Monday, 22 November 2010

Do the Pope's remarks on condoms justify the media reaction?

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly):

Pope Benedict XVI's remarks on the use have condoms have generated worldwide headlines since they were first reported on Saturday, but has the significance of his words been exaggerated? As I blogged yesterday, experienced Catholic journalist Pia de Solenni has pointed out that the Pope has not endorsed the use of condoms, but rather pointed to a very specific example – that of a male prostitute – where the use of a condom to prevent the spread of HIV would be preferable to unprotected sex. As the Guardian report this morning, the Vatican has moved quickly to clarify this, with the Pope's spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi saying:
"Aids cannot be solved only by the distribution of condoms. At the same time, the pope considered an exceptional situation in which the exercise of sexuality represents a real risk to the lives of others. In this case, the pope does not morally justify the exercise of disordered sexuality, but believes that the use of condoms to reduce the risk of infection is a 'first step on the road to a more human sexuality', rather than not to use it and risking the lives of others."
So in so far as it is a departure from a wholesale rejection of condom use, it is progress, but only in a very limited sense. This view is further reinforced by this piece by Catholic theologian Janet E Smith on the website of Ignatius, the publishers of Peter Seewald's book Light of the World, which contains the Pope's remarks. In her analysis, Smith says:
"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'."
According to this view, the Pope's words are entirely in line with his teachings on homosexuality, and do not impact on the Church's general stance on condoms (Smith uses the rather tasteless analogy of robbing a bank – if you insist on doing it, it's at least better to use an unloaded gun). In which case, where does this leave those (both Catholics and non-Catholics) who hope to see the Church reverse what is viewed as a grossly destructive attitude towards condoms and contraception? It would seem that this story is something of a false alarm, but perhaps there is some encouragement to be taken from the Pope's willingness to engage with the issue at all. It's certainly an improvement on his disastrous remarks during his trip to Africa in 2009, when he suggested that condoms may exacerbate the Aids epidemic. Perhaps this is a sign that the Vatican is open to change in relation to these issues, although given the limited scope of what he says in the Seewald interviews, campaigners may not be holding their breath just yet.

What do you think? Is this a false alarm, or is it a sign that the Church is open to change? Share your views by commenting below.

If you're interested in further reading around this issue, the Catholic Herald have an interesting piece on the other things that the Pope says to Peter Seewald in the new book, on subjects including child abuse, climate change and the perceived secular "intolerance" of religion. You may also like to read the full excerpt on condoms, available at the Ignatius website.
blog comments powered by Disqus