In Light of the World, his book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald, Pope Benedict XVI, who is both a brilliant theologian and a compassionate pastor, tried to reconfigure the world’s conversation about several pressing issues: the meaning of sexuality in a fully human life; stemming the plague of HIV/AIDS; serving those who have already contracted HIV/AIDS and helping them to lives of human fulfillment and moral integrity.
The world being what it is, those three questions frequently intersect at a crossroads of intense controversy marked “condoms.” The world press being what it is, and the state of Vatican communications being what they are, some subtle distinctions Benedict made in Light of the World were quickly lost, putting new obstacles in the way of the deeper, more humane conversation the Pope hoped to ignite.
Four weeks into the ensuing controversy, it is worth reviewing precisely what the Pope said, before parsing the debate that followed.
Seewald asked the Pope to respond to the media’s contention that, as the German journalist put it, “it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms” in the face of the AIDS epidemic. Benedict responded that the world press’s obsession with latex had not only distorted coverage of his March 2009 pastoral visit to Africa; it had also deflected attention from the fact that, as the Pope put it, the Church is “second to none in treating so many AIDS victims, especially children with AIDS.” Moreover, the Pope repeated his conviction (which is borne out by serious empirical research) that the crisis of AIDS cannot be solved “by distributing condoms,” a widespread practice whose ubiquity “goes to show that condoms alone do not resolve the question itself.”
Benedict then went on to note the success of so-called ABC programs that stress abstinence outside marriage and fidelity within marriage, with condom use as a last resort. The Pope then proposed that “the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization 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 [as] a sort of drug people administer to themselves.” The condom, the Pope concluded, is “not . . . a real or moral solution” to the HIV/AIDS plague; changed behaviors, rooted in changed understandings of what it means to be sexual beings, are the only long-term solution to the crisis, and indeed to the myriad forms of human suffering caused by the sexual revolution and its reduction of sex to another contact sport.
It was not these reflections, however, that caught the world press’s attention, but rather this sentence, which appeared toward the end of the Pope’s discussion:
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.
Published without the necessary contextualization or commentary in the Vatican’s own newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, that sentence was inaccurately but almost inevitably interpreted, first by the Associated Press and then by virtually the entire global media, as the break in the dike for which so many had long been waiting, and toward which so many had applied so much pressure: the Catholic Church had finally, at long last, acknowledged what all enlightened people had long known to be the truth—that salvation was to be found in latex.
Reuters was a few minutes behind the AP on November 20, but its headline crisply summarized what many were writing: “Pope Says Condoms Sometimes Permissible to Stop AIDS.” The London Telegraph was even less equivocal: “The Pope drops Catholic ban on condoms in historic shift.”
The Pope had in fact not said that condoms were a morally appropriate or clinically effective means of AIDS prevention. Indeed, the Pope had gone out of his way, in Light of the World, to say precisely the opposite, in the very next sentences in his interview: “But it [the condom] is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.”
What the Pope was speculating upon was a subtlety that seemed beyond the comprehension of virtually every reporter who wrote about p. 119 of Light of the World: namely, the interior or subjective moral intentions that might be discerned in a habitual sinner who decided to sin in a way that was less threatening to those with whom he was sinning. Might one find here a glimmer of moral insight, on the part of a habitual sinner, from which deeper moral insights into the evil in which he was engaged might emerge in time?
To read into that papal speculation some radical shift in the Catholic Church’s moral teaching was more than a stretch; it was a serious distortion. But as more than one veteran observer of these matters noted, when you put the words “Pope,” “AIDS,” and “condom” into one sentence without the further word “no,” it’s not hard to figure out what’s coming next in the reporting.
Unfortunately, a clarification issued by Vatican press spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., made matters worse. Rather than trying to explain the difference between the Church’s settled convictions on the ethics of human love and the Pope’s speculations on how one might discern the beginnings of moral growth in a man committing what the Church understood to be serious sins, Lombardi, focusing on the fact that several translations of Light of the World had not rendered “male prostitute” accurately, talked to Benedict and reported back to the press that the Pope wasn’t limiting his musings about possible growth in moral insight to male prostitutes; one could imagine similar interior dynamics at work in females and even transsexuals.
This comment from Lombardi was obvious, banal, and, worse, completely beside the crucial point of distinction that the world media continued to miss. Yet, even more inevitably than the Pope’s choice of example in his book, Lombardi’s clarification led to another wave of distorting stories; the AP’s headline on its November 23 story from Rome can stand for virtually all the rest: “Vatican—Everyone can use condoms to prevent HIV.”
Benedict XVI had hoped to remove the condom from the center of the world’s conversation about a global plague. Yet here was the condom, back at center stage, with Joseph Ratzinger’s longtime critics applauding his concession to reason (as they understood it). Meanwhile, those who had long toiled to defend the reasonableness of the Catholic Church’s ethic of human love were left wondering just what the Pope’s book, and the inability of both the Vatican newspaper and the papal spokesman to bring some order into the conceptual chaos, had set in motion.
Were the teachings of the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor [The Splendor of Truth], in which John Paul II rejected the moral-theological method of proportionalism and reaffirmed that the Church’s moral judgment was focused on acts, including acts that could be known by reason to be intrinsically evil, now under review—or being reversed? Had a new subjectivism, or intentionalism, been given a tacit papal seal of approval? Was the highest teaching authority of the Church endorsing a method of moral analysis focused on the lesser-of-evils?
While the media furor remained, in the main, vulgar (with one prominent Catholic commentator from the port side declaring the Pope’s statements in Light of the World and Father Lombardi’s attempted clarification a “game-changer,” as if these questions involved the sort of games academics and journalists play), one serious debate did break out in the Catholic blogosphere. It centered around the Swiss theologian Martin Rhonheimer, a priest of Opus Dei, who in 2004 had speculated that the use of the condom to prevent HIV/AIDS infection, when motivated by a prophylactic intention, might not fall under the Church’s settled opposition to contraception.
Some (including Fr. Rhonheimer) found echoes of those speculations in the Pope’s book and Fr. Lombardi’s statements. Others, including Dr. Steven Long, found real trouble brewing. As Long put it in an exceptionally thoughtful blog posting, Rhonheimer’s position, no matter how intelligently argued, is intentionalism.
It is to argue that because one intends prophylaxis, therefore condom use is not contraceptive. This is precisely the effort to define ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ with respect to moral action by reference solely to intention while excluding essential reference to the nature of that which is chosen.
And much more was at stake here than was evident from the media rumpus: “Condoms are not the whole story; causal realism in the moral life is. . . . Surrender of the causal realism of Catholic moral analysis is what is at stake in these discussions.”
Nor, Long concluded, were these disputes a matter of interest to academics alone. If the Rhonheimer approach were adopted, he cautioned, that would “signal the end of any distinctive Catholic presence in hospitals, or in the bio-medical conversations of the day, because intentionalism is frankly a doctrine that can justify anything. . . . [The] hall of mirrors comprising modernity and post-modernity has many uses for intentionalism; and none of them is good.”
So: a very serious debate has begun, if not precisely the one that Benedict XVI wished to ignite. The internal Catholic theological debate that has been generated by Light of the World, and by various attempts to interpret the Pope’s remarks (and Fr. Lombardi’s) to advance distinct theological agendas, may, in time, produce new insights. But it is difficult to see, a month into the controversy, how any of the Pope’s public goals—to correct media misimpressions of the Church’s stance towards AIDS victims; to begin a new, non-condom-focused international discussion about preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS; to draw world attention to the success of non-condom-obsessed programs that drive down the incidence of new HIV infection; to bring the Church into the center of a new global discussion about the humanization of sexuality—have been advanced.
Rather, the international discussion has been re-focused on condoms, with the Church now being mocked for being so late in recognizing “reality” (the condom-as-papal-miter is now a staple of editorial cartooning); gay activists have been reinforced in their conviction that sufficient pressure will bring the Catholic Church to heel on a variety of controverted issues, including the question of who may marry whom; and governments have likely been emboldened to dun Catholic health care institutions into accepting secular standards on issues ranging from Plan-B “contraception” to abortion to methods of AIDS prevention.
While the media misreporting and over-reporting of radical change has played its usual, mischievous role over the past four weeks, it cannot be doubted that a certain lack of clarity has characterized the Holy See’s response to the controversy. That lack of clarity could impede the possibility of a genuine deepening of Catholic moral insight as the internal theological debate unfolds. There is little question that it will put Catholic bishops who have taken a strong line in defending the Catholic integrity of Catholic medical institutions and Catholic health care professionals in a very difficult position vis-à-vis an increasingly aggressive and secularist ambient culture.
Thus, both to ensure that the theological debate generated by Light of the World is a genuine advance rather than a moment of retreat from the truths taught in Veritatis Splendor, and to provide armor for those bishops who are determined to defend the integrity of their institutions and the consciences of those members of their flocks who are medical professionals, it would seem opportune for an indisputably authoritative voice, capable of speaking in the name of the Church, to publish a substantial clarification of the issues that have surfaced over the past month.
Such a clarification might usefully touch several key points. It would reaffirm the Church’s classic teaching on marriage and human sexuality, underscoring that the basic principles at stake here are true and can be known to be true by reason. It would reiterate the intrinsic wrong of contraception. It would endorse educational and pastoral programs affirming chastity and fidelity as the morally appropriate and empirically effective response to HIV/AIDS, while recommitting the Catholic Church to the relief of those already suffering from HIV/AIDS.
It would also be helpful if such a statement would reaffirm that what the Catholic Church teaches in these complex and delicate areas of human life is not a matter of “positions” that can be changed if sufficient public pressure is brought to bear. Rather, the Church brings the light of both reason and revelation to bear on these questions, in the certain conviction that the truth liberates us in the deepest meaning of human liberation.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His new book, The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy is published by Doubleday.