In 2003, Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo of the Pontifical Council for the Family made headlines by claiming that condoms are unsafe because HIV “can easily pass through.”
Some church officials disagreed publicly, but others dug in, and the impression was left that the church’s ban on condoms is absolute—to the point of fabricating facts and ignoring suffering. That perception colored the response to Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on the subject of condoms and AIDS during a March 2009 flight to Africa. Asked whether the church’s position on fighting AIDS is “unrealistic and ineffective,” Benedict spoke in broad terms about the need for “bringing out the human dimension of sexuality” and noted that without this change, “the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics; on the contrary, they increase it.” He was right.
Yet that comment was interpreted, perhaps understandably, as another refusal to admit that condoms can prevent the transmission of disease, and it overshadowed Benedict’s trip to Africa—a fact he complains about in Light of the World, a new book of interviews conducted by German journalist Peter Seewald. “Critics…object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms,” Seewald noted. This time Benedict made it clear that he does not dispute the efficacy of condoms in the fight against AIDS. He repeated that “condoms alone do not resolve the question itself,” but he added that “in the case of some individuals,” condom use to prevent infection “can be…a first assumption of responsibility.” By acknowledging the moral value of preventing disease, Benedict has implicitly contradicted an interpretation of Humanae vitae that would absolutely forbid all condom use as inherently evil. The pope recognizes that while a morality without absolute principles offers little guidance, a morality that disregards human weakness is ineffectual, if not irrelevant. Reading this and other passages in the book, the Tablet’s Clifford Longley remarked that Benedict’s “commonsense refusal to be extreme is almost overwhelming.”
That refusal to be extreme has alarmed many theological conservatives. Some have denied the significance of Benedict’s comments. Others have attacked L’Osservatore Romano, which first published the book excerpts, or accused papal spokesperson Federico Lombardi, SJ, of twisting the pope’s meaning when he issued a clarification. And some, like Luke Gormally of the Pontifical Academy for Life, have criticized Benedict himself for being “irresponsible” and “self-indulgent.” Gormally described the interview as “a case of the pope retreating to his ‘comfort zone’ of writing and talking while neglecting urgent tasks of governance.” What really seems to disturb such critics is that the pope has stepped outside their comfort zone by discussing the real-world applications and limitations of the church’s teaching on contraception. But this is certainly not the first time a prominent theologian has spoken about the permissibility of condoms in preventing disease, and it is not even the first time Joseph Ratzinger has signaled a less-than-rigid perspective on contraception. As Peter Steinfels pointed out on the dotCommonweal blog, Cardinal Ratzinger said something similar in a 1996 book of interviews with Seewald titled Salt of the Earth. There too Ratzinger passed up a chance to simply denounce contraceptives in favor of discussing “the major objectives that the church has in mind” with its teaching on sexuality. Questions about birth-control use in marriage, he added, “can’t be projected into the abstract.”
Benedict seems to recognize that the “sheer fixation on the condom” he decries in Light of the World is not only damaging to sexual morality; it is also an obstacle to the church’s broader message about love, responsibility, and compassion. As long as the mention of the word “condom” is enough to provoke a firestorm, the division in the church will grow deeper, and the perception that the Vatican is indifferent to the plight of AIDS victims will persist.
Benedict’s comments do not reverse or contradict any established teaching, and they leave untouched the pressing issue of whether condom use can be approved for married couples where one spouse is infected with HIV. A Vatican commission began a study of that question in 2006, at Benedict’s request, but has thus far declined to release its findings, reportedly out of fear of sowing confusion. Yet the pope’s latest remarks, mild as they are, make the Vatican seem less confused and frightened about sex and contraception than it has in decades. That some within the church have responded with alarm demonstrates how overdue such frankness is. Another member of the Pontifical Academy for Life complained to journalist Sandro Magister, “Our Holy Father should stop talking about aberrant sex and talk more about Jesus.” Actually, that’s precisely what he was trying to do.
Related: John Wilson's review of Light of the World
The Church & AIDS in Africa, by Marcella Alsan
Local Knowledge, Melissa M. Matthes's review of The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight against AIDS, by Helen Epstein