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Pope Benedict and the Condom Controversy

By Fr. Linus F. Clovis PhD Spiritual Director of FLI

The international news headline "Pope approves use of condoms - sometimes" was described as an earthquake in the Church. When I heard of it, I was both amused and incredulous and responded "Impossible!" Reviewing the media reports, I was even more amused by the desperate spin that oozed out of the articles written on the subject. Of course, there is a poor understanding of things Catholic in media circles and, sadly, even among Catholics, which only adds to the confusion.

In this current condom controversy, it is absolutely necessary to go back to what the Holy Father actually said, the manner and context in which he said it and to whom he said it. In the interests of brevity, I shall summarily deal with the last three points, but explore the first in depth.

By Fr. Linus F. Clovis PhD Spiritual Director of FLI

The international news headline "Pope approves use of condoms - sometimes" was described as an earthquake in the Church. When I heard of it, I was both amused and incredulous and responded "Impossible!" Reviewing the media reports, I was even more amused by the desperate spin that oozed out of the articles written on the subject. Of course, there is a poor understanding of things Catholic in media circles and, sadly, even among Catholics, which only adds to the confusion.

In this current condom controversy, it is absolutely necessary to go back to what the Holy Father actually said, the manner and context in which he said it and to whom he said it. In the interests of brevity, I shall summarily deal with the last three points, but explore the first in depth.

Last Saturday the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, published an excerpt from an upcoming book, Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and The Signs Of The Times. The book is basically a long interview the German journalist Peter Seewald had with Pope Benedict. (The English translation would be released by Ignatius Press five days later on Thursday 25 November.) In it, Seewald engages the Pope in a discussion of the Church's role in the modern world, which, of course, includes issues of morality and, not surprisingly, the use of condoms as a solution to the AIDS epidemic. Thus, while many have commented on an excerpt from the book, few have actually read the book. Given this context, the Pope's comments are therefore the thoughts of a private theologian and by no means an official, still less, a dogmatic utterance or teaching to the whole Church. But even as a private theologian the Pope's thought is not without impact and so it is necessary to examine exactly what he said.

It would seem that the controversy was provoked by the Pope saying

"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 the quote, the Pope in no way advocates the use of condoms but rather points out, by way of example, that when a male prostitute, presumably HIV+ and homosexual, uses a condom to reduce the risk of spreading a lethal disease, he is showing some advance along the scale of morality. That is, he is acknowledging that he may not do as he pleases, that his actions affect others and that he has some responsibility to others in the society; consequently, he is groping his way along the road to moral recovery. In other words, although his sexual behaviour is morally disordered and therefore sinful, his intention of not transmitting death to someone introduces an element of goodness in his behaviour without, however, changing the sinful nature of the act in any way. By way of example, lying under oath is always sinful, even if one tells the lie with the intention of protecting an innocent person. Equally, the deliberate killing an unborn child is always sinful, even if the child would be born deformed, or, in another case, to avoid foetal pain, anaesthetised by the abortionist.

The Pope, far from saying that condoms are good and should be used, if fact, explicitly ruled out condoms as a solution to HIV/AIDS, pointing out that the epidemic will only end when human sexuality is understood in its proper context of faithful and responsible human love. Again, to quote him

"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."

Here, the Pope is pointing out that condoms cannot be the solution to the AIDS epidemic since, despite being widely available, the rampant spread of HIV continues. This reality, he notes, is recognised even by secular sources who, agreeing that a condom-only solution is no solution at all, have proposed the ABC approach to the problem. In fact, the Pope identifies the "banalization of sexuality" as the primary culprit for the spread of AIDS. The banalization of sexuality refers to the reduction of sexuality to a casual encounter, shorn of any reference to the spiritual and moral dimensions of the human person. In the modern world, sexuality is too frequently used as an instant necessary gratification for lust rather than love, somewhat comparable to the gratification received through drug use.

This will no doubt generate more discussion and possibly lead to further confusion but, what needs to be kept in mind is that the Church received her teaching from Christ Himself. She does not and cannot change that teaching but rather interprets it anew for each successive generation. There will also be further efforts to interpret the Pope's comments contrary to the Church's perennial and well-known teaching and position on contraception. The Pope, however, has no power or authority to change Christ's teachings. His task is to pass on what has been handed down.

Pope Benedict XVI is a remarkably skilled and courageous theologian who, I believe, wishes to engage the modern world in a positive and fruitful dialogue about human sexuality so that the world's sterile and rigid ideological misconceptions of Man as nothing more than an intelligent ape might be replaced by the view of Man as a creature, only "a little lower than the angels." Ps.8:6. The controversy generated by the Regensberg lecture (12 Sept. 2006) has resulted in a small but healthy dialogue with segments of the Moslem world. I pray that this controversy will do the same for the West.

Family Life International is a Catholic Pro-Life / Pro-Family Organisation defending Faith Life and Family

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