Pope: Condoms May Be Permitted in Rare Cases (Updated)

America magazine was told that the text of the book of interviews with Pope Benedict XVI, Light of the World, was embargoed until Tuesday, but AP is now reporting that L'Osservatore Romano has run excerpts of what was bound to be the most talked-about remark in his lengthy series of interviews with Peter Seewald.

Pope Benedict XVI says in a new book that the use of condoms can be justified in some cases, such as for male prostitutes seeking to prevent the spread of HIV. The pontiff makes the comments in a book-length interview with a German journalist, "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times." The Vatican newspaper ran excerpts of the book Saturday.

Church teaching has long opposed condoms since they're a form of artificial contraception. The Vatican has been harshly criticized for its position given the AIDS crisis.  Benedict said that for male prostitutes — for whom contraception isn't a central issue — condoms are not a moral solution. But he said they could be justified "in the intention of reducing the risk of infection." The AP story is here.

Update: We have just learned that since L'Osservatore broke the embargo the official English translation is now fair game.  So here is the English text: 

"There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.  But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection.  That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.

Interviewer Peter Seewald: Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms? 

"She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be, nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the infection, a first step in the movement toward a different way, a more human way, of livign sexuality."

Reading the entire text of the Holy Father's response in the English translation of Light of the World supports the conclusion that this exception marks something of a new development in the church's approach to condoms, whose use had previously been ruled out entirely, in every case.  If this is so, it is a case of the ecclesia audiens, the listening church, which listens to the experience of the faithful, of theologians and of experts in various fields.  Of course, the pope is speaking of an exception, and an exceedingly rare one at that.  And the rest of his answer to Mr. Seewald's question inveighs against the wholesale use of condoms.  Nonetheless, it is an exception, which is something not seen before in this arena, as far as I know, and something we have certainly not seen at this level of authority.  (Other bishops and archbishops have advanced, tentatively, these thoughts, as have several theologians, but they have not gained currency within the Vatican.)  That is, even discussing exceptions is a change.  As such, it seems an encouraging example of the church's willingness to listen to the Holy Spirit wherever it may speak. 

The updated AP story has this comment by a Vatican official: "Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, the Vatican's longtime top official on bioethics and sexuality, elaborated on the pontiff's comments, stressing that it was imperative to 'make certain that this is the only way to save a life.' Sgreccia told the Italian news agency ANSA that that is why the pope on the condom issue "dealt with it in the realm of the exceptional."  Finally, here is an article in America from 2000, by Jon Fuller, S.J., MD., on the topic, which speaks of an earlier comment by a Vatican official, called "The Vatican's New Insights on Condoms for AIDS Prevention."

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Colleen Baker
9 years 11 months ago
Michael I make your exact point in my first comment: "since Catholic sexual theology already finds homosexual acts gravely immoral, a mortal sin that destines one to hell, using a condom can't compound the evil so a condom in this case is morally neutral."

My point is that according to natural law theory as espoused by Aquinas, rape is a lesser violation of natural law because it is at least open to pro creation. He actually said this in the context of masturbation.  If you follow his logic, based on his assumptions that sperm was the complete seed of man implanted in a woman's fertile uterine soil, this makes perfect sense.  Aquinas's concepts were biologically based and did not take into consideration any notions of relationship.

I personally do not believe that Benedict is basing his statements on any notions of relationship either, but perhaps on the notion of mortal sin and potentials for moral development. Using a condom in a sexual act which destines one for hell is a morally neutral act unless one believes there are gradations in mortal sin. One could however, be concerned about the other person in one's act of mortal sin, and that would in essense be a selfless generous act because it would have no mitigating circumstances on one's eternal stay in hell for the sexual act itself.  But it might, as Benedict states, also lead to moral development-if that's a slippery slope, it's an upward slippery slope.

I never stated any belief that this statement of Benedict's is somehow approving of gay sex and if you read Aquinas you will find my rationale about rape.  Aquinas actually wrote that rape was less a violation of natural law in the context of mastubation.

As to Brett's statement, rape would take on an equal or greater evil than acts of gay sex and masturbation only if one concedes a relational aspect to sexual morality as opposed to a strictly Natural Law approach. That would truly be a slippery slope.
9 years 11 months ago
You are getting pedantic on us Colleen; hypotheticals regarding Aquinas and your Darwinian reading of him have no real signifigance for the conversation here.

No one in the Church, or the public, believes that rape is less of an evil than masterbation/homsexuality etc.; please follow the lead of Benedict and use some common sense.

Carolyn Disco
9 years 11 months ago
The comments at dotCommonweal provide a much fuller and productive discussion:

Carolyn Disco
9 years 11 months ago
One should not reject wisdom, even if late. But how many have died in the interim?

The much acclaimed finding that Uganda was more successful in containing AIDS with abstinence than condoms is refuted by the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation study: http://www.thebody.com/content/art9249.html 

''The researchers found that the ''single greatest factor'' in Uganda's declining HIV prevalence rate is premature death among HIV-positive people who died of AIDS-related causes during the study''...

The study's findings suggest that Uganda's ''much-lauded success'' in reducing its HIV prevalence has ''little to do with'' the abstinence and monogamy programs emphasized by the Bush administration...the study's findings emphasize that ''condoms are the main preventive tool against HIV,''
Eugene Pagano
9 years 11 months ago
Is the example of the male prostitute based upon the premise that the person, like so many prostitutes, has been forced into the occupation?
Michael Liddy
9 years 11 months ago
Fr. Martin - What do you believe the church's stance should be on contraception? Thank you.
Crystal Watson
9 years 11 months ago
It makes me depressed that this tiny change in policy, a  policy that others like Bishop Kevin Dowling have been trying to change for years, is  seen as such a big deal.  Too little too late.
9 years 11 months ago
Please get a grip people; this is not a change in policy, it is an exception to a particular case.

To Ms. Disco and other who like to politicize human sexuality and to liberals who wish to flatten human relations into a utilitarian issues to be addressed only by science - get real.  Humans motives are more complicated than the reductive musings of Freud and Trojan condom makers.

Sexuality is more than biology - it is a moral/social issues that is addressed by best culture and community rather than by "objective" technocrats.  The pope is right - and this announcement makes his stance even clearer.

PS - here is Dr. Edward Green of Harvard on the effectiveness of condoms in cultures that do not use them (in 9 African countries, not just one): http://www.ilsussidiario.net/articolo.aspx?articolo=14614
david power
9 years 11 months ago

I would guess that you have never lived in the third world. The countries with the  lowest Aids rates in all of sub-sahara  Africa are all majority catholics.Those north of the sahara which are majority Muslim have for some strange reason got very low rates of Aids.So Low in fact that educated nations like France and Spain would envy them.The Phillipines is one of the lowest in the world and so it seems while they have been slipping from the tyrannical dogma the French have been in fact unable to break themselves from the Petrine teaching. I sleep with a woman who is not my wife but I insist on not using a condom as that breaks catholic teaching?That would be the straining of gnats.   The Pope has spoken well and wisely and with genuine care for people .I sometimes say to friends that Europe should adopt the American gun laws but give everybody a bullet-proof vest.They say that it is a ridiculous logic. I agree.The changing of behaviour is the most effective way to combat Aids.This is what the head of the biggest institution in the world responsible for taking care of Aids victims is trying to say.  
Colleen Baker
9 years 11 months ago
I don't see it as much of a change at all.  Rather I see it as a sort of back handed recognition that since Catholic sexual theology already finds homosexual acts gravely immoral, a mortal sin that destines one to hell, using a condom can't compound the evil so a condom in this case is morally neutral. 

This same logic precludes the use of condoms in heterosexual activity of any sort because there could be a potential good, a new life, even in an act of mortal sin like rape. Condoms for fertile heterosexuals could never become morally neutral in this systemic logic. They could become morally neutral for infertile couples.

It's a neat logical system which seems to be based on an unprovable assumption that God cares deeply about the proper placement of sperm.
Gail Grazie
9 years 11 months ago
I am confused by the Pope's example. I am not an expert by any means, but based on what I have read, and please correct me if I am wrong, the majority of clients of male prostitutes in Africa are men. So, if condom use is not permitted by the Church because it inteferes with procreation, then why would condom use ever be immoral in the case of a male prostitute and his male client? While a complete understanding of the Pope's thoughts on this requires an analysis of the Pope's statements in their totality and in the correct context, is it possible that one should not focus on the male prostitute in this example but rather on the intent in using the condom? Perhaps the Pope is moving away from a strict application of  black letter law in the area of human sexuality to a more nuanced pastoral approach taking into consideration a person's intent and circumstance? And isn't that what Jesus tried to teach the Pharisees? I am looking forward to reading the entire interview.  

9 years 11 months ago
Just for the record, I wasn't telling Fr. Jim to get a grip (his reporting on this was fair) - the message was to the first couple of responses in the comments.
9 years 11 months ago
"It's a neat logical system which seems to be based on an unprovable assumption that God cares deeply about the proper placement of sperm."

Considering the fact that God does have an interest in human flourishing and actions that lead to love/common good.  And since sexual reproduction / marital relations is a major aspect of human flourishing, I would say that God does have an interest in such minutia.

After all, Catholic Theology of the Body is about promoting a holistic view of human beings and sexuality in its proper place. 

To see the fruit of unholistic view of human sexuality just look at the disorder and dysfuntion of our contraceptive culture that is destroying itself via the rapid spread of STDs, divorce, abortion, domestic violence, out-of-wedlock births, trivilization of sex (porn and sexualization of children).

I will take the Benedict's lead or advice on human sexuality over the secular "experts" that lead our culture in this department any day!
Colleen Baker
9 years 11 months ago
Bret I have this personal delusion that Mary might have more pull with her Son than a Pope, and as a woman she would not buy into this concept that forcible rape of another woman is less gravely immoral than any act engaged in by two men who happen to love each other.  As I say it's my own little delusion.
9 years 11 months ago
What are you speaking of, Collen?  Who says that sexual assault / rape is less evil or immoral than consensual acts of homosexuality?  It certainly is not.

As a general aside, it seems to me that the pope shows much more charity, logic and understanding of the human condition than those who criticize him from liberal standpoints.

This is why he constantly astounds!
9 years 11 months ago
I don't see the big deal.  The Church's objection to condoms, generally, is their use as birth control; this tiny exception is for the use of condoms as a life-saving measure in sinful, non-procreating circumstances. (shrugs) 

Of course, liberals will project this as the first chink in the Church's armor on the sinfulness of homosexual acts (see, already, Colleen's comment using a distorted contrast of the morality of rape versus homosexual acts) and the restriction of the use of contraceptives in heterosexual sex, arguing a slippery slope where none has been created.

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