What the Holy Father Did — and Did Not — Say About Condoms

The media and the Catholic blogosphere have been buzzing about some comments Pope Benedict makes in his soon-to-be-released interview book, Light of the World.  The claim is that the Pope has somehow changed Church teaching on the morality of condom use in the prevention of the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Let’s look at what the Pope did and did not say.  But first, let’s make sure we understand the starting point — the actual teaching of the Church on sexual morality.  In a nutshell:

  • Sexual acts are only morally acceptable in the eyes of God if they take place within marriage, and if they always respect the dual nature of human sexuality — promoting the authentic love of the spouses and openness to fertility.
  • Anything that deliberately makes a sexual act between spouses infertile is gravely contrary to the will of God.  This is the core of the Church’s rejection of any kind of device or drug, or any act by the spouses themselves, that intentionally renders procreation impossible.
  • Any sexual act outside of marriage is gravely contrary to God’s will.  This would include any sexual act between persons of the same sex, or between persons of the opposite sex who are not married to each other.
  • The Holy Father did not change any of this teaching because, first of all, it’s true, and secondly because he can’t — it is the will of God, revealed through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, and continually re-affirmed by the Magisterium.

    With that foundation, let’s look at what the Holy Father said.  In response to a question about the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, in which the questioner asked him to respond to this provocative statement, “Critics, including critics from the Church’s own ranks, object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms”, the Holy Father replied,

    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. Meanwhile, the secular realm itself has developed the so-called ABC Theory: Abstinence-Be Faithful-Condom, where the condom is understood only as a last resort, when the other two points fail to work. 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.

    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.

    As a follow-up, the Holy Father was then asked, “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?”  In reply, he said:

    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.

    There is nothing in these statements that in any way undermines the Church’s teaching about the morality of sexual acts in general, or contraceptive acts in particular.  Instead, the Holy Father affirmed that the solution to the spread of HIV/AIDS is a return to a true, human understanding of sexuality, which is presented in its fullness in the teaching of the Church.

    He is not saying that intrinsically immoral acts — in this case, sex outside of marriage — somehow become morally acceptable due to the use of a condom.  He is merely saying that the decision to reduce the potential harm to others from an immoral act may in fact reflect the glimmer of awakening in one’s conscience.

    In doing so, the Holy Father presented a humane and optimistic view of the possibility of grace even for those who are deeply enmeshed in structures of sin and their own sins, and who can begin the process of conversion by making small steps towards the truth in the depths of their heart.  All of us who have trod this same halting path of conversion from our sins will recognize this sentiment of mercy.

    There are some who will use the Holy Father’s compassionate words to further their agenda of opposing the Church’s view of human sexuality.  There are others who are scandalized that the Pope would even discuss such a subject as condoms and male prostitutes.  Some would prefer a more black-and-white presentation of morality, rather than a view that looks with kindness into the complexities of the human heart.

    Of course, some said the same things about the Lord Himself, who, as we all remember, liked to eat with tax collectors and prostitutes, to encourage them along the path of conversion.

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    4 Responses to “What the Holy Father Did — and Did Not — Say About Condoms”

    1. James De Silva says:

      I wonder if you could address the issue of the circumstances of use making it a lesser evil. I didn’t think that the Holy Father was stating that but today we see the Vatican implying that as well as Fr. James Martin. I thought that type of thinking was rejected in Veritas Splendor.

    2. Ed Mechmann says:

      The Holy Father is not saying that the use of a condom in those very, very narrow circumstances is morally acceptable because it’s the “lesser evil”. God has made very clear that one may not do any kind of evil, even if we think that some good may come of it (see Rom 3:8). Sin is always sin.

      In this case, what the Holy Father is saying is that a person who is deeply mired in structures of evil and in their own individual sins, may begin to take steps towards conversion, even if their conduct continues to be sinful. The individual acts (e.g., sex outside of marriage) never become less sinful, and certainly never become good. But they may reflect a trajectory of conversion, which is to be encouraged.

    3. James De Silva says:

      Fr. James Martin is being quoted as saying that it is a admission that a condom can be used for a good intention. That doesn’t seem correct to me and could lead to serious errors like contraception and sterilization are okay as long as the intention is good.

    4. Ed Mechmann says:

      See my next blog post for an answer.