Catholics and condoms

The Vatican has clarified Pope Benedict XVI ‘s comments on the use of condoms. His original comments — reported on the MPR site and elsewhere, of course — seemed to suggest that the Catholic Church was changing its position on the subject.

It’s not, the statement makes clear.

Following the publication of the interview-book Light of the World by Benedict XVI, a number of erroneous interpretations have emerged which have caused confusion concerning the position of the Catholic Church regarding certain questions of sexual morality. The thought of the Pope has been repeatedly manipulated for ends and interests which are entirely foreign to the meaning of his words – a meaning which is evident to anyone who reads the entire chapters in which human sexuality is treated. The intention of the Holy Father is clear: to rediscover the beauty of the divine gift of human sexuality and, in this way, to avoid the cheapening of sexuality which is common today.

Some interpretations have presented the words of the Pope as a contradiction of the traditional moral teaching of the Church. This hypothesis has been welcomed by some as a positive change and lamented by others as a cause of concern – as if his statements represented a break with the doctrine concerning contraception and with the Church’s stance in the fight against AIDS. In reality, the words of the Pope – which specifically concern a gravely disordered type of human behaviour, namely prostitution (cf. Light of the World, pp. 117-119) – do not signify a change in Catholic moral teaching or in the pastoral practice of the Church.

As is clear from an attentive reading of the pages in question, the Holy Father was talking neither about conjugal morality nor about the moral norm concerning contraception. This norm belongs to the tradition of the Church and was summarized succinctly by Pope Paul VI in paragraph 14 of his Encyclical Letter Humanae vitae, when he wrote that “also to be excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation–whether as an end or as a means.” The idea that anyone could deduce from the words of Benedict XVI that it is somehow legitimate, in certain situations, to use condoms to avoid an unwanted pregnancy is completely arbitrary and is in no way justified either by his words or in his thought. On this issue the Pope proposes instead – and also calls the pastors of the Church to propose more often and more effectively (cf. Light of the World, p. 147) – humanly and ethically acceptable ways of behaving which respect the inseparable connection between the unitive and procreative meaning of every conjugal act, through the possible use of natural family planning in view of responsible procreation.

On the pages in question, the Holy Father refers to the completely different case of prostitution, a type of behaviour which Christian morality has always considered gravely immoral (cf. Vatican II, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, n. 27; Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2355). The response of the entire Christian tradition – and indeed not only of the Christian tradition – to the practice of prostitution can be summed up in the words of St. Paul: “Flee from fornication” (1 Cor 6:18). The practice of prostitution should be shunned, and it is the duty of the agencies of the Church, of civil society and of the State to do all they can to liberate those involved from this practice.

In this regard, it must be noted that the situation created by the spread of AIDS in many areas of the world has made the problem of prostitution even more serious. Those who know themselves to be infected with HIV and who therefore run the risk of infecting others, apart from committing a sin against the sixth commandment are also committing a sin against the fifth commandment – because they are consciously putting the lives of others at risk through behaviour which has repercussions on public health. In this situation, the Holy Father clearly affirms that the provision of condoms does not constitute “the real or moral solution” to the problem of AIDS and also that “the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality” in that it refuses to address the mistaken human behaviour which is the root cause of the spread of the virus. In this context, however, it cannot be denied that anyone who uses a condom in order to diminish the risk posed to another person is intending to reduce the evil connected with his or her immoral activity. In this sense the Holy Father points out that the use of a condom “with the intention of reducing the risk of infection, can be a first step in a movement towards a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.” This affirmation is clearly compatible with the Holy Father’s previous statement that this is “not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection.”

Some commentators have interpreted the words of Benedict XVI according to the so-called theory of the “lesser evil”. This theory is, however, susceptible to proportionalistic misinterpretation (cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Veritatis splendor, n. 75-77). An action which is objectively evil, even if a lesser evil, can never be licitly willed. The Holy Father did not say – as some people have claimed – that prostitution with the use of a condom can be chosen as a lesser evil. The Church teaches that prostitution is immoral and should be shunned. However, those involved in prostitution who are HIV positive and who seek to diminish the risk of contagion by the use of a condom may be taking the first step in respecting the life of another – even if the evil of prostitution remains in all its gravity. This understanding is in full conformity with the moral theological tradition of the Church.

In conclusion, in the battle against AIDS, the Catholic faithful and the agencies of the Catholic Church should be close to those affected, should care for the sick and should encourage all people to live abstinence before and fidelity within marriage. In this regard it is also important to condemn any behaviour which cheapens sexuality because, as the Pope says, such behaviour is the reason why so many people no longer see in sexuality an expression of their love: “This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also 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” (Light of the World, p. 119).

  • Jim Shapiro

    The Church’s significant contribution to the demonizing of sexuality and marginalization of women make’s it all the more important to remember Jesus’ stated message of love, forgiveness, and rejection of pompous religiosity.

  • John P.

    I wonder if we can ever stop referring to the Catholic Church as “the Church”. There are lots of churches that are not Catholic. They have not been “the Church” for a very long time now.

  • Bob Collins

    It’s an appropriate term on SECOND reference, similar to the Council, after one establishes which City Council one is referring to.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Context, John, context. As good old Bill Shakespeare would say, me thinks you doth protest too much. Do I sense a fellow recovering Catholic? Merry Christmas, or Happy Holidays. Whichever you’re most comfortable with ๐Ÿ™‚

  • GregS

    The church never “demonised” sexuality, if it did the would have gone the way of the Shakers years ago.

    What the church has demonised is promiscuity. Something that in the past only the wealthy could afford.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Greg: Is teaching girls and women that if they don’t live up to the sexual standards of the Virgin Mary, they’re whores not demonizing? Is prohibiting any sexuality for priests, thus in effect putting out a “Help Wanted” sign for those who are attempting to repress their sexuality (ie. pedophiles) not demonizing? You set the demon bar pretty high, or low, my friend.

  • GregS


    In an age where eight year old can surf porn sites and a multi-billion clothing industry markets the look and attitudes of whores to pre-pubescent girls, it is laughable to criticize the Catholic church.

    Perhaps it is time to revisit the battleground of the sexual revolution and rebuild the structures we destroyed. A rebuilt society would not look the same as it did before the revolution, but it would be better than today.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Greg: As a father and a concerned human being, I share your anger and frustration regarding the hyper-sexual media attack on children, of course permitted and even carried out by irresponsible parents. But in that you appear to think in blacks and whites,( sadly typical of one who thinks with their indoctrinated “faith” rather than the mind that God gave them) perhaps you should return to the simple axiom that “two wrongs don’t make a right”, and reevaluate your laughable and irrational attempt to defend the tragic wrongs of the Catholic Church. Perhaps if the Church had not treated sexuality the way it did, there would not have been such a strong reaction in the other direction. You might want to look to another culture ( eg., Scandinavia) to see an example of where healthy sexual attitudes and behaviour, and rejection of the pain-inducing,unrealistic sexual mores of the Vatican are not mutually exclusive. All that said, I’m honored to agree to disagree with you regarding your indubitably well intentioned defense of the Church, and wish you a very Merry Christmas ๐Ÿ™‚

  • GregS

    I am glad that we agree that the hyper-sexual nature of the media is toxic. I am not sure why you feel compelled to blame that on the church.

    The Catholic Church evolved in an age when keeping sex within the confines of marriage was a matter of survival. Give them credit for their work instead of judging their history by the standards of today.

    As for today, the church is a marginal force in our society at best. Catholics have been a minority religion for 500 years, let’s not lose sight of that.

    With all due respect, I find it ridiculous to worry about the repressive sexual attitudes of the past. They had their purpose and their purpose is gone, as is any memory of those practices among the vast majority of the population.

    What is important for us is to deal with the challenges of our day rather than rehash the battles that were won a half a century ago.

    And we have some serious, serious problems to deal with, like how to stuff half the genie of sexuality back into the bottle and cork it off.

  • Jim Shapiro

    Greg: Thanks for the intellectual joust. I have some personal issues with the church, and hope that someday I will be able to arrive at the same sense of peace and forgiveness with it that you have. Merry Christmas!

  • GreGS

    Yeah, I was raised Catholic too. I still love the music, the architecture, the well-written sermon and the history, but I never have been a religious believer.

    I look at the church as a product of evolution, the same way I look at the wildlife that inhabits my woods.

    Culture is a natural mechanism that serves a biological purpose. The Jewish dietary laws, the Catholic sexual mores, all of it are driven by the cruel biology of history.

    Technology in the form of sanitation, scientific agriculture and antibiotics has changed the rules. The mores of the church are no longer needed, but I would no longer resent the church for the pain they inflicted upon me than I would the wasp that stung me, or the rut-crazed buck who charged me last November.

    Nature in all its forms, including culture is both beautiful and horrible. Accept the beauty and recognize the horror for what it is – the other half of beauty.

    Hey, and have a great holiday.