What Pope Benedict XVI Did and Didn't Say About Condoms

He definitely didn't say we should all become male prostitutes

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On Saturday, L'Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of the Vatican, published excerpts of a book-length interview between Pope Benedict XVI and the German journalist Peter Seewald. The book, Light of the World, will be published on Tuesday. In the excerpts, Benedict said at one point that there are situations in which he might condone the use of condoms--for example, if a gay prostitute uses them to lessen the risk of HIV infection. Benedict's comments have drawn tremendous attention, in part because he's received criticism in the past for upholding the Catholic Church's hard-line anti-condom stance even in the face of Africa's AIDS epidemic.

  • What the Pope Said  Here's the passage that's been quoted most often:

BENEDICT: 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.

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

BENEDICT: 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.

Some onlookers insist that nothing has changed. That's also the official position of the Vatican.

  • Benedict Was Speaking for Himself, Not the Church, notes George Weigel at National Review. "The truth of the matter is that no pope with his wits about him would use the vehicle of an interview with a journalist to discuss a new initiative, lay out a pastoral program, or explicate a development of doctrine," Weigel writes. "Light of the World is chock-full of interesting material... But such interviews never are going to be used for the most serious exercises of papal authority."

  • Church Policy Remains the Same  The Guardian reports that "the Vatican has moved to clarify remarks made by the pope on the use of condoms, insisting he had 'not reformed or changed the [Roman Catholic] church's teaching,'" and that "as the Vatican noted in a longer, Italian version of its statement, the pope's remarks were made in a 'colloquial and not magisterial' form. In other words, they represented his private opinions rather than official teaching."

  • One Analogy: Prostitute as Drug Dealer  Erin Manning at the blog And Sometimes Tea offers her reading: "Suppose that a drug dealer started worrying about all the people who were going to get AIDS by sharing needles in order to use the heroin he was selling, and then suppose that he decided to reduce that risk by handing out free clean needles to his customers. Could that be the beginnings of morality in a person who deals in grave sin, misery and death, and who is steeped in grave sins that place a huge barrier between himself and any kind of good relationship with the Lord Jesus which might possibly lead him to repent of his sins and seek eternal salvation? Sure, and the pope might even say so. But if the pope said so, would that mean that the pope was suddenly in favor of supplying drug dealers with clean needles in the fight against AIDS? Um, definitely not."

  • Another Analogy: Prostitute as Bank Robber  Janet Smith at The Catholic World Report takes a different route to reach the same conclusion: "If someone was going to rob a bank and was determined to use a gun, it would better for that person to use a gun that had no bullets in it.  It would reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries. But it is not the task of the Church to instruct potential bank robbers how to rob banks more safely and certainly not the task of the Church to support programs of providing potential bank robbers with guns that could not use bullets."

But for others, Benedict's comments suggest that something fundamental has shifted.

  • Some Catholics See This as a Safe-Sex Thumbs-Up  The Christian Science Monitor reports that "some followers, particularly in areas of the world hit hardest by AIDS, have given the pope's comments a broad interpretation." The Monitor quotes Peter Makome, a Cholic priest in Zimbabwe, who says, "I've got brothers and sisters and friends who are suffering from HIV because they were not practicing safe sex... Now the message has come out that they can go ahead and do safe sex; it's much better for everyone."

  • The Door's Open Now, declares an editorial in The Guardian. "Only last year, on his way to Africa, Benedict said that condom use did not prevent the spread of Aids. Only fidelity and abstinence did that, he claimed. Now, the pope is saying the reverse," the editorial reads. "That is not just a U-turn. It is also an about-face on an issue over which the Catholic church has chosen to be implacable ever since the sexual liberalisation of last century first posed a challenge to traditional thinking ... His comments are not just significant in an academic theological way. They are also a step on to a very slippery slope of theology and political management alike. By allowing some exceptions, he will, whether he likes it or not, be seen to have opened the way to others."

  • This Is Huge, agrees The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan. "Once you introduce a spectrum of moral choices for the homosexual, you have to discuss a morality for homosexuals," Sullivan writes. "Previously, it was simply: whatever you do is so vile none of it 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 ... 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."

  • Hmm, Interesting Analogy  Dan Savage at The Stranger finds much to mock in Benedict's careful parsing. "Condoms are okay when they're being used to protect men who see male prostitutes," writes Savage. "They're not okay when they're being used to protect a woman—a woman who might already have more kids than she can possibly feed—from an unwanted pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection. That's when condoms are not okay. But condoms are totally cool if men are using them to protect themselves from any diseases that a gay hooker might have. I think we understand each other, Benedict. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, pray no more, pray no more."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.