Saturday, November 20, 2010

Pope Benedict on condoms in "Light of the World"

Web exclusive

What does the Holy Father really say about condoms in the new book?

By Dr. Janet E. Smith

This week, Light of the World, a book-length interview given by Pope Benedict XVI to journalist Peter Seewald, will be released worldwide. Several of the Holy Father's statements have already started making news, particularly his comments regarding condom usage in the prevention of the spread of HIV.

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.

What is Pope Benedict saying?

We must note that the example that Pope Benedict gives for the use of a condom is a male prostitute; thus, it is reasonable to assume that he is referring to a male prostitute engaged in homosexual acts. The Holy Father is simply observing that for some homosexual prostitutes the use of a condom may indicate an awakening of a moral sense; an awakening that sexual pleasure is not the highest value, but that we must take care that we harm no one with our choices.  He is not speaking to the morality of the use of a condom, but to something that may be true about the psychological state of those who use them.  If such individuals are using condoms to avoid harming another, they may eventually realize that sexual acts between members of the same sex are inherently harmful since they are not in accord with human nature.  The Holy Father does not in any way think the use of condoms is a part of the solution to reducing the risk of AIDs.  As he explicitly states, the true solution involves “humanizing sexuality.”

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. 

In Familiaris Consortio (On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), John Paul II spoke of the need for conversion, which often proceeds by gradual steps:

To the injustice originating from sin … we must all set ourselves in opposition through a conversion of mind and heart, following Christ Crucified by denying our own selfishness: such a conversion cannot fail to have a beneficial and renewing influence even on the structures of society.

What is needed is a continuous, permanent conversion which, while requiring an interior detachment from every evil and an adherence to good in its fullness, is brought about concretely in steps which lead us ever forward. Thus a dynamic process develops, one which advances gradually with the progressive integration of the gifts of God and the demands of His definitive and absolute love in the entire personal and social life of man. (9)

Christ himself, of course, called for a turning away from sin.  That is what the Holy Father is advocating here; not a turn towards condoms. Conversion, not condoms!

Would it be proper to conclude that the Holy Father would support the distribution of condoms to male prostitutes? Nothing he says here indicates that he would. Public programs of distribution of condoms run the risk of conveying approval for homosexual sexual acts. The task of the Church is to call individuals to conversion and to moral behavior; it is to help them understand the meaning and purpose of sexuality and to help them come to know Christ, who will provide the healing and graces that enable us to live in accord with the meaning and purpose of sexuality.

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.

An analogy: If someone was going to rob a bank and was determined to use a gun, it would better for that person to use a gun that had no bullets in it.  It would reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries. But it is not the task of the Church to instruct potential bank robbers how to rob banks more safely and certainly not the task of the Church to support programs of providing potential bank robbers with guns that could not use bullets.  Nonetheless, the intent of a bank robber to rob a bank in a way that is safer for the employees and customers of the bank may indicate an element of moral responsibility that could be a step towards eventual understanding of the immorality of bank robbing.

Dr. Janet E. Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. She speaks nationally and internationally on Catholic teachings on sexuality and on bioethics, and has published numerous articles and several books on sexuality and bioethics. She is serving a third term as a consultor to the Pontifical Council on the Family. She is author of The Right to Privacy, a study of Roe v. Wade and related court cases.


Edward C. Green, “The Pope May Be Right” Washington Post (Sunday, March 29, 2009);

Edward C. Green and Allison Herling Ruark, “AIDS and the Churches: Getting the Story Right” First Things (April, 2008);

Edward C. Green, Rethinking AIDS Prevention: Learning from Successes in Developing Countries (Praeger: 2003);

Matthew Hanley and Jokin de Irala, Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach The West (National Catholic Bioethics Center, 2009);

Susan E. Wills, “Condoms and AIDS: Is the Pope Right or Just “Horrifically Ignorant?” The Linacre Quarterly, 77:10 (Feb 2010) 17-29;

Edward C. Green, AIDS, Behavior, and Culture: Understanding Evidence-Based Prevention (Left Coast Press: 2010) forthcoming

Add New Search

Graham   |2010-11-20 09:46:04
Clearly, the Pope was using an extreme example to explain a very basic point: the use of condoms is not in and of itself an absolute moral evil. That would seem an obvious point to anyone not brought up in the doctrine of 1968 (which was itself controversial and marginal).

But even in that context the Pope is staying true to the traditions of the Church in arguing that a higher moral cause (the prevention of disease) would render acceptable an act which is normally disapproved.

That is a major step for the Church which has up until now held a fundamentalist position.

We should be pleased that the Church is moving forward from the sexual teachings bestowed on us from the reformation and the repercussions of that time and into a fuller understanding and acceptance of the joy, pleasure and bond of love that sex (even without the possibility of conception) can bring.

Reply | Quote
0 3
Mrk   |2010-11-20 10:13:42
I'm having some difficulty with the assumptions behind this statement, if I've understood correctly...

So the idea is that people are prostitutes because they just love sexual pleasure that much, and have chosen to willfully ignore the harm it may cause?

Actually I'm fairly sure the majority of prostitutes are acutely aware of the damage sex and the pursuit of it can inflict.

There seems to be no recognition here that many prostitutes (especially in the developing world, but in rich countries too) are coerced into that way of life, sometimes as children, and then kept there by force and intimidation.

But apparently we just need to teach them to stop being so selfish and start choosing abstinence.

Reply | Quote
0 0
berniethomas   |2010-11-20 11:59:21
You are so right that probably most prostitutes are coerced into that way of life. We must pray and sacrifice for the victims of out of control sexuality -- and I agree that prostitutes are often among the victims. But condoms will really not help those victims. The Church does a great deal to try to rescue those enslaved by trafficking and all other forms of sexual slavery. Condoms are not the answer.
Reply | Quote
0 0
Steven   |2010-11-20 10:16:51
""We should be pleased that the Church is moving forward from the sexual teachings bestowed on us from the reformation and the repercussions of that time and into a fuller understanding and acceptance of the joy, pleasure and bond of love that sex (even without the possibility of conception) can bring.""

It is just this sort of analysis of the Holy Father's words that we don't need. The possibility of conception is determined by Almighty God, not the participants. What on earth do the teachings of the 'reformation' and their 'repercussions' have to do with anything?

""That is a major step for the Church which has up until now held a fundamentalist position.""

I would submit that the Church holds a realistic, humanistic view of sexuality. To view it as fundamentalist is to misunderstand what the Church actually teaches.

Reply | Quote
0 0
Joe G.  - re:   |2010-11-20 11:18:33
Graham wrote:
Clearly, the Pope was using an extreme example to explain a very basic point: the use of condoms is not in and of itself an absolute moral evil.

I disagree. I think were that his basic point to be made, he would have made it.

Reply | Quote
0 0
joelfago   |2010-11-20 12:02:23
Instead of simply saying no to evil, Pope Benedict uses his superior intellect to come up with a circumstance which he thinks justifies a moral evil (but not an "absolute" moral evil).

The ends do justify the means.

I am disappointed in Pope Benedict. Just say NO!

Reply | Quote
1 0
Paul Priest     |2010-11-20 12:03:19
Hate to be negative towards an excellent article ; but feel I must.

Good response and analysis sadly let down by poor terminology ; which is disconcerting given professor Smith's credentials.

Diminishing evil? wrongness? intrinsically used as a descriptor rather than a category ?

The fundamental moral theology in which I was trained gave classical definitions of the moral hierarchy:
Virtuous [ i.e. non-obligatory morally ordering],
morally ordering,
morally ordered,
morally ambivalent [sometimes poorly named morally neutral - where the agent's predisposition and circumstances impose the objective position within the hierarchy of moral order]
and morally fracturing [that which prevents a morally ordering act]...

...the descent of actions' status of moral order went as follows:

a] morally disordered - that which may never be committed towards its own end without sin UNLESS it is used within the remit of the double effect for a 'greater good' [a misnomer as it is neither good nor virtuous; the moral disorder is diminished/mitigated - even possibly to the point of negation; but it can only ever be deemed as right action] [e.g. telling a 'white lie', eating meat to survive, even recourse to NFP]

b] intrinsically morally disordered - that which may never be committed towards its own end without grave sin; nor may it ever be used towards a greater good within the remit of the double effect ; BUT it may be utilised within a position of moral dilemma to prevent an objective evil occurring [e.g. killing in self-defence ; just war; removal of an ectopic pregnancy, moral reservation etc] [please note many falsely attribute this position to the double effect which solely deals with moral ordering - NOT reducing moral disorder ; which is within the remit of moral dilemma; there are many actions we can commit to prevent an objective evil [e.g. recourse to violence to prevent a murder] which we are expressly forbidden to commit to promote a 'greater good'.

c] Objective evil - that which may never be committed for any reason [e.g. apostasy, blasphemy, judicial murder, abortion, euthanasia, eugenics, bearing false witness etc]

d] Invoking evil [advocating/promoting evil,corruption of innocence, heresy, scandalising the good, leading others into grave sin]

e] Trans-objective evil - the great sins of self-destruction.
a] Envy - rejection of your position in God's creation and providence - greatest sin against the self
b] Spiritual Pride - presumption or despair - greatest sin against God
c] The Sin against the Holy Spirit

Admittedly this terminology is not universal within Holy Mother Church, but it is widespread and implicit within traditional magisterial teaching ; and does give some structure to the hierarchy of moral order/disorder.

To ambiguously throw around words like wrong and evil and intrinsically can be misleading and anti-pedagogical ; without recourse to some explanatory or qualifying system it might be deemed dangerous.

Without some 'hierarchy' how does one assess the gravity of homosexual acts, contraception, prostitution, recourse and justification ?

If a man has a knife pressed against his throat and threatened with death unless the perpetrator can sodomise him?

Merely referring to homosexual acts as 'evil' will give him no guidance as to how he should act?

An african child being habitually raped by soldiers who are potentially hiv+ ; if she's told a femidom is 'evil'?

Or alternately the 'theology of the body' obsessive nun promoting natural family planning as 'good because it's not a sin' - is she right?

Or the misguided ultra-conservative Christian who argues for Capital Punishment as it's self-defence promoting the common good?

Or those who declare hunting is 'morally neutral' ?

We need moral classification to protect us !
If we obfuscate and indirectly mislead by misuse of words ?
Who knows what havoc we may invoke ?

See my point?

Reply | Quote
0 1

3.26 Copyright (C) 2008 / Copyright (C) 2007 Alain Georgette / Copyright (C) 2006 Frantisek Hliva. All rights reserved."