Parsing the Pope’s condom quotes

Pope BenedictMuch digital ink has been spilled about what the pope was supposed to have said to Peter Seewald in the upcoming book Light of the World concerning condom use by prostitutes or certain other non-specific individuals. I wrote about it before, Thomas Peters wrote about it here and here, a good treatment was offered by Dr. Janet Smith and another by Jimmy Akin. But no one really focused exclusively on the actual words the pope used and their meaning. Herein I attempt to do that.

The actual quote from the book as provided by Smith:

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.

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

Let’s get right to it by examining the words used in the first paragraph. What we have here is a long sentence with a parenthetical phrase inserted as an example of the point the sentence is making. The antecedent of the demonstrative pronoun “this” appears to be “condom use by people with HIV,” though that context is not explicitly available to us.

To see what the point of the sentence is, let’s omit the parenthetical example and look at the complete thought of the sentence:

There may be a basis in the case of some individuals 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.

The first supposedly controversial word is “basis.” “Basis” means a foundation, a starting point, a first indication. It’s not the end result, the culmination, the outcome, or the fully developed realization of anything.

Next, let’s consider the three phrases that qualify the supposed legitimization of the use of condoms: “this can be a first step,” “a first assumption,” and “on the way toward.” Like “basis,” all three of those indicate that we’re looking at the nascent phase, very beginning, first hint of something. Then, consider what comes after “on the way toward:” “recovering an awareness.” “Recovering” means getting back something which is not present. Awareness means being cognizant of something but not necessarily acting upon it.

So we’re talking about a first step, a first assumption, on the way toward getting back a basic realization about something.

And what are looking at the first hint of a chance of a beginning of a realization about? The “first step” is “in the direction of a moralization.” The “first assumption” was of “responsibility.” And it’s all “on the way toward recovering an awareness that one cannot do whatever one wants.”

So, the pope is saying that one who begins to use a condom to prevent the spread of HIV may be at the very glimmer of the beginning of recovering the awareness that they cannot do whatever they want.

That’s a far cry from “the pope said it’s okay for prostitutes to use condoms;” or even, “the pope was wrong to say ‘basis,’ because that word makes it sound like he said it’s okay.”

The parenthetical we set aside can now be reintroduced as what it is: an example of someone to whom this larger thought may apply. No more, no less. This point is driven home in his very next two sentences:

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.

So use of condoms by a male prostitute can represent the beginning of the glimmer of a recovering of the awareness that some actions are wrong and evil, but a) that doesn’t make the prostitutes continued acts of prostutution morally licit; and b) the only real solution is “a humanization of sexuality.”

By including that last phrase, “a humanization of sexuality,” he sets it against the action of the prostitute who uses a condom: i.e., the prostitute who uses a condom for the express intention of preventing the spread of HIV is still engaging in a de-humanized (read: immoral) activity, and the only morally licit way to truly achieve the objective (the spread of HIV) is by returning to a humanized sexuality.

Peter Seewald then asked the bombshell question that seems to have colored so much of the mis-interpretation of the pope’s words.

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

Now, the pope could have said right here, very plainly, “no.” That likely would have helped prevent the firestorm that has ensued, but he does say “no” by invoking the consistent teaching of the Church, then he reiterates what he said before:

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

“She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution.” If it’s not a “real” solution then it is an unreal or false solution. If it is not a “moral” solution then it is an immoral solution. Of course.

The comma inserted after “solution” may be the source of our problem because a comma in that position gives the grammatical sense of an exception to the rule–but the supposed exception is an exception which the meaning of the text and the underlying doctrine of sexuality cannot support. That comma may be a transcription error–remember that this is a translation of a spoken interview: the pope may have used the word “but” as the beginning of a new sentence, with the intention of re-introducing the thought he had just stated. But nonetheless, even if the comma is correct, the grammatical problem does not justify the wrong interpretation–Church doctrine is larger than a comma in a translation of a transcription of an interview.

The final sentence is simply a restatement that someone who chooses to begin using a condom to prevent the spread of HIV is not thereby acting morally, but may be at the nascent phase of recovering a sense of morality.

Consider a man who beats his wife with a crowbar. If he stops beating his wife with a crowbar and instead uses a wiffle bat, he is not thereby justified in beating his wife, but he may have realized that it is wrong to cause as much damage as a crowbar inflicts. Who knows, perhaps eventually he’ll realize that it’s wrong to beat his wife altogether and stop doing so.

Naturally, none of this is the interpretation granted by those who give headlines like “pope okays condom use in certain cases,” or “conservatives up in arms over pope condom comments.” But I hope for those who read it and give it more than a cursory glance it helps to show that the firestorm really is media-generated.

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38 thoughts on “Parsing the Pope’s condom quotes

  1. Scott W. says:

    No it isn’t. It is the difference between an armed robber that keeps bullets in his gun versus one who kept it unloaded so he won’t hurt anyone. People are trying to put the words into the pope’s mouth: “Don’t engage in homosexual acts, or engage in homosexual acts for money, but if you are going to do it anyway, use a condom.” This of course is a nonsensical mixed-message, and the pope is alot smarter than that.

  2. marv!!! says:

    If indeed the Pope said that the use of condoms by male prostitutes is the lessor of 2 evils then this appears to be a change in perspective by the Pope if not a change in doctrine.

    1. Bruce says:

      Hello Marv. (1) Where did the Pope say that the use of condoms was the “lesser of two evils”? and (2) How does the Pope’s statement in an informal interview that condoms are “not a real or moral solution” constitute a change in perspective and/or doctrine? Thanks in advance.

      1. marv!!! says:

        (1) I didn’t say that the Pope said that. It was, however, stated in the press that he said that. If indeed the Pope did say that, how would that not be a change in perspective?
        (2) I didn’t say that either so I’m unable to respond to your second question.

        1. Bruce says:

          Hi Marv. (1) If the Pope did not say that, then why did you say it above? and (2) You stated: “this appears to be a change in perspective by the Pope if not a change in doctrine”, so therefore I ask you, How does the Pope’s statement in an informal interview that condoms are “not a real or moral solution” constitute a change in perspective and/or doctrine? Thanks in advance.

          1. marv!!! says:

            Bruce, you seem to miss my point. It was reported in the newspaper, on the internet and on tv that the Pope had said that the use of condoms by male prostitutes was a lesser evil than spreading the HIV virus. IF he DID say that, then it appears to me to be a change in perspective, in my opinion. If he did not say that then my point is moot. Period!
            Regarding your second question, I would say that if the Pope actually did make the first statement regarding male prostitutes then the second statement makes little sense to me.

          2. Bruce says:

            You said: “If he did say that…”, but Marv, do we not have his written words available? Can you find where the Pope said that the use of condoms was a lesser evil anywhere in his written words?

          3. marv!!! says:

            No, I can not. That’s why I started my statement with “if.” Never did I state that he said it. That’s why your questioning puzzles me.
            My point was based on the hypothesis that what was reported in the media might be accurate, and if so, what might that mean. I assume the Pope will let us know in the future whether he said it or not.

          4. Bruce says:

            You said: “No, I can not” when asked if you can find where the Pope approves of condoms in his written words. Then you said: “I assume the Pope will let us know in the future whether he said it or not”. (1) Can you tell us how the Pope could have said that he approves of condoms when he did not say that he approves condoms?

          5. marv!!! says:

            Can you share what the Pope did say, if anything, relating to the use of condoms by male prostitutes?

          6. Tom Crowe says:

            Marv, I think you’re just being difficult now, but i’ll humor you. He said that the use of a condom by a male prostitute, if the male prostitute decided to use the condom out of a desire to prevent the spread of HiV, may be the first indication of a step in the direction of a reawakening of a sense of morality and a more human experience of sexuality. Which means that while it is still an immoral thing the prostitute is doing, he at least is showing signs of perhaps realizing that what he is still doing is wrong and he ought to change his ways.

          7. marv!!! says:

            Thank-you Tom.
            So, correct if I’m once again wrong, but I read this as the Pope saying the use of a condom by a male prostitute “may be the first indication of a step in the direction of a reawakening of a sense of morality and a more human experience of sexuality” but it is still wrong (evil) for him to use a condom. Is that accurate?

          8. Tom Crowe says:

            marv– Yes. The male prostitute, in continuing to act as a prostitute, is still acting immorally. In using a condom for the purpose of preventing the spread of HIV, he simply reduced the secondary immorality of possibly spreading what is a deadly virus. “Reduced,” not “removed” or “mitigated,” because there is a possibility of failure of the condom, so even with the condom he still is taking the risk of spreading HIV. So to review: two immoral actions happening here: 1) the immorality of prostitution; 2) the immorality of risking spreading HIV. Using a condom reduces, but does not mitigate 2, but it has no effect on 1.

          9. Tom Crowe says:

            Marv– Well that’s good, because that wasn’t the point of the comment! The point of the comment was that a) prostitution is immoral, b) engaging in high-risk behaviors that wantonly risk the spread of HIV is immoral (which can include, but is not limited to, prostitution and sharing needles), and a male prostitute engages in both of those immoral activities with the same action–i.e., engaging in prostitution. That means that with the same action, the male prostitute engages in two separate immoralities. By using a condom for the purpose of reducing the risk of spreading HIV the male prostitute has reduced the chance of spreading HIV, but has not completely mitigated it, and has not reduced even slightly the immorality of prostitution.

          10. marv!!! says:

            Tom, nothing in your response shows me how the use of a condom by a male prostitute who wishes to reduce the spreading of the HIV virus is evil, wrong, sinful or bad. In fact, the quote from the Pope, which you agree is an accurate quote, certainly implies that this act is not evil, even if the Pope says otherwise. How can an act by a human being which “may be the first indication of a step in the direction of a reawakening of a sense of morality and a more human experience of sexuality” be evil, sinful, wrong or bad?

          11. Tom Crowe says:

            It appears, Marv, that you don’t think prostitution is wrong. If that is the case then we have the point of departure.

          12. Tom Crowe says:

            You know, Marv, I think one of the points that’s missing here is that the authors at this site and a goodly portion of the commenters operate with Catholic doctrine and morality as a baseline. With that baseline there isn’t any confusion that prostitution and the risk (even if lessened) of spreading HIV are evil. So if you adopt that baseline, at least for argument sake, you should be able to grasp why there’s been a breakdown in communication.

          13. marv!!! says:

            Tom, it appears that my question has you perplexed. I do not support prostitution but what has that got to do with the point of calling the use of condoms by a male prostitute to avoid spreading the HIV virus as evil? It makes no sense to me. Where is the logic? Does it make sense to you?

          14. Tom Crowe says:

            marv– I have explained the logic of what is still immoral in the situation in multiple places. That you don’t see it is a failure on your part, or an indication that you are being disingenuous. Either way, you are no longer worth responding to on this topic. Have a nice day.

          15. marv!!! says:

            Tom, you once again fail to answer my question so I must assume you have no answer.
            Here’s another example: Let’s say I’m driving very recklessly (bad action # 1) and as a result, I side swipe a car. (bad result # 1.) Rather than stop and report what I’ve done, I drive away (bad action # 2.)
            Later, I have a change of heart (I feel bad for what I’ve done) and I report the accident and take responsibility for my actions. Is this final action also bad (evil, wrong) simply because my first 2 actions were bad and wrong or does my final action stand on its own?

          16. Tom Crowe says:

            No, having a change of heart and trying to make a situation right is never bad. But your analogy fails. First because your analogy uses chronologically successive events, each of which is bad (hitting the car, then subsequently driving off). In the case of a male prostitute, with regard to the discussion we are having, he is engaging in two distinct immoralities at the same time with the same action (he is engaging in illicit sex, and at the same time he is risking the spread of HIV). Each time a male prostitute engages in prostitution, regardless of whether he is using a condom or not, he is engaging in an immoral action. Using the condom does not mitigate that immorality in the slightest. As for the second, he has reduced, to a degree, the risk of transmitting HIV by using a condom, but he has not eliminated that risk so both immoralities still exist in the one and the same activity. And in this sort of thing, there is no “having a change of heart” that can undo the damage because people are not cars.

          17. marv!!! says:

            Nice try Tom. Blah, blah, blah.

          18. Tom Crowe says:

            Um… o… k. [scratching head. shrugging shoulders. moving on]

          19. Bruce says:

            Yes, Tom. Now, Marv, can you point out where the Pope said that he approved the use of condoms?

          20. marv!!! says:

            Bruce, the quote from the Pope that I mentioned above implies to me that that is exactly what the Pope is saying, without actually saying it. I’m sure you disagree. It seems we’re now discussing different perspectives of semantics and that’s ok by me but I doubt any further discussion regarding this issue would be fruitful. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

          21. Bruce says:

            Not so fast, my friend! We have all the time in the world to continue, and if it is okay with you, I should like to. Now, you said: “the quote…implies to me that that is exactly what the Pope is saying”. (1) Can you tell us how you convert “a first step in the direction of a moral awakening” to “approved of and non-sinful”? and (2) Since you mentioned, “lesser evils” earlier (though the Pope did not), can you tell us how “lesser evil” converts to “not evil at all”? Thanks in advance.

  3. Francis says:

    Well, it seems perfectly clear that the pope is not just giving his stamp of approval to condom use, but is also promoting gay prostitution in particular, and prostitution of all types in general. I don’t know why the press missed that part. They are usually so scrupulously accurate and detail oriented. The only logical conclusion is that the pope will soon also endorse sexual promiscuity that does not include any fees, because that would be a step up from prostitution. Yay! What a relief that will be.

  4. GREG SMITH says:

    No – You folks have it all wrong. The Pope meant that using condoms are moraly nutral. It’s like using cream in your coffee. Anyone may of may not choose to do so. If one does choose to do so, one my use them any time for any reason.

    1. Bruce says:

      Hello Greg. (1) Can you show us where the Pope said using condoms was morally neutral? And on a related note, (2) can you tell us how the Pope’s statement that “[condoms] are NOT a real or moral solution” means that they are neutral?

      1. GREG SMITH says:

        Helo Bruce: It was a joke in response to all the gallons of ink spent spent in the Catholic blogisphere torturusly analyising what the Pope clearly said. The Catholic blogisphere needs al the humor it can get

  5. marv!!! says:

    Whether it was or was not a change in doctrine, one has to wonder why so much effort is being spent convincing others that it was not a change in doctrine? What’s the fear?

    1. Diane says:

      Because the Catholic Church is the truth and the truth can never be changed.

      For some to view this as a change in doctrine, which IT IS NOT, would mean that more could change and it never, never should!

    2. Tom Crowe says:

      It’s not fear, it’s a desire to help others know the truth. When lies are spread, those who recognize them as lies have a responsibility to dispel the lies and spread the truth.

    3. Bruce says:

      I am called to love my neighbor. If my neighbor is mistaken about something the Church did not say, as you have said you were mistaken in another comment section, it would be unloving to allow him to persist in his error. I love you, Marv, which means I want you to know the truth and to no longer be, in your words, unsure of what is true or not concerning what the Pope said. I am happy that we have come to an agreement!

    4. Bruce says:

      Hi Marv. Can you (1) tell us how Church Doctrine comes about?

  6. Bruce says:

    When has the phrase “the consequences of the sin could have been worse” come to mean “it is not a sin at all”? Saying it is better not to murder two people instead of one does not therefore make it acceptable if one murders just a single person. It simply points out that it is better to stop murdering once one has started so as to limit the misery and destruction one causes. ‘Better’ does not mean ‘perfect’. It simply means ‘better than something else’ without giving any indication that something has now become perfected. The Church teaches in absolutes (i.e. “Do not sin”). The Church counsels and pastors its members to avoid sin and to lessen the damage their sins cause without ever saying that their sins are not sinful. There is an enormous difference between what the Pope said and what was reported, and it was miserably handled by the Vatican. Let us just call this what it was: An enormous communications gaffe that implied changes in doctrine, but actually did not.

    1. Tom Crowe says:

      Precisely.

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