The Problems of the Pope’s “Condom” Interview.

Two things are clear about Benedict XVI’s interview with his remarks on condoms: the extraordinary interest, and the widespread confusion it has created. A front page story in yeterday’s Guardian featured interviews with Catholic students at my previous home parish in Johannesburg, Holy Trinity.  They objected  to the “approval” given to gay prostitutes, as gay sex (in their view) was totally wrong. Instead, they believed he should have approved it for married couples. Gay activists nearby had  a different take – they were concerned that the restriction to condom use in prostitution was insufficient- he need to approve gay relationships more generally.

Even professional journalists and regular bloggers cannot agree on the precise context: was he referring to all prostitutes, only to male prostititutes, or only to male gay prostitutes.

This has since been clarified. The papal spokesman Fr Lombardi has confirmed that the gender is not relevant:

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, told reporters Tuesday that he asked the pope whether he intended his comments to only apply to male prostitutes. Benedict replied that it really didn’t matter, that the important thing was the person in question took into consideration the life of the other, Lombardi said.

“I personally asked the pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine,” Lombardi said. “He told me no. The problem is this … It’s the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship.”

“This is if you’re a woman, a man, or a transsexual. We’re at the same point,” Lombardi said.

A reader at The Open Tabernacle has commented on my previous post,

Let me put a different spin on it. All the anti-Vatican folks needed something like this to realize that the Church’s teaching through the Vatican is not nearly as harsh as they had convinced themselves that it must be.

Not harsh? Let’s read again the actual words that have aroused such interest:

….when a [male] prostitute [ein Prostituierter] uses a condom, and this can be the first step toward a moral sensitization, a first act of responsibility…..

There is nothing in the latest statement that in any way approves or condones the use of condoms: not by prostitutes, not for gay men, not to prevent AIDS or anything else. All that is acknowledged is that for a (gay) male prostitute, the use of a condom may represent the “first step” of a moral sensitization – a first step, that is, towards a moral sense that is presumed to have been totally absent preciously. Where is the “compassion” in that?

In an interview with Cardinal Burke at National Catholic Register, he also says (after reading an advance copy of the complete book) that nothing has changed in Church teaching. (As an aside, the cynic in me notes that people on two sides of the debate are saying that nothing has changed: on one side, Burke and others are insisting that there is still no approval for condoms, even against HIV/AIDS. Others are noting that for years, some notable theologians have been saying just this. But that’s an aspect I’m not going to develop here.)

Where Cardinal Burke is dead wrong though, is in believing that nothing will change.

NCR: So, if nothing has changed in Catholic teaching on sexuality or the use of condoms, has this conversation changed anything?

Burke: I don’t see it at all. What I see is the Holy Father is presenting a classical position of the Church from her moral theology. I imagine that self-mastery and self-discipline is not an immediate accomplishment, so we have to understand that it may take people time to reform their lives. But that doesn’t suggest that he’s diminishing the moral analysis of the immoral actions of the male prostitute, for instance.

Here are some important ways in which things will now change, possible dramatically over time:

First, there will be a renewed discussion on the whole subject of contraception, and more broadly on human sexuality. (Some reports suggest this was part of the deliberate plan.) Second, there is now a widespread perception that teaching has indeed changed. Perceptions do matter. Already most Catholics simply disregard the teaching. For many of these, it will now become much easier to do so openly and frankly.  It will also become more acceptable, as I noted yesterday, for Catholic discussion on sexuality to move beyond mere quotations from rule books, to more nuanced consideration on context and motivation.

There is another problem I have with the worldwide excitement over this: this is a single sentence extracted from a book-length interview, totally overshadowing all else.  A report in Time says

Seewald and the Pope discuss numerous subjects, from the church child abuse scandal to homosexuality to papal retirements to the Book of Revelation.

Extracts from the book  (due to be published tomorrow) were made available to L’Osservatore Romano, and by them to other media. Only portions of the L’Osservatore extract have been more widely reported – and only the brief words on condoms made most headlines. From Sandro Magister’s blog, which gives a complete transcript of the L’Osservatore Romano transcripts, these are the paragraph headings for their short extracts:

  • The joy of Christianity
  • Difficulties (of being pope)
  • The shock of the abuse
  • The media and abuse
  • Progress
  • An examination of conscience
  • Mosques and burqas
  • Christianity and modernity
  • Optimism
  • Drugs
  • In the vineyard of the Lord
  • Judaism
  • Pius XII
  • Sexuality
  • The Church
  • The encyclical “Humanae Vitae”
  • Women
  • The last things
  • The coming of Christ

This appears to be a remarkably comprehensive list, but wait. Do you see, as I do, something missing? The Time article lists “homosexuality” as one of just three topics they specify – but no extracts have been released. Why, I wonder? With gay marriage, gay adoption, and anti-discrimination measures high-profile, controversial topics in so many countries, it si scarcely credible that the subject was not covered. Was it left out of the preview extracts because he had nothing new to say – or because it is even more explosive than the cautious observations on condoms?

Among gay men and lesbians, Pope Benedict’s public reputation is decidedly mixed. Probably most queer Catholics see him as the villain who penned the infamous, hostile CDF Pastoral letter, “Homosexualitatis Problema”. Others see him not as the author of the document, but as the hapless signatory, left with little choice by his predecessor JohnPaul II, but who nevertheless moderated some of the worst excesses of the piece prior to publication – and on whose watch, the general tone of pronouncements from the Vatican has become at least more cautious, and less overtly hostile. It would be really good to be able to study the Pope’s specific thoughts on same sex-relationships, outside the local political contexts of proposed marriage legislation. The absence of this one topic from the published extracts denies us that opportunity – until formal publication tomorrow.

It’s not only homosexuality that has been crowded out of the commentary: In an interview with Cardinal Burke at National Catholic Register, there’s interesting little paragraph, expanding on the “trivialization” of sexuality.

He talks about the whole fight against the banalization and dehumanization of sexuality and the need to see human sexuality as a positive good. And sexual activity as having a positive effect on the whole of man’s being, being an expression of man’s goodness. So that’s the context, and I would hope that this matter going forward, in being clarified, there’s a real possibility of teaching more clearly about human sexuality.

Perhaps the renewed Catholic discussion on sexuality will finally be able to discuss the topic (as referenced here) without the usual reflex link to procreation.

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3 Responses to “The Problems of the Pope’s “Condom” Interview.”

  1. William Says:

    As I am not Catholic I find all of this somewhat confusing. From what I have been reading here there seems to be wide spread belief among Catholics that many of the decrees of the Vatican simply doesn’t matter and or many simply ignore them and live out their own beliefs. I think this is true for Protestants as well. We all don’t agree on every single item of each denomination. I am left wondering why any of this matters. The Catholic church may continue it’s hard line against equality and acceptance of GLBT people but time marches on and attitudes and beliefs are changing and will change regardless of what the pope or the Church decrees. Same for protestant beliefs. In short why does any of this really matter? No disrespect intended.

    • Terence@queerchurch Says:

      This is an important question, William: why, indeed, does it matter, when so many people simply ignore the teaching? For Catholics, I think it matters, because while they may ignore the teaching in practice, this often doesn’t happen until after the person has gone through a long process of tormented wrestling with conscience – or worse, without a reasoned analysis, which may leave unresolved feelings of guilt.

      For non-Catholics like yourself, this matters in the political sphere. (In the US, on issues of same-sex marriage, not condoms – but the process is the same). Most Catholics disagree with Church teaching, but they usually do not have the confidence to stand up publicly and say so. One the other hand, a whole range of social conservatives, who would never dream of promoting church teaching on government responsibilities in poverty relief or social justice, nevertheless insist that all Catholics are “obliged” to follow teaching on same-sex marriage and abortion, and bully politicians into compliance. In this way, a minority view within the Church has a disproportionate influence on public policy.

      At a global level, Vatican teaching has an obstructive influence, holding up condom – based strategies for AIDS prevention in Africa.

      This is why, although it is true that most Catholics ignore church teaching, those same people need to be given the theoretical information to support them in their decisions – so they can better stand up to the moralistic bullies within the church, in the peace of their own consciences, and in the public sphere. If even a tiny fraction of that support is coming from the top, so much the better.

  2. William Says:

    Thank you and i do agree with you. I too had problems with what i was taught and what i now know to be true. Fortunately for me all of this came at a time I was able to process all of this without resorting to suicide or losing my faith as have so many. This tragedy must stop. To ignore the hurting of individuals regardless of who they are or what their beliefs may be is to completely ignore who Christ really is. From strictly a protestant view many within the organized church who claim to be Christian are anything but Christian. Thank you for showing me my error.

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