Saturday, November 20, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing: Pope Misrepresented on Condoms and AIDS - Again

Update: Ignatius Press provides the pages in context HERE.  Note how the news reports took it out of context.

There seems to be several articles going around that the Pope is going to change the Church position on the use of condoms to prevent AIDS.  Originating from an AP story, and repeated on UK news sites and blogs is, in essence, the following:

Pope Benedict XVI says that condom use is acceptable "in certain cases", notably "to reduce the risk of infection" with HIV, in a book due out Tuesday, apparently softening his once hardline stance.

In a series of interviews published in his native German, the 83-year-old Benedict is asked whether "the Catholic Church is not fundamentally against the use of condoms."

"It of course does not see it as a real and moral solution," the pope replies.

"In certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, it can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality," said the head of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics.

The AP treats this as a change in teaching, claiming:

Until now, the Vatican had prohibited the use of any form of contraception -- other than abstinence -- even as a guard against sexually transmitted disease.

Of course the Catholic News sites were in a flurry over the news… oh wait.  No they weren't.  In fact the articles show a gross misunderstanding on how the Church teaches.  The pope does not teach through interviews which are published by third parties.  The Pope issues formal statements: Encyclicals, Apostolic Letters, motu proprio, and others.

The media has made an error.  The Pope has not made a new teaching.  The book in question is an interview between the Pope and journalist Peter Seewald, entitled Light of the World.  This is in fact the third book in a series of interviews done between the Pope and Seewald.  The first one was Salt of the Earth, published in 1996 in Germany and in America in 1997 (Seewald had left the Church at this time of this interview).  The second was God and the World published in 2000 in Germany and 2002 in America.  The original intent was to interview the infamous Panzerkardinal and get his personal views on things.

What these books are, is in fact a series of interviews between now Pope Benedict XVI and Peter Seewald about the now Holy Father's personal thoughts on certain topics, and are not at all formal teachings of the Church.

The Pope described it as such in his introduction in God and the World:

In 1996, Peter Seewald suggested we gave a conversation about the questions that people today often put to the Church and are often for them an obstacle on the path of faith.

Ignatius Press, publisher of the American edition debunks the tabloid myth, with an Article by Janet E. Smith.

First she gives us the actual quote from Light of the World:

"To the charge that “It is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms,” in the context of an extended answer on the help the Church is giving AIDs victims and the need to fight the banalization of sexuality, Pope Benedict replied:

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."

Doctor Smith makes a profound analysis on this statement:

Anyone having sex that threatens to transmit HIV needs to grow in moral discernment. This is why Benedict focused on a “first step” in moral growth. The Church is always going to be focused on moving people away from immoral acts towards love of Jesus, virtue, and holiness. We can say that the Holy Father clearly did not want to make a point about condoms, but wants to talk about growth in a moral sense, which should be a growth towards Jesus.

So is the Holy Father saying it is morally good for male prostitutes to use condoms? The Holy Father is not articulating a teaching of the Church about whether or not the use of a condom reduces the amount of evil in a homosexual sexual act that threatens to transmit HIV.  The Church has no formal teaching about how to reduce the evil of intrinsically immoral action.  We must note that what is intrinsically wrong in a homosexual sexual act in which a condom is used is not the moral wrong of contraception but the homosexual act itself.  In the case of homosexual sexual activity, a condom does not act as a contraceptive; it is not possible for homosexuals to contracept since their sexual activity has no procreative power that can be thwarted. But the Holy Father is not making a point about whether the use of a condom is contraceptive or even whether it reduces the evil of a homosexual sexual act; again, he is speaking about the psychological state of some who might use condoms.  The intention behind the use of the condom (the desire not to harm another) may indicate some growth in a sense of moral responsibility.


Is Pope Benedict indicating that heterosexuals who have HIV could reduce the wrongness of their acts by using condoms?  No.  In his second answer he says that the Church does not find condoms to be a “real or moral solution.” That means the Church does not find condoms either to be moral or an effective way of fighting the transmission of HIV.  As the Holy Father indicates in his fuller answer, the most effective portion of programs designed to reduce the transmission of HIV are calls to abstinence and fidelity. 

The Holy Father, again, is saying that the intention to reduce the transmission of any infection is a “first step” in a movement towards a more human way of living sexuality. That more human way would be to do nothing that threatens to harm one’s sexual partner, who should be one’s beloved spouse. For an individual with HIV to have sexual intercourse with or without a condom is to risk transmitting a lethal disease.

In other words, the person who realizes that the use of the condom with AIDS is less harmful than unprotected sex is at least making a first step towards a more human and moral view.  However, it is not the ultimate end.  Sexual relations making use of a condom may reduce the threat of passing on a lethal disease, but the one who loves realizes that love does not put the beloved at risk of life.

Let us remember that this was the Pope who received massive denunciation from the world for his statements on AIDS and condoms.  (I commented on this back in April 2009)  In speaking on a "more human" way of viewing sexuality, he said in 2009:

If there is no human dimension, if Africans do not help [by responsible behaviour], the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it. The solution must have two elements: firstly, bringing out the human dimension of sexuality, that is to say a spiritual and human renewal that would bring with it a new way of behaving towards others, and secondly, true friendship offered above all to those who are suffering, a willingness to make sacrifices and to practise self-denial, to be alongside the suffering. And so these are the factors that help and that lead to real progress: our twofold effort to renew humanity inwardly, to give spiritual and human strength for proper conduct towards our bodies and those of others, and this capacity to suffer with those who are suffering, to remain present in situations of trial. It seems to me that this is the proper response, and the Church does this, thereby offering an enormous and important contribution. We thank all who do so.

To sum up.  There is no "new teaching" on condoms by Pope Benedict XVI.  The Pope is merely explaining his personal views on an issue which had been grossly distorted, showing a view which deepens the statements made in the 2009 interview en route to Africa.

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