Last week’s Church news gave ample proof why Popes generally shy away from giving interviews to the media or anyone. In case you missed it, Pope Benedict XVI last summer devoted a good length of time to being interviewed by a German journalist, Peter Seewald, who previously interviewed him prior to his election as Pope. The resulting book Light of the World was published in German, Italian and English [Ignatius Press] at exactly the same time as the Holy Father was creating new cardinals and excerpts from the long interview made the front pages of the world’s press. Headlines such as “Pope Approves Condoms” and “Church Allows Condom Use for Male Prostitutes” greeted us in one form or another last week. So what did the Holy Father actually say and what does it mean for the Church? First, some important points need to be made. Pope Benedict in granting this interview to a journalist he trusted made it abundantly clear that his personal opinions, much like his reflections on the life of Jesus which he is writing in book form while Pope, are not to be taken as definitive Church teaching. That is accomplished in other more formal ways. Rather, he is allowing Catholics and others who are interested to know a little more about his own thoughts on major issues of Christian living and behaving. So his comments on condoms do not change official Church teaching. But in expanding on this issue, if one takes the time to read the whole section, one sees a priest searching for a pastoral application of sound moral teaching to a difficult issue.
In response to Seewald’s question about the possible use of condoms to combat the spread of the HIV-AIDS virus, the Holy Father suggested in the interview that condom use might be justified in some very limited circumstances, “as perhaps when the male prostitute uses a condom” as a “first step in the direction of moralisation, a first assumption of responsibility on the way toward recovering 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. . . .She [the Catholic Church] 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 towards a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”
I was not at all surprised by this statement because in November of 1986 the Administrative Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued its first statement on the pandemic and in that document said that applying the morally accepted principal of “the lesser of two evils”, death being the greater evil, under certain circumstances condom use could be morally permissable. A huge uproar greeted this document, even within the bishops’ conference, caused in part by a procedural issue that it had been issued by a committee of the Conference on the very eve of a plenary conference when all the bishops could have debated and decided the issue instead of fifty-two bishops. The guidance of that first document on combatting the spread of HIV-AIDS through a variety of possibilities was also a part of the ensuing uproar and debate. A year later the same conference issued a second statement on the HIV-AIDS pandemic which while it never acknowledged that there was theological error to be found in the first statement chose to drop the section on the use of condoms.
At that time I was working on the forthcoming second pastoral visit of Pope John Paul II to the United States which took place in 1987 and I accompanied the officers of the USCC-NCCB to Rome for their twice yearly visits to the Pope and Curia. They visited Cardinal Ratzinger and the officers of the conference brought up the matter of the first AIDS statement. The then head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that in his opinion while the moral theology contained in the first statement was defensible, he had concerns about the pastoral prudence of the condom approach at that time. In a later letter to the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Pio Laghi, Cardinal Ratzinger expressed an opposite opinion on condom use. So it was obviously a matter even then which he was reflecting on and thinking about. Pope John Paul II in his private meeting acknowledged the uproar in the states but did not express great alarm nor was he critical of the application of moral theology in that statement.
So I for one was not surprised when Pope Benedict XVI spoke of a very limited application of the principal of the lesser of two evils in his interview with author Seewald. Does this mean that the Church is advocating condom use? No, abstinence has been and continues to be our message and the proper application and understanding of human sexuality is not threatened either. Rather, the Holy Father is speaking to a possible situation in which a precaution might be used to avoid the greater evil of death. In other words, I found the statement of Pope Benedict to be reflective of his thinking twenty-four years previous in private conversations. Struggling as many confessors might do, the Holy Father simply said there might be cases where the use of a condom can represent the first stirrings of a sense of moral responsibility, if the intent is to save the life of another person. He does not advocate condom use and he does not generally condone condom use. There are enough nuances here to protect the long held Church teaching that condoms are not a “real or moral solution.”
For many years both Cardinal Josef Ratzinger and now Pope Benedict XVI and many bishops around the world have reflected and considered the application of the principle of the lesser of two evils and its application to the HIV-AIDS pandemic. This same Holy Father early in his pontificate asked the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to further study the issue and that work product is not yet finished. In the new book we merely are exposed to the Pope’s reflection on a very small part of the question. He did not intend nor should he be thought of as backing off the long-teaching of the Church on artificial contraception for either of the two purposes of marriage: mutual communion of life and love leading to eternity and bringing children into the world. I feel for Pope Benedict in the context of his remarks above because he is taking it on the chin from left and right at the moment. However, he is a strong teacher and a moral force for good in the world. I feel for him that in the current controversy, right as he predicted, little attention is being given to the role which the Catholic Church around the world plays in treating persons with HIV-AIDS. My beloved Catholic Relief Services is often belittled by US-AID (a branch of the U.S. Department of State) for not distributing condoms in its response to the pandemic yet the same agency often turns to us as first providers in the government program for wider use of anti-retroviral protocols in countries experiencing major incidences of the disease. More will be written on this subject in the years to come and it seems to me that what we have here is an example of the universal pastor confronting a major global killer with thoughtful reflection. That’s my take on the condom conundrum.