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
- An examination of conscience
- Mosques and burqas
- Christianity and modernity
- In the vineyard of the Lord
- Pius XII
- The Church
- The encyclical “Humanae Vitae”
- 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.
- Catholics weigh significance of Pope’s words on condom use (Independent)
- Pope Benedict And Condoms Part III–The Vatican Clarification Goes Where No Pope Has Gone Before (Enlightened Catholicism)
- Pope says condoms OK for male prostitutes (America Blog)
- Vatican Walks Back Pope’s Condom Approval: Nothing’s Changed (Huffington Post)
- Vatican plays down Pope’s remarks (BBC)
- AIDS campaigners welcome pope condom u-turn (The Province)
- The Pope’s Latest Condom Remarks (The Wild Reed)
- An Amazing Exercise In Vatican PR (Enlightened Catholicism)
- Pope says universal health care an “inalienable right” (Commonweal)
- Benedict On Condoms Part II (Enlightened Catholicism)
- Bendict Changes Course on Condoms? (Commonweal)
- Condoms Part IV: We’ll Know What Benedict Really Meant When Caritas Gets Their Clarification (Enlightened Catholicism)
- The Faithful Cardinal Burke Not On Benedict’s Wave Length? Oh My (Enlightened Catholicism)