Why What the Pope Said About Condoms Is No Big Deal

The way the media has been reacting to Pope Benedict XVI’s recent statement about condoms, you’d think he had just announced his engagement to Kim Kardashian. “Stunning . . . necessary shift . . . gets real,” etc. The pundits are acting like this is some major change in Catholic teaching and that Rome is finally starting to get with the program the progressives have been lecturing it about for decades.

Here is what the pope said when asked if condoms were an acceptable way to prevent the spread of HIV in Africa: “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.”

I’m not Catholic, and I’m happy to be corrected by someone more familiar with Catholic doctrine and social teaching, but to me this statement is perfectly in line with what Rome has said pretty much forever. Here’s my understanding of the position:

1. The purpose of sexual intercourse is procreation.

2. Contraception defeats the purpose of sexual intercourse and is therefore morally impermissible.

3. Condoms, as contraceptive devices, should not be used.

This is pretty straightforward, but what the pope said has nothing to do with any of this. Now, I’m assuming that when he referred to male prostitutes, he was talking about homosexual acts, and this is the sense in which the commentators I’ve read have also taken it. So in this case the whole question of contraception is completely irrelevant. The only function of the condom in the situation he described is to prevent the transmission of HIV or a disease.

Rome’s condemnation has never been of condoms per se, but always of contraception. I know a certain theater professor who uses condoms as pop filters on stage microphones because he swears nothing else works as well. Would anyone seriously entertain the suggestion that this usage of the condom would be condemned by Catholic teaching? Of course not; it’s not contraceptive. The same can be said of its usage by a male prostitute.

Of course, none of this means that Catholic teaching smiles on homosexual acts of any kind. It’s just that the condom in that situation is morally irrelevant from the usual angle. So please don’t go running around saying this is some major shakeup in the Catholic Church. It’s just one more instance of the media’s demonstrating its complete misunderstanding of religion in general and Christianity in particular.

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About Dr. J

I am an Associate Professor and head of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.
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3 Responses to Why What the Pope Said About Condoms Is No Big Deal

  1. Vic McCracken says:

    Jason, a few clarifications are in order here:

    (1) The Vatican has issued a clarification indicating that the comments about condom use being a “lesser evil” apply to both homosexual and heterosexual relations in which the spread of AIDS is an issue. The miscommunication arose because initial quotes were from German, French, and English versions–which used the male article when referring to the prostitute–while the Italian version uses the female article. As a Vatican spokesperson says, “If it is a man, a woman or a transsexual who does it, we are always at the same point, which is the first step in responsibly avoiding passing on a grave risk to the other. ” (You can check out the clarification at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/vaticancityandholysee/8154176/Pope-condom-use-not-limited-to-male-prostitutes.html)

    (2) While I agree with you that this is not a substantial revision to Catholic teaching (i.e. using condoms to inhibit procreation is still deemed immoral) it does signal a shift that the media rightly observes regarding how to fight the AIDS epidemic. For years the Catholic church has decried the distribution of condoms to combat AIDS in Africa, even claiming in a 2009 trip to Africa that condoms make the problem of AIDS worse (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/mar/17/pope-africa-condoms-aids ). In a way the pope’s recent comments strike a middle ground between the traditional Catholic position and a the reality that public health experts have pointed to for years about the role of condom use in preventing the spread of AIDS. I don’t see the pope arguing for the distribution of condoms, but he is clearly backtracking from his previous comments about the consequences of condom use (i.e. he no longer seems to believe that using condoms will make the AIDS epidemic worse in Africa, a silly claim that belies both common sense and empirical evidence).

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