The Pope is right, and the Pope is still right: Benedict and condoms

I feel great sympathy for the secular media.

Yes, you read that correctly.  Other Catholic bloggers have criticized the media for its coverage of Pope Benedict’s recently released comments on AIDS and condoms (reproduced in their entirety below), but on this one, to be fair, journalists are in a bind.

They know the Pope didn’t change Church doctrine on contraception, nor—the wishful thinking of a few familiar “religion experts” aside—did he even edge closer to doing so.  But at the same time, what the Pope said was unexpected and significant.  Several of the articles I’ve read in the secular press have hinted at just how hard it is to do justice to the Pope’s comments in a headline.

And the press has good reason to be confused.  The reason coverage of the Holy Father’s words—such as his March 2009 comments on AIDS and condoms—is often so unbalanced is that what he is offering is not so much a political “stance” on an issue, but a complete—and, for many, completely foreign—vision of what human sexuality means.  His comments in Light of the World, like his March 2009 comments, are intended to invite people to give this vision a second look.

If I could offer a metaphor for what kind of “shift” the Pope’s more recent comments represent it would be to think of Catholic teaching on human sexuality like a painting.  The Pope hasn’t taken out his brush and easel to retouch that painting, but he has, I think, turned up the lighting in the room so that we might note some shading and brushwork that hadn’t appeared before.

The way I think the Pope “turned up the lighting in the room” this time is by thoughtfully acknowledging the good instincts which might motivate some to use condoms in certain situations.  Is the desire to prevent disease a good thing?  Of course, the Pope says; in fact, it can even show a first realization that sex does have consequences and that others might be negatively affected by those consequences.  Is sex outside of marriage with or without a condom still gravely immoral?  Yes, it is, and it will not lead anyone to a truly fulfilling life.

Furthermore, the Pope is clear that “we cannot solve the problem [of AIDS] by distributing condoms.”  You’ll remember that during his trip to Cameroon and Angola in 2009, the Holy Father was attacked for making essentially the same argument.  The Pope argued controversially that the distribution of condoms could, in fact, make the situation worse.

Though all the predictable sources howled in rage, the Pope’s comments had one advantage his critics failed to acknowledge:  they were true.  Fr. Michael Czerny, SJ, the director of the African Jesuit AIDS Network argued powerfully in this article that the Church’s approach to AIDS offers a far better way to address the crisis than that proposed by her secular critics.  If you care even a bit about the AIDS crisis, take ten minutes to read the whole article.

Most advocates of condom usage point out that the use of a condom during intercourse can reduce the likelihood of AIDS transmission dramatically, in the neighborhood of 80-90%.  Given this fact, distributing condoms might seem like a no-brainer.  But Fr. Czerny, citing Harvard studies on AIDS prevention, points out that while these figures might apply to individual cases, they don’t apply to populations in general.

In fact, Fr. Czerny writes, “greater availability and use of condoms is consistently associated with higher (not lower) HIV infection rates.”  Condom distribution programs have been effective only among very limited target groups, such as sex workers.  What those who advocate widespread condom distribution don’t take into account is the effects their programs will have on a population’s attitudes, morals, and relationships.  The not-so-subtle message implicit in these programs is that sexual self-control and fidelity is not possible, but—not to worry—the consequences of sexual promiscuity can be avoided through technical means.  This message is not just demeaning, but deadly.

The Pope’s words in Light of the World show evidence that he is familiar with the sociological research on AIDS prevention; it’s no accident that the example the Pope discussed as a “first step [toward] moralization”—of a prostitute using a condom—involves a sub-population in which condom distribution programs have actually proven effective.  If nothing else, Benedict’s comments explode the myth of a Pope who is out of touch with the reality of the situation.

Furthermore, they show a remarkable pastoral wisdom, demonstrating a keen and sympathetic understanding of the motives and intentions even of those who are stuck in sinful lifestyles.

It’s that same pastoral sensitivity, recognizing all the complex dimensions of the human person—biological, yes, but also spiritual, social, psychological—that make the Catholic Church’s vision of human sexuality the best hope for fighting AIDS on this planet.  The Pope’s compassionate words are an invitation—to all of us—to look give that vision a second, deeper look.



The Holy Father’s full answers:

On the occasion of your trip to Africa in March 2009, the Vatican’s policy on AIDS once again became the target of media criticism.  Twenty-five percent of all AIDS victims around the world today are treated in Catholic facilities. In some countries, such as Lesotho, for example, the statistic is 40 percent. In Africa you stated that the Church’s traditional teaching has proven to be the only sure way to stop the spread of HIV. Critics, including critics from the Church’s own ranks, object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms.

The media coverage completely ignored the rest of the trip to Africa on account of a single statement. Someone had asked me why the Catholic Church adopts an unrealistic and ineffective position on AIDS. At that point, I really felt that I was being provoked, because the Church does more than anyone else. And I stand by that claim. Because she is the only institution that assists people up close and concretely, with prevention, education, help, counsel, and accompaniment. And because she is second to none in treating so many AIDS victims, especially children with AIDS.

I had the chance to visit one of these wards and to speak with the patients. That was the real answer: The
Church does more than anyone else, because she does not speak from the tribunal of the newspapers, but helps her brothers and sisters where they are actually suffering. In my remarks I was not making a general statement about the 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. Meanwhile, the secular realm itself has developed 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, 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.

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.


Aaron Pidel, SJ, also has relevant comments on the subject here, if you haven’t seen the post already.

One Response to The Pope is right, and the Pope is still right: Benedict and condoms

  1. Qualis Rex says:

    Thanks for this, Anthony. Yes, this has been all over the blogosphere. Your account is exactly what anyone who knows you right now would expect; accurate to a T. No new dogma, no emerging dogma, just a Pope who calls it as he sees it.

    Where has he been for the last 20 years????? oh, yeah….right….

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