... take heed to thyself and to doctrine: be earnest in them. For in doing this thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee ... (1 Timothy 4:16)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Pope and condoms

To the horror of conservatives and progressives alike, the Pope is reported to now approve of the use of condoms in certain exceptional circumstances – conservatives because it seems to go against Humanae vitae, progressives perhaps because they would rather eat nails than stand with Benedict XVI on matters of morality.

We have to wait until Tuesday to see exactly what the Holy Father said in its full context, but today’s newspapers carry quite a lot of it, and if you bother to read beyond the rather contorted headlines (‘historic u-turn … blah, blah’) to his own words, you will see that what he says on the use of condoms is a long way short of unconditional.

It is reported that the exceptional circumstance to which he refers relates to (male – presumably homosexual) prostitutes, intending by their use of condoms to reduce the risk of the spread of HIV / AIDS, and so logically specifically applies where the intent in using condoms is not contraceptive.

Condoms as contraception are still out. Condoms as a far from 100% effective barrier to the transmission of HIV / AIDS might however be a lesser evil than absolutely unprotected sex, if not in their highly dubious effectiveness but perhaps in their intent.

I guess it might rather be along the lines of it being arguably less bad to hold certain erroneous religious beliefs because you are seeking God honestly but in ignorance, than actively to deny His existence. That you are presently adhering to a religion or philosophy that is not Faith in Christ is more or less short of where you need to be for your Salvation, but your intent may be right, even if you do have some distance to go.

The use of condoms by heterosexuals is undeniably symptomatic of contraceptive mentality and the utilitization of sex and so remains intrinsically immoral, but it at least, in the context of AIDS / HIV – and particularly in the context of homosexual prostitution – may indicate the beginning of an acknowledgement that the other party to any sexual act has an innate value, and that the prostitute and the client accept some degree of mutual responsibility for one another as human beings rather than commodities, even if money has changed hands.

And, irrespective of precisely what the Pope said, one cannot reasonably say that one part of one interview constitutes a major u-turn. The use of condoms as contraception is prohibited authoritatively by Humanae vitae, and all sex outside of marriage, gay and straight, paid for or not, is sinful. These things have not changed.

One man, even the Pope, engaging in discussion with a journalist of a theoretical exception to an authoritative norm does not constitute an authoritative, let alone infallible, ex cathedra change in the Church’s teaching on anything, however badly the press and others might rather desperately like it to.


  1. Thanks for this Giles!

    Indeed, Benedict's comments concern morality and intention rather than a new found endorsement of condom-use, the headlines should of course read "Pope does not consider condom use 'a real or moral solution' to AIDS crisis" but the media wants what it wants... I'm intrigued by Damian Thompson's take I must say...

    There's no harm in Benedict sparking a new debate, I'm looking forward to reading his book all the more now!!

  2. Does anyone remember Lambeth 1930? That was for rare and unusual circumstances as well. Look where it led almost immediately.
    It doesn't matter what he really said or what it really means, the tiny crack in the dam will burst wide now. Most Catholics probably use or have used condoms and birth control pills now they won't feel guilty (if they ever did anyway).
    Even if this is personal opinion it won't matter to the liberal intellectual elite or the unwashed masses.
    This is sad.

  3. It's important to distinguish the case of the rent-boy from the usual case brought up in this context - of a married couple one of whom has HIV. There is more than one reason why this case is not amenable to the analysis applied to the rent-boy case - see what I've written here


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