Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Pope’s Latest Condom Remarks

Same-old-same-old? Or the beginning of a movement
on the part of the church's clerical caste toward spiritual maturity
and the articulation of teaching that actually reflects reality?

On one level I have to admit I’m having a hard time seeing what all the fuss is about the pope’s latest statements on condoms. I mean, really, who nowadays actually gives credence to anything the clerical caste of the Roman Catholic Church says about sexuality?

After all, over 95% of Catholic straight couples practice birth control, and Catholics are the single most favorable Christian denomination when it comes to acceptance of gay people and relationships. (How
favorable? Well, 62% of Catholics believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society, while 69% favor the legalization of those basic rights accorded to married heterosexual couples for gays and lesbians in long-term committed relationships.) And when was the last time you heard a Catholic cleric preach about the evils of masturbation? Like birth control, the members of the clerical caste know (but can never admit publicly) that the church as the people of God decided long ago that the “official” teaching on this issue is erroneous and irrelevant.

I just can’t see anything the pope saying that is reflective of an enlightened view of sexuality striking the majority of Catholics as something new . . . well, at least, something new to them. What would be new (and welcomed) would be the pope and the hierarchy’s catching up with the rest of the church; or, as Colleen Kochivar-Baker puts it, their moving in the direction of “redefining sexual morality on the basis of relationship as opposed to biology.”

Does the pope's recent condom comments signify such a movement toward spiritual maturity and credible teaching? Some clearly think so, whereas others aren't so sure. Commentator David Gibson, for instance,
that “Catholic teaching has never totally barred the use of condoms to protect people from contracting the HIV virus that causes AIDS.”

What is clear is that there are some people who do indeed allow their sexual lives to be dictated by only what the pope says. Case in point: in Zimbabwe, Peter Makome, a Catholic priest, told the Associated Press that: “Now the message has come out that [men and women] can go ahead and do safe sex, it’s much better for everyone.”

Now, whether or not Makome's interpretation of the pope's recent condom remarks are accurate is up for debate, but what is clear by Makome's coment is that before the pope’s latest statements on condoms, all those people Makome refers to were presumably not practicing safe sex. That’s really sad – for a number of reasons. One is that the "message" to practice safe sex can only come from the pope and not from these people's own consciences, informed and shaped not only by the "official" teaching but by the insights of human experience (theirs and others') and the findings of science. Such sources for theological reflection and thus ongoing development of "official" church teaching are tragically absent in the world of the Vatican. Are we seeing, however, in the pope's recent statements on condoms, the beginning of a change?

I have no definite answers – though others seem to. And so I thought I’d pull together some of the more informative and insightful perspectives that I’ve come across online concerning the pope’s recent condom remarks. Feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments section of this post.


Many reports portrayed the pope’s statements as a stunning reversal for the church, although Benedict was actually articulating longstanding Catholic tradition on the morality of preventing HIV and was not approving condoms for birth control. But his remarks were important for the extent of their explanation of this complex matter – and because they come from the pope, which makes them more authoritative than other church proclamations.

. . . The pope’s remarks on condoms were among the most controversial in the excerpts printed by the Vatican daily, L’Osservatore Romano, on Saturday, and drew the most interest.

“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,” the pontiff said. (Because prostitute is a masculine noun in German, it was also unclear whether Benedict meant a male sex worker. In the Italian version of the book the noun is feminine.)

. . . Catholic teaching has never totally barred the use of condoms to protect people from contracting the HIV virus that causes AIDS. And the Vatican has never issued a formal pronouncement on the matter other than to stress that abstinence is always the best means of prevention, even if it that is often impractical. Earlier this year the Vatican said it had shelved a study to determine whether, or what, Rome should say on the matter, deciding that it was preferable to leave the question open-ended, depending on the circumstances rather than making a blanket judgment.

– David Gibson
Pope Oks Condoms in Some Cases, Such as Prostitutes Avoiding HIV
Politics Daily
November 20, 2010

I find it laughable that so many influential Catholics of the center are applauding this timid (and back-handed) baby step towards honest moral reflection about the use of condoms (and about homosexuality) as a huge step forward. I certainly recognize that this papal statement is important, as the smallest, most grudging recognition possible that all moral questions about condom use (and homosexuality) aren't solved by a single black and white rubric, particularly a black and white rubric of universal condemnation.

But, still: this is the best the Catholic church has to offer its adherents and the world right now? And we're expected to laud this grudging tiny step and to tell the Holy Father how grateful we are for his condescension in deigning to make observations that have long been perfectly obvious to anyone with a head on her shoulders and a working conscience? I don't get it.

. . . The problem in which the church finds itself right now is much more serious than any spin doctoring and image management -- like the election of Timothy Dolan as head of the U.S. bishops, or the spinning of a papal statement about male prostitutes and condoms -- is going to resolve. The problem the Catholic church would be confronting now, if it cared at all about its real mission and real credibility, is this: how can an institution that has earned a well-deserved reputation for hard-heartedness possibly continue to claim the affiliation of people who are seeking something else from religious affiliation: a welcoming, affirming home; brothers and sisters whose hearts are supple and who journey together towards spiritual ideals that aren't exclusively owned by any of us, etc.?

The Church is opposed to artificial contraception, not condoms per se. Just as, in Humanae vitae, the Pill may be used for medical purposes (to prevent heavy bleeding, say), if the intention of using a condom is to prevent infection, not pregnancy, then it was not contraceptive in intention. The point is obvious that – not to put too fine a point on it – a condom used between two men can hardly be considered contraceptive in its purpose; and the same would be true if a husband who returns from the mines infected with HIV uses one to stop his wife getting infected.

– Austen Ivereigh
Pope on Condoms and AIDS: The Background
November 21, 2010

It appears that [the pope’s] logic is that by using condoms, male prostitutes are not really blocking procreation, unlike heterosexuals who use condoms. He appears to remain opposed to condom use for married heterosexuals in cases in which one party is infected with HIV.

I understand the thinking; I just can’t wrap my head around the morality. Yet, I accept it as perhaps a step in the right direction, a tiny inclination towards placing the good of the people above the Church’s somewhat arbitrary opposition to a piece of latex.

– Timothy Kincaid
Pope: Gay Hustlers Can Use Condoms
Box Turtle Bulletin
November 20, 2010

Now, this might seem like the bleeding obvious to anyone with a shred of moral sense – but until now, the Vatican has never dealt with such nuances, and certainly not advocated any form of gay sex that might be more moral than other forms of gay sex.

This latter point is revolutionary, in fact, as the Vatican's rather panicked official response suggests.

Yes, I know Benedict is talking of a prostitute; but once you introduce a spectrum of moral choices for the homosexual, you have to discuss a morality for homosexuals. Previously, it was simply: whatever you do is so vile none of can be moral. Now, it appears to be: even in a sexual encounter between a prostitute and his john there is a spectrum of moral conduct.

And so Pandora’s box opens. If it represents a “moralization” when a male prostitute wears a condom, would it be another step in his moralization to give up prostitution for a non-mercenary sexual and emotional relationship? In such a relationship, would it be more moral for such a man to disclose his HIV status or not? If he does, would it not be more moral for him to wear a condom in sex than not?

We all know the answer to these questions. They’re obvious. The new thing here is that the Church has stumbled backward into acknowledging that gay men exist, that within our lives as gay men, there are constant gradations of moral choices; and so Catholic teaching must apply to us in the gray areas of moral and sexual choices and nuances. Until now, no such guidance was really provided except general prohibition: y’all be celibate, and if you're miserable and alone, so was Jesus on the cross. Now, by conceding one small gradation of moral life, that between a rubbered prostitute and a bareback prostitute, the Pope has moved from his arid abstractions to real morality that might be able to guide real people.

– Andrew Sullivan
The Pope and the Male HIV Positive Prostitute
The Daily Dish
November 21, 2010

There is significance here for all Catholics. Once you recognize degrees of morality in different situations for gay men, how can you ignore the degrees of morality in other sexual situations? Once you introduce a spectrum of moral choices for the homosexual, you must in fairness do the same for heterosexuals. How, in short can you continue to ignore the context in which genital acts take place?

– Terence Weldon
Condoms and the ‘Marital Act’
The Open Tabernacle
November 21, 2010

In the original Italian Benedict actually doesn't qualify his use of the word prostitute to male prostitute or homosexual male prostitute. He just said prostitute. It's interesting this got garbled in the English translation. It could be that we all projected our own stuff into what he actually said because we couldn't hear what he was actually saying. It literally didn't compute. Which says a great deal about how beat down the progressive wing is when we can't hear good news from the Vatican.

But the real important messages for me are that this is also a small step in the direction of redefining sexual morality on the basis of relationship as opposed to biology. It's also a small step in the notion of humanity evolving as individuals in moral and spiritual maturity. That is a huge statement because the prevailing attitude in Catholicism doesn't include the notion of evolution in understanding or maturity. It's all been obedience, obedience, obedience ad nauseum.

– Colleen Kochivar-Baker
Pope Benedict and Condoms (Part III):
The Vatican Clarification Goes Were No Pope Has Gone Before

Enlightened Catholicism
November 21, 2010

Recommended Off-site Links:
Pope's Surprise Condom Remarks Fuel Debate – David Willey (
BBC News, November 21, 2010).
Pope on Condoms and AIDS: The Background – Austen Ivereigh (
America, November 21, 2010).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Pope Accused of "Distorting Scientific Evidence" on Condom Use
The Pope's Message of Ignorance in Africa
Vatican Considers the Lesser of Two Evils
And a Merry Christmas to You Too, Papa


Marky said...

If the Pope's opinion about condom user is irrelevant then why opine in turn? Why pay any attention to it at all?

Erik Jensen of the Sydney Morning Herald opened his article "Church tests the water on condoms" by saying "The Pope's example was exceptionally specific: a male prostitute may use a condom where he knows he is HIV-positive and that his way of life is wrong.

The Pope is not saying condoms are a good thing. I hear him saying using them can mitigates the damage done by misbehavior, and is better seen as the beginning of "metanoia" or conversion. An apt comparison is the use of methadone in place of heroin.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi, Marky. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.

Just because I may find the pope's recent comments on condoms irrelevant, doesn't mean that they're not significant to others.

It's a topical issue, and I feel I owe it to my readers to share a range of perspectives in response to it. That's the primary purpose of this post -- to share perspectives other than my own rather impatient (and thus perhaps overly dismissive) one.



Anonymous said...

I ACTUALLY had a glimmer of hope regarding Roman Catholicism when I heard this news...UNTIL I read the rest of the story, that is.

This line of thinking reminds me of when the IRS tried to collect taxes a number of years ago from illegal drug dealers. The punchline of course is that no drug dealer is going to report that income any...way. So why would the Church care (sin wise that is) if prostitutes use condoms or not? The Church considers them to be in mortal sin anyway. What he should be condoning is condom use between married or committed couples with HIV+ status.

And his views on homosexuality are more outrageous than ever.