A good clarification about the Pope’s comment on condoms

Here is a CNS story by fellow Minnesotan John Thavis with my emphases and comments.

Vatican clarifies pope’s reference to ‘male prostitute’ in condoms comment

Posted on November 23, 2010 by John Thavis

VATICAN CITY — When Pope Benedict commented in a new book that using condoms to reduce the risk of disease could, in some circumstances, be a step toward moral responsibility, he used the example of a male prostitute.

That raised the question: Was the pope deliberately limiting his observations to this particular group?

The answer is no, according to Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, who presented the pope’s book today at the Vatican press office.

Father Lombardi acknowledged confusion over the gender question. He said the Italian version of the book, which translated the pope’s example as “prostitute” using the feminine gender, was an error. The original German used the masculine noun for prostitute, but there was debate over whether the word was being used generically or specifically.

So Father Lombardi took the question to the pope. [I hope this signals greater access to the Pope for the Press Secretary.  I understand that his access has been limited.]

“I asked the pope personally if there was a serious or important problem in the choice of the masculine gender rather than the feminine, and he said no, that is, the main point — and this is why I didn’t refer to masculine or feminine in (my earlier) communiqué — is [wait for iiiiiit….] the first step of responsibility in taking into account the risk to the life of another person with whom one has relations,” Father Lombardi said. [Just as I have been saying.  It represents a move in the right direction.  But we are still dealing with something that is wrong.]

“Whether a man or a woman or a transsexual does this, we’re at the same point. The point is the first step toward responsibility, to avoid posing a grave risk to another person,” Father Lombardi said.

For his part, Peter Seewald, the German journalist who posed the questions in the book, said at the press conference today that “there is no difference between male prostitute and female prostitute” in the pope’s remarks, despite all the controversy over the translations. [And this is why here, on WDTPRS, that hasn’t been a main point.  Nevertheless, the fact that L’Osservatore couldn’t get the gender right is a problem.  It is a different problem, of course.] He added: “The pope indicates that, in addition to the case he cited, there may be other cases in which one may imagine that use of a condom could be a step toward responsible sexuality in this area, and to prevent further infection.”  [Just in case it hasn’t been made clear enough yet… note the repetition of “step”.]

Peter Seewald


Here once again is the key passage on the subject in the book, “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times,” when Seewald asks the pope whether it was “madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms.”Pope Benedict: As a matter of fact, you know, people can get condoms when they want them anyway. But this just goes to show that condoms alone do not resolve the question itself. More needs to happen. Meanwhile, the secular realm itself has developed the so-called ABC Theory: Abstinence-Be Faithful-Condom, where the condom is understood only as a last resort, when the other two points fail to work. This means that the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.

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 discovering 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.

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

Pope Benedict: [NB] She of course does not [not] regard it as a real or moral solution, [not moral] but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

It it isn’t clear now, I don’t know when it will be.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Andy Milam says:

    Crystal. 100%. No ambiguity. Competely rational. Completely in harmony with Catholic moral theology and understanding.

  2. MarkJ says:

    Here’s the resulting Fox News headline: “Vatican: Everyone can use condoms to prevent HIV”

  3. Francis says:

    Here you go with Ultramontanism: your morals, your liturgy, your faith, your salvation hang upon the words of the Servant of the servants of God, of the Vicar of Saint Peter. And this will not stop here- and its not clear what degree of magisterial authority these words are held to bear.

  4. Geoffrey says:

    It’s clear to me. Always was. Viva il Papa!

  5. rfox2 says:

    In good conscience I can’t help but judge what the Holy Father said as being a serious mistake. He’s making a very fine moral distinction that can only be properly and readily understood by someone who is already steeped in Tradition and moral theology. The issue of condoms in Africa is subtle casuistry that requires prudent pastoral handling. I love the Holy Father, but his statements on this issue that have recently been articulated do not seem wise. Everyone who is inclined, from North America to Eastern Europe and beyond, will now be trying to justify in their minds why it is OK to use condoms. The first and best act regarding illicit sex is to abstain, because no one, unless they are raped, is forced into sex. No matter how good the end is, even if it is saving someone’s life, we are never justified in using evil means to achieve that end.

    This was simply an imprudent judgement on the pope’s part to say this. We will be very blessed if this doesn’t end up creating a pastoral nightmare.

  6. anna 6 says:

    Perfectly clear…thank you, which is all the more reason why L’Osservatore’s omission of the full quote is inexcusable.
    From what I have read so far, the book is extraordinary…gripping and uplifting. I hope that all of this controversy inpires those who would never have thought of reading a book by the pope to to do so. It has the potential to lead many lost souls to Christ.

  7. Clinton says:

    One’s body is a temple, not an amusement park. Other people’s bodies are also temples,
    not public landfills.

  8. TotusTuus90 says:

    It baffles me how the media can misrepresent and twist the words of the Holy Father. I sent Fox News an email in regards to the headline that MarkJ quoted.

    “To Whom it May Concern,

    The way that Fox News has been reporting the comments of H.H. Pope Benedict XVI is of grave concern. The Holy Father did NOT say that condoms were acceptable or moral. Fox News has even twisted the clarification from the Press Office of the Holy See. One article is entitled “Vatican: Everyone can use condoms to prevent HIV.” That headline is manifestly false! The only message that the Holy Father wanted to convey in his comment was that the person in question (man or woman) was becoming more moral, in the sense that he/she realized that it was bad to infect someone else and intended to prevent the spread of a disease. Neither the Holy Father nor the statement from the Press Office of the Holy See said that the faithful may use condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS. In fact, the Holy Father said the opposite! The Church “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 risk of infection, a first step toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.” (Emphasis Added) Again, the main point of the Holy Father’s statement is that the intention of preventing the spread of disease is a first step towards morality. I would be remiss if I didn’t quote His Holiness’ first words in regard to this situation “She [the Church] of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution.” (Emphasis and clarification mine) Neither the book nor the press release from the Holy See is an authoritative teaching document from the Holy See, therefore it is not a Magisterial document. I urge Fox News to report more accurately and use better words and terminology, and perhaps get facts from a faithful Catholic priest, rather than a Jesuit who has not been faithful to the Church’s teachings regarding human sexuality and many other areas.”

    Hopefully enough people will contact them to get the message!

  9. lhwhitaker says:

    @MarkJ Surely you don’t expect NEWS from Fox News, do you?

  10. pseudomodo says:

    It really seems to boil down to a variation on the old ‘lesser of two evils’ argument – first year philosophy stuff.

    Journalist: Holy Father, when a man beats his wife, should he use a smaller stick as opposed to a larger one?

    Pope: A man should not beat his wife in the first place.

    Journalist: Are you refusing to answer a simple question?

  11. Igne says:

    I am glad that His Holiness said what he said. I fear that some Catholics fetishize not using artificial contraception to such an extent that it becomes an idol. We all need to be aware of the teleology of our actions and, indeed, our attitudes. Thank God, it’s impossible to be more Catholic than this pope. I’ve notice that that doesn’t stop some people trying, however. He is not wrapped in the same myths of coherence that some very good American Catholics can be vulnerable to getting enmeshed in

  12. La Sandia says:

    “Fetishize not using artificial contraception”? Umm, lest we forget, artificial contraception is still an intrinsic evil, and nothing the Pope has said contradicts this. The Church’s teaching on sexual ethics is pretty darn coherent: If you aren’t married, don’t have sex; when you do have sex, don’t use contraception.

    The secular world’s fixation on latex, on the other hand, seems more to rise to the level of a fetish.

  13. steve jones says:

    The ‘cases’ that one would have to consider are activities such as oral sex, masturbation and anal sex. In other words, any sexual activity where there was no procreative dimension. Further examples include a woman who might already be contracepting and is using condoms for reasons of hygiene. Similarly, a man who has been sterilised. It is such a complex area one is left concluding that if either a husband or wife were HIV positive, is an active sex life an acceptable option for the infected party?

    This attempt by the Pope to engage the World strikes me as confusing. Should a serving Pope really be communicating via interviews, lectures and books or even Papal visits? I am begining to think we need a Pope who stays in the Vatican and kicks episcopal butt which would be a full time job at the moment.

  14. TotusTuus90 says:

    @ steve jones

    I agree we need a Pope that will deal with dissident clergy within the hierarchy of the Church. I would much rather read a document from our Holy Father that condemns dissenters than read a series of interviews given by him that have no magisterial weight. However, I do think it is important to get a better sense of his private positions as they give us a better clue about what he thinks about current issues plaguing the Church, such as communion in the hand. Sadly, it appears from the interview for the new book that the Holy Father will not revoke the indult for communion in the hand anytime soon.

  15. ignatius51 says:

    I’m glad for this clarification, but it really unsettles me that Father Lombardi would include “transexuals” in his statement about this. Why would the Holy Father’s own press secretary use language that deliberately contributes to the already confused ideas the modern world has about gender?

    I just think it is unnessasary and unhelful.

  16. Mike says:

    I think Fr. Z is correct–if this isn’t clear, nothing will be. I think the Pope trusts the Holy Spirit to enlighten people of good will, or to convert people of ill will. Either way, his–the Pope’s–words are only instruments of that. So.we.can.now.exhale. (To quote William Shatner)

    I also think when some one does choose to use a condom to protect another person from HIV, perhaps that is a first step out of hell on earth–seeing the other, recognizing him or her as more than a toy for my please.

  17. ruadhri says:

    Forgive me if I’m misunderstanding something, but if the moral wrong in the use of a condom is because the intent is contraceptive, then I can understand there is no contraceptive intent in the case of a male prostitute. Just as there is no contraceptive intent in using a condom to smuggle heroin. But isn’t there the intention to avoid pregnancy in the case of a female prostitute (as well as avoiding infection)? Or is the Pope, in his reply to Fr Lombardi, referring to lesbian prostitutes, and transsexual prostitutes as well? We need carefully worded explanations, not off-the-cuff comments.

  18. robtbrown says:


    Once again: The morality of any human act cannot be reduced to intention–otherwise the end (cf intention) would always justify any means willed. Following the intention of an end, an act is willed. For example, it is good to intend to build a church, but immoral to will raising the money by immoral means (e.g., selling drugs).


    The prostitute does not intend to contracept but rather intends to prevent pregnancy by willing the act of contraception.

    The prohibition against contraception is based on protecting the integrity of the conjugal act. By definition, sex outside of marriage is not conjugal–and it is always grave matter. BXVI is not approving of such grave matter. He is talking about minimalizing evil: Homosexual sex is evil–it is more evil to infect someone with a dread disease.

    Comparing it to robbing a bank. On the one hand, the robbers can shoot everyone in the room. On the other, it is less bad to shoot a few or no one–but that doesn’t make bank robbery a moral act.

  19. ruadhri says:

    Thank you for your response, Robtbrown. Of course, intention does not justify the means used, and of course non-conjugal sex is morally wrong. But because extra-marital sex, e.g., between a man and a female prostitute, is gravely wrong, is the use of a condom, perhaps insisted upon by the prostitute to avoid becoming pregnant, justifiable on the grounds that it may also prevent infection? It appears from what you are saying that contraception is morally wrong only in the case of conjugal relations – “based on protecting the integrity of the conjugal act”. Could it be that while sex with a (female) prostitute is always wrong, the use of a condom further aggravates the evil? I honestly don’t know. Seems to me we’re in a minefield here.

  20. luiz says:

    For a male prostitute, using condoms means that he can have sex without the fear of getting any disease (at least in his mind). And the fear of getting any disease can be the first step toward responsability.

  21. rfox2 says:


    Excellent point! Concern over sickness, disease, and death are poignant reminders of our contingency, and need for God.

    This reminds me of something else that is disturbing about the pope’s comments on this issue. There seems to be a tacit elevation of the body over the soul because if someone is having illicit sex, there are deeper spiritual problems afoot. What good is it to save someone from getting HIV if they go to Hell? And, if that isn’t implied in these statements, then it seems like the Holy Father is saying that people are impelled to have illicit sex, so the only good that may come out of those encounters is the concern over giving someone a disease demonstrated by the use of a condom. It makes the pope’s comments seem more like a capitulation to the world’s concerns.

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