Benedict XVI has done it this time!

Is this an about-face on the part of the Catholic Church? The pope condones the use of condoms! The Catholic Church has ‘shot itself’ in the foot – yet again! ‘They have made a laughing-stock of themselves’ says a friend.

In the latest in a series of books reflecting interviews with the then Cardinal Ratzinger and the now Pope Benedict XVI titled “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times”, journalist Peter Seewald asks the pope a series of questions, some controversial, relating to the Catholic Church. Based on the popes recent trip to Africa, two of those questions relate to the use of condoms in the prevention of AIDS.

However, in their effort to chase down that extra ‘dollar’ and contrary to an ethos of fair journalism – it seems that some editors really did just cast a cursory glance at this piece of suspect reporting, otherwise I have to ask the question: Is there another agenda?

“Pope Benedict XVI has said that condom use can be justified in some cases to help stop the spread of AIDS….” says a New York Times report of 21 November, 2010.[i]

Did he really say that and what did he mean?

Before we take this post any further, let me give it some direction. This is not a post on the Catholic Church’s teaching on contraception but rather a post highlighting what I think is poor, sensationalistic journalism, insincere at best.  One might even be forgiven for categorising this as a ‘present-day lack of journalistic integrity’ – a ‘let’s get him’ approach! A provocative statement I grant but no more outrageous than some of the tabloid stories which have covered this topic.

Though the book in question is not yet readily available (at time of writing this post), there are resources on the internet which allow us to gain a glimpse of what was actually said. George Weigel[ii], writing in the National Review Online, and referring to the New York Times quote wrote:

“No, the pope did not say that in his new book, Light of the World, to which I had the honour of contributing a foreword. Here is what the pope actually wrote, answering two questions from German journalist Peter Seewald:”

For the sake of brevity, I will summarise the questions and answers:

Referring to the pope’s 2009 trip to Africa, Seewald points out that the Vatican has come under fire; he says:

“Critics, including critics from the Church’s own ranks, object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms.”

In his answer Benedict bemoans the fact that the media focussed in on this point and did not give more attention to the rest of the trip. He mentions 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…”

He uses the example of a male prostitute who uses a condom, where this can be seen as a first step toward a better moral attitude, assuming responsibility for the consequences of his actions.

“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.”

This does not mean the church condones the immorality of the man’s actions nor does it mean the church now has no problem with the use of condoms; however what is being said is that using a condom is clearly a positive move in the right direction. Seewald then goes onto to ask if the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms. To which Benedict responds:

“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.”

So I have to ask at this point: Where in his discourse did Pope Benedict mention that the church has changed her stance on condom usage? As one commentator put it, it is ludicrous to think that so fundamental a change in the church’s teaching would be communicated via an interview with a journalist! This would at minimum be discussed at a convocation of the bishops of the church, not in a one on one with Peter Seewald!

This is what The Associated Press had to say in the opening paragraph of its article “Pope says some condom use ‘first step’ of morality” dated 20 November, 2010:

“Pope Benedict XVI has opened the door on the previously taboo subject of condoms as a way to fight HIV, saying male prostitutes who use condoms may be beginning to act responsibly. It’s a stunning comment for a pontiff who has blamed condoms for making the AIDS crisis worse.”

This is misleading and borders on mendacity; it is clearly NOT what the pope said or meant. The pope was plainly putting across a Catholic point of view and was not speaking ex cathedra changing fundamental Catholic teaching.

In closing, I support critical and constructive comment whose purpose is to correct perceived error and, poignantly, the Catholic Church has been in error recently – Benedict XVI has acknowledged and apologised for this. What I do not support is comment whose sole purpose is to deride an institution merely to create sensationalism. This type of journalism is neither edifying nor does it have any positive end-game!


[i] Rachel Donadio & Laurie Goodstein. (2010, November 20). In Rare Cases, Pope Justifies Use of Condoms. The New York Times .

[ii] George Weigel was the author of the forward to Peter Seewald’s book, Light of the World.

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About Anthony

I am a married Catholic who is interested in Theology, History, Philosophy and the search for truth. I also have a penchant for photography.
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