Understanding the Pope's New Stance on Condoms

While it doesn't mean at all that the pope has approved condoms for use in terms of birth control, the Vatican's latest pronouncement is the first time that a pope has given voice to what many moral theologians have been saying for years.
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As Austen Ivereigh previously reported, the Holy Father has now said that he intended his comments about the use of condoms in the prevention of passing on HIV/AIDS as applicable to (according to the Vatican spokesman Frederico Lombardi, S.J.) "a man, a woman, a transsexual." It applies to anyone "in relations" or "in relationship," depending on the translation from the Italian. "It's the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship [or are "in relations]." This is something of a game-changer when it comes to the Church's discussion on the overall use of condoms. While it doesn't mean at all that Pope Benedict XVI -- or the Catholic church -- has approved condoms for use in terms of birth control, it is the first time that a pope has given voice to what many moral theologians and bishops have been saying for years -- and have gotten into trouble for saying.

Over the past few days, some have interpreted very narrowly what Pope Benedict said in his book-length interview with Peter Seewald, a German journalist, about condoms as a "first step" in the "moralization" of someone like a "male prostitute" who uses one to prevent the spread of infection. (The idea seemed to be that the prostitute would be doing something moral by thinking about preventing the spread of disease.) As soon as the embargo on Light of the World was broken (view excerpts here), many took issue with the notion that anything had changed at all.

Some of the arguments ran as follows: The pope wasn't talking about "average" men and women, some said: he was only talking about male prostitutes, and thus it applied only to such cases. The pope wasn't talking about sexual intercourse that could lead to procreation, some said: he was only talking about an act not open to childbirth; that's why he was using the admittedly strange example of a male prostitute, who presumably would be having homosexual relations with another man. (The notion of a male prostitute having relations with a woman apparently wasn't considered by some.) The pope wasn't even talking about an act of sexual intercourse, others said: he was only talking about an intention.

It seemed odd that some who are normally great admirers of the pope were trying to narrow his comments so as to be applicable only to one particular case, nearly stripping the pope's words of any meaning whatsoever. It was also odd that some who support the pope's authority on matters both great and small seemed to be waving aside these comments, on an issue of great importance for people across the globe (i.e., the prevention of HIV/AIDS) as if they were entirely meaningless, or as if the pope didn't know what he was saying. But agree or disagree with him, Pope Benedict understands what he is saying. And the pope seems to be showing us that his understanding of the topic, particularly as a theologian, was far different than anyone had previously thought.

Change can be frightening. At the same time, some in the church are often skittish of change, because it is often believed that change on one issue might mean that the faithful will think that everything is up for grabs. John W. O'Malley, S.J., the dean of American church historians, once told our church history class at Weston Jesuit School of Theology that when the church begins to alter its course on a particular issue, it says either one of two things, "As the church has always taught..." Or, "There has been no change whatsoever." That last tack was also taken over the last few days. Nothing has changed, said some, because moral theologians and several bishops, particularly from the developing world, have long said that condoms should be used to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

And that is true. Several bishops and theologians have indeed taught that. The difference is that those who taught it were sometimes censured by the Vatican when they said it. Or the Vatican has simply rejected their arguments. So it is false to say that nothing has changed.

Indeed, I know two priests who wrote an article on that topic, an article which was seen as problematic by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was its prefect. It has been a hotly contested topic within moral thheology. Entire books wrestling with the such subjects have been written. But that particular conclusion on condoms and the spread of AIDS had not been accepted by the Vatican.

Once again, the Catholic Church has not changed its teaching on the use of condoms as a means of birth control. Nor has the church "officially" changed its teaching on the use of condoms: an interview is not the same as an encyclical or a document from a Vatican congregation. But the previously out-of-bounds discussion about whether condoms can be used as a means to prevent the spread of disease is now in-bounds. That is change, by any definition. And that change is a good one, for if it moves the conversation ahead, it may mean a further lessening of the spread of HIV/AIDS and the prevention of death. As such, it may be seen as a new kind of pro-life initiative on the part of the Holy Father.

Change for the better is to be welcomed, not feared. (A good resource on this John Noonan's A Church that Can and Cannot Change.) As Blessed John Henry Newman said, "To grow is to change. To be perfect is to have changed often." That would be the same John Henry Newman beatified by Pope Benedict XVI.

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