So, Let’s Talk About – Condoms and AIDS Prevention

Is it really true that Pope Benedict’s approval of condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS is backed by very traditional teaching of Augustine and Aquinas? James Heffernan, writing at Huffington Post, seems to think so. First, he refers to Aquinas on the validity of self-defence, and  asks, does this imply that condoms are justifiable in AIDS prevention, as self-defence against infection?

In the 13th-century Summa Theologica, perhaps the greatest of all treatises on Roman Catholic doctrine, Saint Thomas Aquinas says that one may lawfully kill an assailant in self-defense. In such cases, says Aquinas, one’s action has a double effect: killing another and saving one’s own life. “Therefore, this act” he says, “since one’s intention is to save one’s own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in being as far as possible” (ST II-II, Qu. 64, Art 7).

If Aquinas says it is “NOT unlawful” to kill in self-defense, could he possibly say it IS unlawful to use a condom in self-defense, as a means of protecting oneself against fatal infection, or one’s partner from such infection?

St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274), the eponym ...

St Thomas Aquinas (Fra Angelico)

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“Gradualism” in Benedict’s Theology.

Amidst a flood of commentary on Benedict’s observations on condoms, one of the pieces that I have found most useful is by my friend Martin Pendergast, writing at the Guardian. Martin reflects on the broader character and style of Pope Benedict, and says that he is not surprised by the shift in emphasis now apparent. Although one would never think it from public Vatican statements, which are usually well-padded with references to the Church’s “constant and unchanging tradition”, in fact the Church’s teaching is constantly changing. This is a process theologians describe as “development”:

Why am I not surprised that Benedict XVI has edged away from the Vatican’s previous opposition to the use of condoms in HIV prevention? The answer might be that this pope is, above all else, a theologian.

While his grassroots pastoral experience is as limited as his academic record is huge, he is strongly aware of the centrality of “development” as a key principle of all Catholic teaching. This enables the Catholic hierarchy to forbid something one day and make it compulsory weeks later; for a pope to assert in doctrinal statements, “as my venerable predecessors have always taught”, when patently they have not.

Pendergast notes that the Pope already has a track record of modifying the hard-line sexual teaching of his predecessor, as in the example of a 2oo5 address to conference on family, in which

he delicately overturned John Paul II’s “theology of the body”, indicating principles of “humanisation” rather than “idealisation” in the realm of sexuality.

He also emphasises an aspect of Benedict’s personality that I have frequently come across elsewhere – that for those who have dealt with him personally, he shows readiness to listen and engage in argument. Pendergast also refers to the evidence I have reported on before, that in same-sex relationships, he has been a moderating influence, possibly toning down the language of the CDF Pastoral Letter he was compelled to sign; affirming to Sr Jeannine Gramick during an in-flight conversation that her conscientious dissent was not an excommunicable offence; and the Vatican support under his watch for our London pastoral ministry to LGBT Catholics.

This article agrees with my view that this latest development is not a “radical change” in Catholic teaching, but he has useful comments on the implications for Catholic practice on the ground. There will also be, he says, unforeseen implications:

What is not in doubt in any of these comments, including those on the need to ponder sexual ethics issues more deeply, is that the pope seems to be endorsing the principle of Catholic moral theology known as “gradualism”.

Heavily criticised by John Paul II (in his 1993 encyclical letter, Veritatis Splendor) this approach recognises that moral decision making is a step-by-step process. Progressive Catholic theologians, including bishops and cardinals, have applied this principle to a range of sexual ethics questions, including HIV issues, civil law and abortion, and sexual orientation law reform. Who knows, perhaps this might open the door even to a direct papal dialogue with the victims of abuse, people living with HIV, and God’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered daughters and sons?

Other commentators have also noted that this approach has been applied for years by many theologians and the more progressive bishops. What is new, perhaps, is that this gradualist approach is now reaching the public domain, as having the approval of the Pontiff – rather than condemnation, as with John Paul II.

As always with Benedict, it is dangerous to reach conclusions based only on the simplistic summaries of journalists (or bloggers, myself definitely included). Read the book. Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and The Signs Of The Times has now been published, and should be available from today.

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: Read the rest of this entry »

“Speaking the Truth” on Catholic LGBT Inclusion

Regular readers here will know that the infamous CDF document on “homosexuals”, Homosexualitatis Problema (better known as then Cardinal Ratzinger’s Hallowe’en letter), is not my favourite Church document.  Nevertheless, it does include some important features, which many people in the Catholic Church too easily forget.

In its closing paragraphs, the document reminds us of the words of Scripture: “Speak the truth in love”, and “The truth shall set you free”. It is disgraceful that the document itself ignores its own advice here, but no matter: the advice itself is sound, and there are an increasing number of Catholics, lay and clerical, who are making up for the CDF omission, by speaking the truth in love on LGBT inclusion in church. The latest to do so is  Jody Huckaby, executive director of PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), in an address October 21 at King’s University-College, a Catholic institution based at the University of Western Ontario. In doing so, he reminded us of the other neglected portion of the CDF letter – the exhortation to treat “homosexual” persons with dignity, compassion and respect.

I regret that the only report I have been able to find of Huckaby’s address is from Lifesite News (but see the update below*), which is not usually renowned for its sympathy with progressive causes in general, or LGBT Catholics in particular. Nevertheless, they quote some sections verbatim, which are worth taking on board:

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New twist in Belgian Catholic abuse legal row

After the Belgian police controversially raided the bishops’ offices and Cardinal Daneels’ home, confiscating truckloads of material relating to allegations of church sexual abuse, two lower courts ruled that the raid had been inaoppropriate, and ordered that the material would be inadmissable as evidence. However, this is not over yet.  “Expatica” yesterday reported from Belgium that there has been a

New twist in Belgian Catholic abuse legal row

BRUSSELS: Belgium’s highest court ordered magistrates on Tuesday to re-examine evidence seized by police relating to decades of child abuse and alleged Roman Catholic Church cover-ups.

The court overturned two previous decisions by lower courts that rendered inadmissible evidence taken from church headquarters, the home of a former archbishop and a church-backed commission investigating sex crimes perpetrated by priests.

Responding to lawyers acting for alleged victims who lodged appeals, the judges said the lower courts were wrong not to hear civil parties and therefore magistrates should look again at the evidence in a new light.

It means that truckloads of material gathered by police in spectacular raids in June that drew the ire of Pope Benedict XVI himself could potentially be used to relaunch state prosecutions for abuse.

However, it does not automatically mean a prosecution case will be launched, because the lower judges could reach the same decisions as before, saying they have done so this time while considering aggrieved parties’ accusations.The raids on June 24, conducted as a Vatican ambassador was meeting with church leaders, opened the eyes of the world to the scale of the scandal within the Belgian Catholic Church, but the church and retired archbishop, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, asked that the material seized be declared out of bounds.

Read more:

Child psychologist Peter Adriaenssens then unleashed nationwide controversy with the release on September 10 of a report by a commission he led which revealed nearly 500 people reported abuses by priests since the 1950s and 13 victims committed suicide.

Adriaenssens subsequently called on the pope to resign.

“Out of the Shadows, Into the Light”:Blessed John Henry Newman, Soho “Gay” Masses

Last Sunday I went up to London for one of the regular LGBT – oriented “Soho Masses”. Earlier in the day, Pope Benedict had conducted the beatification service for Cardinal John Henry Newman. Cardinal Newman is now officially Blessed John Henry – and so the liturgy used for our Mass was, quite appropriately, the newly minted liturgy for his festal day.

Portrait of Cardinal Newman by John Millais

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What British Catholics Believe, vs Vatican Doctrine.

Once again, two opinion polls (for ITV, and for the BBC) have demonstrated what we all know, but pay insufficient attention to: the enormous chasm that divides Catholic belief as is is, and what Vatican doctrine proclaims it ought to be.


On the ministry itself, whether it is priestly celibacy or women’s ministry, and especially on all matters of sexual ethics, what British Catholics in fact believe is very different from what the Vatican functionaries proclaim it ought to be. This is no surprise – exactly the same pattern is found the world over – only the detailed numbers change, not the basic fact of divergence. Read the rest of this entry »