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What the Pope was really saying about condoms

2010 November 23
by Paul Vallely

Everyone seems to have got what they wanted from the latest Pope and condoms story.  Liberals have pronounced that the entire polar icecap of Catholic sexual morality has started to melt. Conservatives have insisted that nothing has changed in the Vatican’s opposition to artificial contraception. But is all this just wishful thinking all round?

Of course it is possible to say this is just the latest maladroit media comment from a Pope who has built a reputation for PR gaffes. But that takes us clearly to the central question it all raises: is Pope Benedict sending out a hesitant signal – running an idea up the flagpole, as the politicians put it when they deploy this favourite media-leak tactic – or has the pontiff slipped up again by not realising that what you actually say is not what people always hear?

Interestingly there is an awareness of that in the interviews Benedict XVI gave to the German journalist Peter Seewald for his new book, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times. Pointing out that no organisation does more for people with Aids than the Catholic Church, which cares for a quarter of all the world’s victims of the disease, Benedict laments this is not registered in “the tribunal of the newspapers”. The book explicitly deals with the Pope’s exasperation at the way his words or gestures are often over-interpreted, with their significance stretched well beyond his actual intent.

That being the case, though, one must assume that he is aware that when he talks of condom use, and the first example that comes to his mind is of a gay male prostitute – rather than a married couple where the man is HIV positive and his wife is not – he is will seem to be revealing that the Roman hierarchical clerical mindset is irredeemably androcentric, if not downright misogynistic.

It may just be that he chose the example because in gay male sex a condom is used indisputably for the prevention of disease transmission; obviously there can be no ambiguity about preventing pregnancy through double effect. Yet look at the philosophical justification the Pope used: that “ 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” . That raises more questions than it shuts down.

If we are talking about the lesser of evils – and saying that gay sex may be wrong, but gay sex with a condom is less so – then we have embarked upon a new vocabulary and new incremental method of reasoning. If the balance of good is such that is it OK to use a condom to protect a gay man from disease, why is it not so for an uninfected wife whose husband has Aids? Might it come down to whether she has a greater chance of conceiving or catching the disease from a single act? It might be possibly to determine that statistically. But that seems utilitarian.

Revealingly, the Vatican has never officially pronounced on the contentious issue of whether condoms are permissible in a married couple where one has Aids. Senior clerics and moral theologians have given different views. In 2006 Benedict XVI asked the Pontifical Council for the Health Care Pastoral to examine the question. It hesitantly concluded that, in such cases, condoms might be permissible. But other forces in the Vatican suppressed its findings, for fear they would be misinterpreted by the press as an effective lifting of the ban on contraception.

We may now have some idea which way Pope Benedict is personally inclining on the issue. Whether he is going to allow an official statement is another matter. My suspicion is that Rome will prefer the current deliberately-clouded approach where personal pastoral advice is given under the radar. It is time to be bolder.

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