Pope Benedict on condoms – nuanced thinking in an age of sound bites

Excerpts taken from Peter Seewald’s interview with Pope Benedict that touch upon HIV/AIDS and condoms have been published resulting in sensational headlines in the media. Sky News have run the following dramatic and misleading headlines, ‘Pope’s conversion to condoms’, ‘Pope’s U turn on condoms’, ‘Pope Benedict changes the Catholic Church’s policy on condoms’. Sky even goes so far as to conclude that Catholics who have used condoms in the past can now believe that condom use is less sinful than it was!

These head-lines, and statements, are not true and reveal yet again the decline of journalism from being an accurate record of fact and intelligent comment to being  just another form of sensationalist entertainment.

As with all reflections on important and complex issues its important to read them in context, and this rule applies especially to anything written or said by Pope Benedict XVI, one of the great theologians of the modern Church.

The key to understanding Pope Benedict’s response to Seewald’s question is to realise that the Church approaches issues of morality in two, inter-related ways – the Magisterium proclaims the truth and her pastors seek to help individuals gradually realise that truth in their lives.

In this interview Pope Benedict is responding to the question of HIV/AIDS and condoms as a pastor, the Pastor of the Catholic Church. He takes it for granted that Peter Seewald and his readers understand that the Catholic Church teaches that using condoms is an intrinsically immoral act that debases and impoverishes human sexuality.

In the interview Pope Benedict gives the example of a male prostitute making the decision to use a condom. The Holy Father sees this as the prostitute taking the first step in making moral choices that, hopefully lead him to a mature, fully human understanding of sexuality, implying stopping being a male prostitute and abstaining from homosexual genital acts:

‘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.’

This shows Pope Benedict responding to the example of a male prostitute with the compassion of a pastor, who asks what moral good is possible for this individual coping with these immoral circumstances. A pastor doesn’t impose an ideology, but encourages the individual to increasingly choose the good.

Peter Seewald goes on to ask, ‘Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?’

Again Pope Benedict responds as a pastor who encourages individuals to begin the gradual journey of becoming more moral:

‘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.’

In the rest of the interview Pope Benedict is clear that condoms are not the answer to HIV/AIDS, re-iterating the teaching of the Catholic Church. In fact, the Holy Father insists that the use of condoms causes the recreational use of sex which is at the heart of the HIV/AIDS pandemic:

‘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.’

Protect the Pope comment: When Pope Benedict gives an interview or homily or issues a document, he expects an adult response from his audience. Unlike the media he does not infantalise or patronise his audience, he treats us as adults who can listen and reason. Yet again the media have let us down by their usual ‘sound bite’ journalism.

Pope Benedict must have known that the media would try to twist his words to suit their permissive agendas, but he hasn’t let this stop him talking to us as adults who can think for ourselves. The sub text of his whole interview is ‘Ignore the media and listen to what I’m really saying’.

Protect the Pope recommends that everyone interested in what the pope really says in Peter Seewald’s book should buy a copy from the CTS http://www.cts-online.org.uk/acatalog/info_B737.html

7 comments to Pope Benedict on condoms – nuanced thinking in an age of sound bites

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  • John

    Indeed, we have an intellectual and thoughtful Pope, with an infantile and ignorant media.

    The media have created their own version of reality, their commentators praising something that doesn’t exist. It’s kinda like seeing the little kid playing with a cardboard box over his head, pretending he’s a racecar driver – they’re out of touch with reality!

    Benedict’s comments are nothing surprising (or news worthy, quite frankly). Again and again, he shows himself to be one of the greatest minds of our time.

  • James H

    As soon as I heard the headline on Sunday, I knew someone had maneuvered the Pope into saying something, and the media naturally carried out their cut-and-paste job.

    At least it doesn’t seem to have blown up into a major weekday headline – yet! They seem as determined to silence the Pope as ever, even when he might be saying something they agree with.

    The FACT is: condom promotion has never led to a lowering of the HIV infection rate: ever.
    The FACT is: those countries in Africa where AIDS is endemic, ‘just happen’ to be those where Catholics make up less than 10% of the population, and there is no religious disapproval of the use of condoms.
    These are facts – but the media don’t care about facts, they want ideology. They care so much about ‘Free Lurve’ they don’t care how many people die as a result.

    It’s not the church sacrificing people for principle here, folks.

    • Tim H

      “someone had maneuvered the Pope into saying something”

      I happen to think that the Pope is smart enough to know exactly what he was saying. Peter Seewald appears to be an honourable man (ex-catholic from Munich with a reputation as an experienced and ethical journalist) and I don’t think he would be a likely to cynically manipulate the Pope.

      “The FACT is: those countries in Africa where AIDS is endemic, ‘just happen’ to be those where Catholics make up less than 10% of the population, and there is no religious disapproval of the use of condoms.”

      Your fact is correct. But surely Catholic countries have (in general – the correlation is real but not perfect) low AIDS rates because of Catholic teaching on marriage and faithfulness NOT because of Catholic disapproval of condoms.

      The position that you need to deny people condoms in order to cause them to behave is wrong. It may well be the case that some people decide to remain faithful because they are scared to catching disease but it seems to me that having the death penalty as the punishment for infidelity (either your own infidelity or that of your spouse) is disproportional and therefore wrong.

      People ought not to tresspass onto the railway, those that do are stupid, selfish and criminal, but they don’t deserve to be hit and killed by a train. It is therefore a moral action to put up fences to protect them.

      Is there any evidence that throwing condoms at people leads to them having more sex, or riskier sex or less monogamous sex? I’d be interested to see it if there is.

    • Tim H

      “The FACT is: condom promotion has never led to a lowering of the HIV infection rate: ever.”

      What James do you make of this then…

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2940912/pdf/1471-2458-10-497.pdf

      Seems to me that behavioural studies are very difficult to do (because there are so many variable), but it does seem to be pretty good evidence that an intervention programme aimed at high risk people which included provision of condoms (along with other interventions – note it is not simply throwing condoms at people and then leaving them to it) resulted both in those condoms being used and STD infection rates falling.

      Now there are several holes you could pick in the study – is the conclusion transferable to people at low risk of infection? Did the condoms lead to the drop in infections or was it the advice given?

      I would never argue that condoms work on the basis of a single study, but I do think that studies like this (and see citations for other studies) undermine your very assertive statement of FACT.

      If you are interested in getting into this data in detail, there is a Cochrane review at

      http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/o/cochrane/clsysrev/articles/CD003255/frame.html

      These reviews are usually regarded as the “gold standard” of medical evidence because they involve a “metaanalysis” of all the data from different publications thereby attempting to minimise the impact of error and bias in individual studies and effectively increasing the sample size and statistical validity of the conclusions.

  • Tim H

    Presumably when the Immunologists come up with a vaccine for HIV (which they will one day although having been one of those Immunologists for a while, I can tell you that it will not be easy although luckely there are plenty fo people who are better immunologists than I was), the Catholic Church would cooperate in getting people vaccinated as they would with a vaccine for any other infectous disease?

    If the answer is yes. Then doesn’t that reveal that the anti-condom attitude of the Church is really about contraception rather than AIDS?

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