20 November 2010

I'm not sure the Pope has said anything new here...

Back in September, when the Pope came to Britain, one of the things I wore myself out telling people was how rubbish the media are when it comes to religion; at this point I pretty much only ever trust John Allen, of America's National Catholic Reporter, when it comes to any news about the Vatican, say. This shouldn't be surprising, of course. There's an enormous amount of shoddy journalism out there, and when it comes to, say, science journalism, Ben Goldacre has had a field day pointing out how misleading it is. So, given this, I was rather startled to read today headlines like 'Pope says Condoms can be used in Fight Against AIDS'.

The story relates to some extracts that have been leaked from Peter Seewald's forthcoming book-length interview with the Pope, his third such; I've read the other two, and their 1985 predecessor, The Ratzinger Report, where the then Cardinal Ratzinger was interviewed at length by Vittorio Messori.

In this interview the subject of AIDS in Africa inevitably comes up, with Seewald asking about the impact of Church policy on the crisis. The Pope's answer is being leapt on by an ignorant -- and it must be said, hopeful -- media as the Vatican having changed its official stance on condom use. Here's the relevant passage from the book:
PS: 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.

B16: 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.

PS: Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?

B16: 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.

The first thing to note about this is that Benedict wasn't teaching here as 'The Pope'; this shouldn't be construed as an official stance of any sort. Rather it is a personal opinion, not to be understood as the Vatican's formal position, let alone an infallible doctrinal teaching. Elsewhere in the interview, Benedict is quite frank about the fact that popes can be wrong, and indeed he felt the need to preface his recent Jesus of Nazareth with the caveat that the book represents his personal thoughts, and shouldn't be misunderstood as something anyway binding on Catholics.

Secondly, what is he actually saying? He's saying that condoms aren't a practical solution to the problem, a position for which there certainly seems to be scientific support. He's also saying that condoms aren't a moral solution to the problem, in that they represent a banalization of sexuality; while you might disagree with that, it's certainly orthodox Church teaching. And finally he's saying that in cases where people are already ignoring of disobeying Church teaching, then use of condoms might represent a step in the right direction, a realisation that actions can have consequences and an attempt to limit harm.

This is commentary, not guidance. And it's not particularly earth-shaking guidance, either. Back in September I pointed out to friends that

'[...] the Pope has never said that condoms shouldn't be used when having sex outside of marriage. Not a word. All of his comments on the matter have concerned contraception within marriage. Why? Well, the Church regards sex as being exclusively for marriage - it is the act of marital communion, for want of a better way of putting it - and regards all extramarital sex as intrinsically wrong. Whether you agree with that is, in this context, neither here nor there. What matters is that the Church isn't in the business of advising people on how to mitigate things it regards as sins. It says, with God, "thou shalt not commit adultery" It doesn't say, "we'd rather you didn't commit adultery, but if you must cheat on your wife with some random skank, for whatever reason, well, it might be prudent to wear one of these things."'

Is he saying now that it would be prudent? As a theologian or an ordinary Catholic expressing his opinion, he is certainly saying that it might be better, that it might represent a step in the right direction. He's not saying that it would, just that it might. But as the Pope, the successor to Peter and custodian of the keys to the kingdom, charged with feeding and tending Jesus' flock, no, he's by no means teaching that condoms should be used. All he's saying is that for people who are inclined to ignore him anyway, a decision to use a condom could indicate a growing sense of moral responsibility.

Jimmy Akin sensibly analyses the interview fragment, and how it's been and is being presented, here.

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