1. Religion & Spirituality
You can opt-out at any time. Please refer to our privacy policy for contact information.
Scott P. Richert

Pope Benedict and Condoms: What He Did and Did Not Say

By November 23, 2010

Follow me on:

Over the weekend, L'Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of Vatican City (not, as some like to say, "the Pope's own newspaper"), broke the embargo on publishing excerpts from Light of the World (compare prices), a book-length interview of Pope Benedict XVI conducted by his longtime interlocutor, German journalist Peter Seewald. In so doing, L'Osservatore Romano set off a firestorm that will almost certainly guarantee that the book, which goes on sale today, will become a best-seller.

Around the world, headlines implied (and sometimes more than implied) that Pope Benedict had changed the Catholic Church's longstanding opposition to artificial contraception. The most restrained headlines still declared that the Pope had proclaimed that the use of condoms was "morally justified" or at least "permissible" to try to stop the spread of HIV, the virus generally acknowledged as the primary cause of AIDS.

The U.K. Catholic Herald has a good, balanced article on the Pope's remarks and the various reactions to them ("Condoms may be 'first step' in moralisation of sexuality, says Pope"), while Damian Thompson, writing on his blog at the Telegraph, declared that "Conservative Catholics blame media for condoms story" but asked, "are they secretly cross with the Pope?"

While I think that Thompson's analysis is more right than wrong—many conservative Catholic commentators, especially in the United States, tried to explain away the Pope's comments, and failed—I think that Thompson himself goes too far when he writes, "I simply don’t understand how Catholic commenters can maintain that the Pope did not say that condoms may be justified, or permissible, in circumstances where not using them would spread HIV." The problem, on both sides, comes from taking a very specific case that falls entirely outside the Church's teaching on artificial contraception and generalizing it to a moral principle.

So what did Pope Benedict say, and does it really represent a change in Catholic teaching? To begin to answer that question, we have to start first with what the Holy Father did not say.

What Pope Benedict Did Not Say

To begin with, Pope Benedict did not change one iota of Catholic teaching on the immorality of artificial contraception. In fact, elsewhere in his interview with Peter Seewald, Pope Benedict declares that Humanae vitae, Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical on birth control and abortion, was "prophetically correct." He reaffirmed the central premise of Humanae vitae—that the separation of the unitive and procreative aspects of the sexual act (in the words of Pope Paul VI) "contradicts the will of the Author of life."

Moreover, Pope Benedict did not say that the use of condoms is "morally justified" or "permissible" in order to stop the transmission of HIV. In fact, he went to great lengths to reaffirm his remarks, made at the beginning of his trip to Africa in 2009, "that we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms." The problem is much deeper, and it involves a disordered understanding of sexuality that places sexual drives and the sexual act on a higher level than morality. Pope Benedict makes this clear when he discusses the "so-called ABC Theory":

Abstinence-Be Faithful-Condom, where the condom is understood only as a last resort, when the other two points fail to work. This means that the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalisation 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.

So why have so many commentators, including the usually perceptive Damian Thompson, claimed that Pope Benedict has decided that "condoms may be justified, or permissible, in circumstances where not using them would spread HIV"? Because they have fundamentally misunderstood the example that Pope Benedict offered.

What Pope Benedict Did Say

In elaborating on his point about the "banalisation of sexuality," Pope Benedict stated:

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 moralisation, a first assumption of responsibility [emphasis added], on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.

He followed that up immediately with a restatement of his earlier remarks:

But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanisation of sexuality.

The problem here is that very few commentators seem to understand two important points:

  1. The Church's teaching on the immorality of artificial contraception is directed at married couples.
  2. "Moralisation," as Pope Benedict is using the term, refers to a possible result of a particular action, which does not say anything about the morality of the action itself.

These two points go hand-in-hand. When a prostitute (male or female) engages in fornication, the act is immoral. It is not made less immoral if he does not use artificial contraception during the act of fornication; nor is it made more immoral if he uses it. The Church's teaching on the immorality of artificial contraception takes place entirely within the appropriate use of sexuality—that is, within the context of the marriage bed.

On this point, Quentin de la Bedoyere had an excellent post on the Catholic Herald's website over the weekend. As he notes:

No ruling on contraception outside marriage, homosexual or heterosexual, has been made, nor has there been any particular reason why the Magisterium should make one.

This is what almost every commentator, pro or con, has missed. When Pope Benedict says that the use of a condom by a prostitute during an act of fornication, in order to try to prevent the transmission of HIV, "can be a first step in the direction of a moralisation, a first assumption of responsibility," he is simply saying that, on a personal level, the prostitute may actually be recognizing that there is more to life than sex.

One can contrast this specific case with the widely circulated story that the postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault, on learning he was dying of AIDS, visited homosexual bathhouses with the deliberate intention of infecting others with HIV. (Indeed, it's not a stretch to think that Pope Benedict may have had Foucault's alleged action in mind when speaking to Seewald.)

Of course, attempting to prevent the transmission of HIV by using a condom, a device with a relatively high failure rate, while still engaging in an immoral sexual act (that is, any sexual activity outside of marriage) is no more than a "first step" (and we might even say it's merely a baby step, at that). But it should be clear by now that the specific example offered by the Pope has no bearing whatsoever on the use of artificial contraception within marriage.

Indeed, as Quentin de la Bedoyere points out, Pope Benedict could have given the example of a married couple, in which one partner was infected with HIV and the other was not, but he did not do so. The fact that he chose instead to discuss a situation that lies outside of the Church's teaching on artificial contraception speaks volumes, but most commentators apparently weren't listening.

We can illustrate the point with one further example: Imagine if the Pope had discussed the case of an unmarried couple who have been engaging in fornication while using artificial contraception. If that couple gradually came to the conclusion that artificial contraception places sexual drives and the sexual act on a higher level than morality, and thus decided to quit using artificial contraception while continuing to engage in sex outside of marriage, could not Pope Benedict have rightly said that "this can be a first step in the direction of a moralisation, 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"?

Yet if Pope Benedict had used this example, would anyone have assumed that this meant that the Pope now believes that premarital sex is "justified" or "permissible," so long as one does not use a condom?

The debate over Pope Benedict's remarks will undoubtedly continue, and it may even lead to further clarifications from the Vatican (there have been two so far). But the misunderstanding of what Pope Benedict was trying to say has proved him right on another point: Modern man, including all too many Catholics, has a "sheer fixation on the condom," which "implies a banalisation of sexuality."

And the answer to that fixation, and that banalization, is found, as always, in the Catholic Church's unchanging teaching on the purposes and ends of sexual activity.

Connect With Scott: Facebook | Twitter | Newsletters

November 23, 2010 at 1:47 pm
(1) Tom Piatak says:

An excellent analysis.

November 23, 2010 at 3:24 pm
(2) Gamaliel says:


Thank you for this erudite presentation. Providing the details of the interview, with an accompanying analysis, is a great help in knowing and understanding what the Pope actually said.

November 23, 2010 at 4:02 pm
(3) Sheila says:

I never expect or receive truthful reporting about the Catholic Church unless it comes from EWTN or good orthodox talk radio. It’s unfortunate because people value truth.

November 23, 2010 at 4:11 pm
(4) Ina says:

While many journalists and readers have misinterpreted or put a larger meaning on what the Pope has said about the use of contraceptives, I’m actually rather thankful that it’s sparked such a debate and been given so much discussion. I do agree with your analysis of what was said and what wasn’t, for the most part, and I thank you for presenting that in a rather unbiased way.

Regardless of what was cited, however, I’m so glad to hear him put the onus of responsibility on a human level. It seems like so few people these days are willing to take responsibility for their actions, some even going so far as to intentionally commit wrongs against others. Even if it is a baby step, as you said, it is a step nonetheless. In the case of HIV that so many refer back to, I do believe that the use of condoms is acceptable (personally, I would say justified), as it could serve to save others from bearing a burden given by others who cannot or will not abstain.

November 24, 2010 at 1:46 am
(5) Mary42 says:

The media, and the Western one in particular, shall never,ever report correctly or favourably about the Catholic Church. In the whole tour the Pope made in Africa in 2009, the only screaming headlines and comments they picked on was the use of condoms. Yet if you take the case of South Africa where condoms are distributed freely and widely, the rates of HIV infections have continued to rise to unprecedented levels. The fixation with the condoms is not because those who advocate forcieferously for its use – especially in Africa care about our lives – they are purely doing so for commercial purposes. They are fully aware as long as Africa buys this lie and continues to use condoms while engaging in orgies of sexual bestialities, the African population will continue to be decimated. When President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda imposed the edict of abstinence and fidelity in marriage and rubbished the use of condoms, the HVI infection rates in that country came down by a whooping 50%. But of course, the profiteers in the condoms market rebuked him. Catholics must stand firm and remain faithful to our Church’s Teachings. The Truth never changes no matter how much humanity tries to distort, confuse or deny it. And the Catholic Church has always and will continue to teach Christ’s Message of His Way, His Truth and His Life.

November 24, 2010 at 2:24 am
(6) Robby says:

Wow. Thank you for this.

November 24, 2010 at 8:48 am
(7) Harrison says:

I am proud of the Catholic Church that it has always and will continue to teach Christ’s Message of His Way. Thank you for the analysis.

November 24, 2010 at 8:46 pm
(8) Patrick K says:

Thanks for the very helpful article.

November 30, 2010 at 8:54 pm
(9) Mary says:

This article said everything I needed to know about the Pope’s statement. Thanks you, it was very helpful.

December 16, 2010 at 1:34 am
(10) Ryan says:

I agree with our religous leader … Pope Benedict Vincent … His statements have been mis -interpreted …

December 20, 2010 at 7:44 pm
(11) Josh 27 says:

What is instrincally against nature has now become conformable to nature. Benedict is justfying the use of the condom, this is WRONG in itself. There is no justification for its use whatsover. How about he condemnation of homosexuality as one of the four sins that cry to heaven for venegence!? I wonder what will be the next corruption of doctrine this man will spin of’ to deluded ”Çatholics”!

January 4, 2011 at 2:39 am
(12) M says:

Thanks, this makes a lot more sense.

March 10, 2011 at 12:14 pm
(13) jb says:

You’re all insane. People are DYING of Aids & HIV. Children are orphaned. It’s an epidemic in so many places…and you’re saying it’s ok for this regular person (the pope is no more important or mortal and fallible than the rest of us) with great power to say that these people shouldn’t be using condoms? You should be deeply ashamed.

March 10, 2011 at 5:27 pm
(14) Josh27 says:

Well if you not a true Catholic, it wouldn’t be a problem for you.

March 12, 2011 at 5:56 am
(15) Sam Plato says:

Moral TRUTH!

Eh! what is TRUTH?

TRUTH pre-existed all of us who are debating on condoms. We can only change certain cultures, attitudes, environment but not TRUTH.

Let us love TRUTH. Let us do to TRUTH what we would like it do to us!

July 28, 2012 at 3:47 am
(16) Dalek6450 says:

In the words of Jimmy Carr. “Fine. what’s the matter with a 65-year-old virgin in a dress giving us all sex tips he got off his imaginary friend.”

August 17, 2012 at 3:58 pm
(17) lew says:

Jesus said unless man leaves parents and cleaves to his wife, there is no sex in righeousness. So, there is not really another answer.

While I truly understand what the Pope is trying to say, he opens up a pandora’s box. Inside the church, there really isn’t a truthful debate about condoms as God’s Word is ALREADY clear on children, sex and marriage. So, the Pope CAN’T ADD to clear biblical directives.

Outside the church, his ONLY answser can be, don’t do it. Jesus didn’t tell the woman at the well (applies to men as well) to only have oral sex, or manual sex, he said, go and sin no more.

March 12, 2013 at 9:27 am
(18) Benjy says:

We’re all missing the big point here… He’s [The man upstairs] not real and if he were I’m sure he’d be A-Okay about condoms (y) They help us not get diseases amongst other things. Can Catholics please come up with an interesting debate? I’m fine with basic religion as a morality despite being an atheist. But can’t you use your niceness to like.. make cookies and give the money raised to charity? When you drift away from that I feel it’s all really a waste of time. Peace xo

March 12, 2013 at 10:12 am
(19) Scott P. Richert says:

Well, Benjy, I guess you’re a good person to tell us misguided Catholics what constitutes a waste of time. After all, most atheists probably think it’s a waste of time to go trolling in the comments section of a Catholic site. And they’d be right.

Leave a Comment

Line and paragraph breaks are automatic. Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title="">, <b>, <i>, <strike>

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.