Condoms, Consistency, and the Vatican’s Crisis of (mis)Communication

After an especially busy week, I decided to take a day off.

Bad move.

After turning my phone off for (four!) hours, I finally glanced at it only to find my email and voicemail inbox overflowing with messages about the L’Osservatore Romano‘s leaked excerpts of Pope Benedict’s comments on condoms, a tiny portion of a wide-ranging interview with Peter Seewald which will be published by Ignatius Press later this month.

[Aside: as someone who was granted an advance copy of this book, I know we all promised to honor a strict embargo. Whoever authorized the leak at L'OR ought to be fired.]

Like clockwork, the mainstream media has smashed the pope’s nuanced comments through a sausage grinder of bias, ignorance, mistranslation, and agenda into headlines such as this: “Pope says condoms can be justified in some cases.”

[Second aside: where is the Vatican press office? Do they take weekends off? This latest episode is about the gazillionth time the pope's comments on condoms have resulted in a media blitz which harms the witness and true message of the Church while embarrassing and mischaracterizing the pope. I get to turn my phone off once a week. They don't.]

Catholic bloggers and writers have done their best to fill the yawning gap left by the Vatican’s official communications office. I would recommend starting with Dr. Janet Smith, Jimmy Akin, and Lisa Graas.

I’m not going to try to track down every media report on this story and debunk it line by line. Instead, I’m going to unpack what the pope said by reordering what he said in a more clear manner and rephrasing parts of what he said to bring out what he means. Context is everything, especially when trying to understand an issue as complex as this. You can read the actual text of the pope’s interview here.

Q: Does the Church oppose the use of condoms? A: The Church of course does not regard them as a real or moral solution, but in individual cases, the intention to reduce the risk of infection may represent the first step to leading a more human and authentic sexuality.

In other words, Pope Benedict never says condoms are good. He says the intention to reduce the risk of disease while engaging in a disordered act is “better” than engaging in a disordered act while in addition recklessly endangering the health of the other person. Just as an alcoholic who begins reducing the number of times he binge drinks may be described as having made the “first step” towards sobriety. But binge drinking is still wrong. Binge drinking is never a “real or moral solution” because it is a disordered act.

Pope Benedict puts it this way: “[Using a condom] is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.” Humanization is an important word: in the pope’s view, it is more human to engage in a disordered act with at least some regard for the other person’s health than to engage in the same disordered act with no regard for the other person’s health. But is the pope saying we are called to engage in the disordered acts in the first place? I’d like to see anyone seriously claim he is.

Let’s get to the line that the media has fixated on: “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…”

At this point, having seen the principle that the pope is getting at above, expressed again, that the use of a condom by a male prostitute is only the “first step” in the direction of moralization (again, the pope is careful not to call this choice even a “moral” one), an example of taking one responsibility (among the multiple irresponsibilities inherent in disordered sexual acts), but how does the rest of the sentence end? “…on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.”

This pathway towards healing and purification that the pope describes is not one where every “stop” along this way is a good act. The serial fornicator who decides to only sleep with one girlfriend instead of multiple girlfriends every week is still committing a gravely sinful act, just with less partners. As Dr. Smith writes, the bank robber who decides to rob a bank with an unloaded gun (lest he be tempted to shoot someone) is still robbing a bank. The heroin addict who decides to find a sterilized needle to inject himself is still killing himself, but may avoid additional infections that will hasten the (tragic) inevitable.

If you think there is a substantial difference between these analogies and the example the pope uses, there really isn’t. The pope introduced no new teaching, made no “real” news with his comments. He simply elucidated (as his private opinion) a position which many orthodox moral theologians have already come to academically. There will be no change in the Church’s policy, or even much in the way of personal moral and spiritual guidance, though hopefully this debate – rehashed now again – will cause more people to attempt to understand the fullness of what the pope is saying, beyond the misleading headlines.

Let me be double-thrice abundantly clear: the pope has not “softened” the Church’s teaching on condoms by talking about the hope we can have that someone’s decision to make a disordered act less immediately physically harmful to their sexual partner may be a first step towards someone’s eventual conversion.

Damian Thompson (whose other work I respect greatly) is simply wrong then when he writes: “Pope Benedict XVI is modifying the Catholic Church’s absolute ban on the use of condoms” because a) Pope Benedict would not decide to “modify” the Church in an interview b) popes never “modify” Church teaching, they formulate it, in an extremely precise manner c) the book is careful to point out that it only represents the pope’s private opinions and d) the pope explicitly repeats 100% of the Church’s traditional teaching on the question of condoms which undergirds the Church’s “absolute ban” on condoms being an authentic part of human sexuality or general pastoral prudence.

Damian’s comments suggest a more rigid support of condoms as a widespread solution to the spread of disease than to the Church’s vision of human sexuality as a more widespread solution to the causes of destructive sexual behavior. Damian writes “the subtlety of [the pope's] moral judgment … pulls the rug from under the feet of certain Catholic conservatives (who oppose any softening of the line on condoms).”

Excuse me, but how does the pope’s ruminations on the possible ameliorated motivations behind a male prostitute’s decision to wear a condom instead of infecting more of his partners with HIV equal pulling out the rug from those who say the Church must continue to uphold an authentic vision of human sexuality in its teaching and charitable ministry?

Again, I deeply fear the interpretation given to the pope’s comments say more about what many in the Church (and in the world) are hoping the pope said, instead of what he said.

[Final aside - because I know the discussion will inevitably stray into the wider debate about whether condoms or chastity do better in combating the spread of HIV, I encourage folks to read Edward C. Green's research (his article in the Washington Post is a good place to start) as well as Deirdre Fleming on what the science on HIV in Africa is actually saying.]

UPDATE - okay, day two. Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, finally has released a statement. Problem is, he released it in only in Italian, so we have to go to the CNS blog to find the full English translation. Thank you to everyone who has been forwarding my post around. I hope we can continue to get the word out correcting this.

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89 thoughts on “Condoms, Consistency, and the Vatican’s Crisis of (mis)Communication

  1. Bart says:

    I have read some pretty far out biblical apologetics by Catholics, and invariably when they are faced with an insurmountable in your face contradiction or particularly obscene passage they always cry “CONTEXT!”. It’s a veritable cliche. And here we have it again. It would nbe laughable if it weren’t such a serious health issue.

    Funny how a phrase from the pope’s pen, which should be taken as a reversal of the condoms contribute to the spread aids, as the old fool said last year; and that its use is approved when intended to prevent the spread of AIDS now requires a self appointed interpretor to be sure no one gets the idea condom’s are “good.”
    Dog forbid anyone think a latex covering for the penis is anything but evil born of Satan’s desire to tempt the faithful into… oh hell, it’s too tiresome to even try and think like a mindless superstionalist sheep.

    You people are a flashback to medieval/dark age ignorance and foolishness. You should be spending all your time worrying about your priests’ conduct, starving children, rampant AIDS, the horrors of religious delusion, the growth of population in 3rd world countriues, global warming, the growing water shortage and spend less time worrying what people do with their genetalia. Do that and maybe, just maybe, you’d be losing fewer followers in the US, and approach 21st century thought and genuine morality.

    But I don’t hold out much hope for any reason and reality to seep into your vapid minds at anything more than a snails pace.

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