Did you see the news stories about what Pope Benedict XVI said about condoms? “Pope says condoms sometimes permissible to stop AIDS,” said one headline. “Pope: condoms can be justified in some cases,” said another. Other headlines were, “Pope condones condom use in exceptional cases — book,” and “‘Condoms OK’ in some cases — Pope.” It sounds like an earthshaking development. But there’s one big problem with those news reports: They’re all false.
Did you see the news stories about what Pope Benedict XVI said about condoms?
“Pope says condoms sometimes permissible to stop AIDS,” said one headline. “Pope: condoms can be justified in some cases,” said another. Other headlines were, “Pope condones condom use in exceptional cases — book,” and “‘Condoms OK’ in some cases — Pope.”
An Associated Press news brief referred to “the pope’s comments that condoms could be morally justified in some limited situations.”
That’s quite an amazing turnaround for someone who last year was derided when he said that the exclusive or primary focus on condom use to prevent AIDS infection could be backfiring and helping to spread the deadly, incurable disease. Some reports even claimed that the Catholic Church had abandoned its centuries’ old opposition to condoms and contraception.
It sounds like an earthshaking development. But there’s one big problem with those news reports: They’re all false.
For one thing, if the pope were going to announce a major change of church doctrine or policy, he’d issue some weighty ecclesiastical document with a Latin title. He certainly wouldn’t do it in an informal book length interview with a journalist. Yet last weekend’s blizzard of news consisted of supposed reports on some comments Pope Benedict made in a soon-to-be-released book titled, “Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and The Signs Of The Times,” the literary fruit of recent interviews with journalist Peter Seewald.
For another thing, if he were reversing what he’d previously said about condoms, he wouldn’t have reiterated and elaborated upon what he’d said before. The only thing new was that he elaborated a little to try to explain what he said and the reasons for the Catholic Church’s doctrine and policy regarding condom use.
For yet another thing, whatever you may think of condoms or contraception, wouldn’t you agree that if the pope were going to say condoms are “sometimes permissible,” or “can be justified,” or that they are “OK,” or that he “condones” their use, he would have used those or equivalent words?
But if you read the excerpt from the book that got everybody talking, you’ll notice that he said nothing of the sort. This is what he said:
“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.”
Then, answering Seewald’s follow-up question, “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?,” the pope said, “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.”
Nothing in there about condoms (or contraception) being sometimes permissible or justified or OK. On the contrary, the pope repeated what he’d said before, that the Catholic Church does not regard condoms as either a real or a moral solution to the AIDS crisis.
What is new is that he said in some cases, the use of a condom, while nevertheless regarded by the church as not a moral choice (and therefore a sin, i.e., not “OK” or “justified”), can reflect “a first step in the direction” of a moral life if it is motivated by a concern to reduce the chances of harming others. The intention he approved, but the choice he did not.
It’s actually a very nuanced statement on a readily misunderstood subject of moral philosophy and theology, something that even knowledgeable Catholics have trouble sorting out, let alone non-Catholic journalists. Also, as others have observed, the news media don’t do “philosophical nuance” very well.
They certainly didn’t do it in this case.
Jared Olar may be reached at email@example.com.