Benedict on contraception, circa 1996

When Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope, I read Salt of the Earth, one of the previous volumes of interviews with Peter Seewald, and was very struck by what Ratzinger, circa 1996, had to say about contraception. You can find it on pp. 200-203 of the English-language edition published by Ignatius Press. Perhaps one of the more than a hundred commenters on the previous post on Benedict's statement on condoms in the new Seewald volume of interviews has already pointed this out. If so,it's worth bringing to the fore anyway.

In Salt of the Earth, Ratzingerwas sympathetic to the difficulty that many Catholicshad in understanding the church's teaching on contraception. "We ought to look less at the casuistry of individual cases," he said, "and more at the major objectivesthat the Church has in mind."

He described thoseobjectives as three. "The first and most fundamental is to insist on the value of the child in society. . . . to recover the original, true view that the child, the new human being, is a blessing," in contrast to a contemporary view of children as threats and burdens.The second was to oppose a separation of sexuality from procreation, which he illustrated witha reference to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World "in which sexuality is something completely detached from procreation." Children become products, quite apart from the relationships of men and women.The third was the concern that humans not imagine they can "resolve great moral problems simply with techniques, with chemistry" rather than by how we live.

When I read this back in 2005, I was struck by the fact that none of these concerns bears on what for many Catholics was the crucial difficulty of Humana Vitae, its insistence that each and every act of sexual intercourse had to be open to the transmission of life or at least not deliberately prevent it, and that to do the latter would be seriously sinful. Openness to children as blessings, refusal of a drastic separation of sexuality from procreation, recognition that moral problems cannot be resolved by technique or technological manipulation -- all of these "major objectives" are compatible with using contraception under some circumstances and to some extent. Certainly they do not imply the never-ever of Humanae Vitae.

My impression that Ratzinger had a more flexible view on the matter than did the encyclical (or John Paul II) was confirmed by the closing exchange between Seewald and the then-head of the Holy office; Seewald: "The question remains whether you can reproach someone, say a couple who already have several children, for not having a positive attitude toward children." Ratzinger: "No, of course not, and that shouldn't happen either." Seewald: "But must these people neverthless have the idea that they are living in some sort of sin if they . . . " Ratzinger: "I would say that those are questions that ought to be discussed withone's spiritual director, with one's priest, because they can't be projected into the abstract." Is it possible that Benedict's statement on condoms now getting such publicity is rooted in convictions that the pope has long had, convictions that look more to the general standards and orientationby which people and societies liveand less to absolute principles regarding individual acts?

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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