Why condom comments are no earthquake in Catholic teaching

Pope Benedict XVI, file pic The Vatican has long opposed the use of condoms as a form of contraception

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Careful distinctions are the hallmark of Catholic moral reasoning, but they can be a tough sell in a world with little patience for subtlety.

A few carefully qualified words from Pope Benedict XVI on condoms offer proof of the point, as they have been "sexed up" in some commentary as an earthquake in Catholic teaching.

In reality, the Church's broad opposition to artificial birth control has not changed, and there's no indication that it will give way under Benedict XVI, rightly seen as a champion of Catholic orthodoxy.

Instead, Benedict XVI has said in a book-length interview with a German journalist that while condoms are not the solution to the HIV/Aids crisis, there may nevertheless be individual cases where use of a condom can represent the first stirrings of a sense of moral responsibility, if the intent is to save someone's life.

Even then the use a condom is still not the Pope's moral ideal (especially, of course, where the sex takes place outside marriage), but Benedict has said that it can be a step in the right direction - the dawning of awareness that "one cannot do whatever one wants."

Non-binding

In practice, that means that if someone were to ask a Catholic priest, "Is it okay to use a condom?" the answer is still supposed to be "No." Catholic teaching holds that to be fully consistent with God's plan, sexuality should occur only inside marriage and should be open to new life.

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We're dealing here not with abstract moral teaching, but concrete pastoral application to a specific set of facts”

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If the question, however, is, "I'm HIV-positive and will have sex regardless of what the Church thinks, so is it better to use a condom to try to save lives?" the Pope has implied that a pastor might legitimately say "Yes," while still stressing that condoms ultimately are not, as Benedict says in his interview, a "real or moral solution."

In other words, we're dealing here not with abstract moral teaching, but concrete pastoral application to a specific set of facts.

That point needs to be qualified in a couple of important ways.

First of all, a Q&A with a journalist carries no weight as an expression of official Catholic teaching. Elsewhere in the same book Benedict concedes that popes can have private opinions which are wrong, so until some formal edict comes down the pike, Benedict's language has to be seen as interesting but non-binding.

Second, Catholic pastoral counselling on condoms in the context of HIV/Aids has never been quite as absolute as outsiders generally take it to be.

Since the advent of the Aids crisis, many Catholic theologians, and even a few cardinals, have debated whether the use of a condom in some limited circumstances might be tolerated. The usual example is that of a married couple where one partner is HIV-positive and the other isn't, and the intent is not to prevent pregnancy but to prevent infection.

The 'open question'

In recent years, both a Swiss cardinal who served as the theologian of the papal household and a Mexican cardinal who was the Vatican's point man on health care issues have argued in favour of the acceptability of condoms in such cases, while others have demurred.

The Vatican The Vatican has not issued an official statement along the lines of the Pope's comments

It is a classic instance of what Catholic theology calls an "open question," meaning one which has not been officially resolved.

Shortly after his election to the papacy five years ago, Benedict XVI asked the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Health Care to examine the question. That office polled a number of theologians, scientists and medical experts, and tentatively drew a positive conclusion: in the limited case of a married couple trying to save one partner from infection, use of a condom could be accepted, even if should not be presented as the ideal.

In his interview with the German journalist, Benedict uses the example of a prostitute, not a married couple, but the idea is similar. When the intent is to prevent disease rather than pregnancy, it changes the moral calculus.

To date, the Vatican has not issued any official statement along those lines, based in part not on doctrinal considerations but PR worries. The fear has been that if the Vatican were to issue even a narrow ruling, however carefully hemmed in and nuanced, all the world would hear is, "Church says condoms are okay."

For obvious reasons, the breathless coverage of the Pope's interview over the past 48 hours has done little to assuage those concerns.

Hence one irony of the present situation: it may well be precisely those reformers most thrilled by what Benedict has said, most inclined to spin it as a "revolution," who actually make it less likely that even his limited concession sees the official light of day.

For those who would like the Catholic Church to become more flexible on condoms, therefore, a word of caution: hype doesn't help.

John L Allen Jr is the Senior Correspondent for the US-based National Catholic Reporter and author of two books on Pope Benedict XVI.

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