Last weekend, headlines focused on how Pope Benedict was apparently changing the Church’s teachings about the immorality of the use of condoms. The comments, excerpted from a book length interview of the Pope with journalist Peter Seewald, led many news outlets, like The New York Times, to claim that this was “the first Vatican exception to a long-held policy condemning condom use.” Many Catholics were confused. The controversy revealed widespread misunderstandings of the Church’s teachings with regard to the use of contraception. It’s therefore worthwhile to read what Pope Benedict said in context and then to make some important clarifications.

Seewald asked Pope Benedict about his March 2009 comments on how the epidemic of AIDS in some African countries “cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems.” After stressing how the Church is “second to none” in caring for AIDS patients, Benedict replied, “In my remarks I was not making a general statement about condom issue, but merely said — and this is what caused such great offense — that we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms. Much more needs to be done. We must stand close to the people, we must guide and help them; and we must do this both before and after they contract the disease. 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.” He noted that even the secular experts have recognized that condoms are not enough, as seen in their “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.”

He turned to what the focus on the pseudo-solution of condoms implies. “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.”

It’s in that context of trying to help those afflicted by or addicted to banalized notions of sex that the Pope enunciated his headline-grabbing words. “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.” In response to Seewald’s immediate follow-up conclusion that “the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms,” the Pope 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.”

To understand how Pope Benedict’s words do not constitute an “exception” or a “change” in the Church’s teachings on condom use, we first need to understand that teaching more precisely than most people, including most Catholics, do.

In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI condemned the use of contraception specifically in the context of conjugal relations; the use of contraception within marriage intentionally to separate the unitive and procreative dimensions of the conjugal act, he said, turns an action that is supposed to be intrinsically good and loving into something sinful. The Pope was not addressing the context of the use of condoms, the pill or other types of contraception in acts that are already immoral, such as fornication, adultery, homosexual relations, marital or extra-marital rape, or prostitution; in these cases, the question becomes whether the use of contraception “compounds” or aggravates the already evil act. Sound moral theologians have different opinions on this question and the Vatican has never definitively pronounced on it. Those who argue that contraceptive use aggravates the sin of extra-marital sex say, among other things, that it instills a greater selfishness on the part of those engaging in the action and introduces a greater banalization of the action by eliminating its intrinsically fruitful potential; those who argue the opposite position state that it may eliminate some of the consequences of the evil action, such as teenagers’ conceiving a child in a context without a married mother and father. Even for those in the latter camp, however, there’s another question to answer, whether it would be prudent to recommend condom use to those who can’t be persuaded to give up the immoral behavior in the first place. For example, if a teenage boy struggling with chastity asks a priest or parent if he should use a condom to engage in sexual relations with his girlfriend, the first response should be to try to dissuade him from engaging in the sinful behavior. If the appeal is unsuccessful, then the question becomes whether recommending against the use of a condom would actually help the boy refrain from the sexual activity out of fear of pregnancy; in the event that it wouldn’t, then those in the latter camp say it would be possible to recommend the use of a condom to prevent some of the consequences of the fornication, like extra-marital pregnancy or the transmission of venereal diseases. This wouldn’t make the deceptively-labelled “safe-sex” morally good, but would try to mitigate the damage of the evil action.

These distinctions are important to understand the Pope’s example of a male prostitute’s using a condom. This is a situation that is obviously extra-marital and already immoral — and likely homosexual as well, in which using a condom obviously wouldn’t be dissociating the unitive and procreative dimensions of the sexual act. Presuming that the prostitute wouldn’t give up his behavior, the question becomes one of prudence, trying to eliminate the possible damage of the man’s immoral act and inch him toward conversion and genuine concern for himself and others. Pope Benedict suggests that the use of a condom might be a “first step in the direction of a moralization” with the prostitute’s preoccupation with receiving or passing on diseases to his clients. It wouldn’t make moral his immoral act of prostitution, but this “assumption of responsibility” might be the beginning of a “humanization” of his interpersonal behavior that could eventually lead to his deciding to refrain from it altogether.

Pope Benedict in his response also states that, while in an individual case the use of a condom in an immoral circumstance may open someone up toward moral progress, at the general level, the promotion of condoms is “not a real or moral solution” to the problem of AIDS. Dr. Edward Green, director of the AIDS Prevention Center at the Harvard Center for Population and Development,” has repeatedly affirmed, against the Pope’s critics on the issue of condoms and AIDS, that there is no evidence that the promotion and ubiquitous availability of condoms have decreased HIV infection rates in Africa. Multiple studies have shown that the only programs that have been successful have encouraged the reduction of the number of sexual partners, and the promotion of condoms generally has led to the opposite result, a promiscuous expansion of the number of sexual partners. This is why many non-ideological AIDS experts in Africa are now promoting the ABC plan to which the Pope alluded, focusing on abstinence before marriage, monogamous fidelity within marriage, and condom use only when people have determined to be reckless, in order to lessen the consequences of that reckless behavior.

The Pope doesn’t specifically address the often-asked question of whether it would be moral for a married couple to use a condom to engage in sexual activity when one of the spouses has AIDS. The answer, however, should be obvious: it is absolutely incompatible with love and “making love” for one with AIDS to risk passing on a fatal disease to a loved one by engaging in sexual activity with or without a condom (since the condom may fail). In the tragic and not uncommon context of marital rape in Africa, when husbands with AIDS insist on their supposed “marital rights” to sexual activity with their uninfected wife, the wife’s insistence on her husband’s using a condom while he forces himself upon her would not be sinful on her part, since we would not be dealing with a true conjugal act.

The solution to the problem of AIDS transmission, the Pope said, lies ultimately in remedying the “banalization of sexuality” with its “humanization.” This is what the Church’s teaching on sexual morality has always sought to emphasize. That’s why that teaching needs to be better known, lived and proclaimed.

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