has negative consequences both for himself and for others and seeks to prevent those consequences, an implicit if unconscious acceptance that he is responsible for what he does. But, says the Holy Father, the use of the condom here is not the answer to the problem, only the beginning of the journey towards the answer.

Then Seewald, perhaps seeing the potential for mis-interpretation, asks directly if the CHurch might then not be opposed to condoms in principle. The Pope gives a soft but clear answer expressing the consistent teaching of the Church:

She [the Church] 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 risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

The answer is clearly the logical conclusion of all the Pope has just said previously. The use of condoms is not a “moral solution”, and so cannot be not a valid moral option, though it may, “in this or that case”, sometimes be the start of a journey towards a moral, “more human way… of living sexuality”. In his answer to the previous question the Holy Father said that the answer to the crisis of human sexuality and its disease lies “can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality”. Morality is synonymous with true humanity in Catholic teaching. A truly human and moral sexuality does not use others for personal gratification and then seek to avoid the potential natural consequences; rather it is the expression of total and mutual self-giving between a man and a woman, a commitment of all of one’s life to the other, a commitment which reflects not only the deepest human need but also the relationship God has with all humanity in Christ and though the Church, Christ’s body.

So Pope Benedict’s words, far from approving the use of condoms, actually reaffirm that the Church does not see in them a moral solution to human misuse of sexuality, but reveal the pastor’s heart which sees that their use could be the beginning, in some people, of an emerging sense of responsibility and the beginning of a journey towards a fully moral, and so fully human, solution to the drama of their lives.

As always it is better to take the time to read the Pope’s words yourself than to rely on the media’s reporting of them. Soundbites and a few words quoted out of context do not do justice to any careful, logical argument.

One thought on “Pope Benedict & condoms: the media strike again

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