Fr. Fessio on what Pope Benedict really said: USEFUL ANALOGY ALERT


“Pope Approves Padded Pipes for Mugging”

You would do well to read this carefully and use it in conversations.

Fr. Joseph Fessio, SJ,  wrote a piece for Reuters which means that it will get a little visibility.

It begins:

Did the Pope “justify” condom use in some circumstances?

No. And there was absolutely no change in Church teaching either. Not only because an interview by the Pope does not constitute Church teaching, but because nothing that he said differs from previous Church teaching.

Then why all the headlines saying that he “approves” or “permits” or “justifies” condom use in certain cases?

With a tip of the biretta to Ignatius Insight:

[…]Equally problematically, “giustificati” = justified, was used in the Italian  translation of “begründete”, and arbitrarily resolves the ambiguity one-sidedly.

The Pope responded: “She [the Church] 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 in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality”.

In the first place a solution which is not “moral” cannot be “justified”. That is a contradiction and would mean that something in itself morally evil could be “justified” to achieve a good end. Note: the concept of the “lesser evil” is inapplicable here. One may tolerate a lesser evil; one cannot do something which is a lesser evil.

But the crucial distinction here is between the “intention” of the male prostitute, viz. avoiding infecting his client, and the act itself, viz. using a condom. Since this distinction has been missed in almost every report I’ve read, it calls for some elaboration.

This distinction, in moral philosophy, is between the object of an act and the intent of an act. If a man steals in order to fornicate, the intent is to fornicate but the object is the act of theft. There is no necessary connection between stealing and fornicating.

In the case of the Pope’s remark, the intent is preventing infection and the object is use of a condom.

Here’s an example of this distinction that parallels what the Pope said.

Muggers are using steel pipes to attack people and the injuries are severe. Some muggers use padded pipes to reduce the injuries, while still disabling the victim enough for the mugging.

The Pope says that the intention of reducing injury (in the act of mugging) could be a first step toward greater moral responsibility. This would not justify the following headlines: “Pope Approves Padded Pipes for Mugging” “Pope Says Use of Padded Pipes Justified in Some Circumstances”, Pope Permits Use of Padded Pipes in Some Cases”.

Of course, one may morally use padded pipes in some circumstances, e.g., as insulated pipes so that hot water flowing through them doesn’t cool as fast. And one may use condoms morally in some cases, e.g. as water balloons. But that also would not justify the headline “Pope Approves Condom Use”, though in this case it could be true. But it would be intentionally misleading.

In sum, the Pope did not “justify” condom use in any circumstances. And Church teaching remains the same as it has always been—both before and after the Pope’s statements.

Read the entire post.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Thank you for posting this, Fr. Z. This is the only article that people need to read before they can get a copy of the book. Well done, Fr. Fessio. You’ve done the Pope proud again.

  2. The Cobbler says:

    May I just say that…
    1) All this was obvious enough to me from reading what the Pope said.
    2) All the controversy only serves to convince me that reporters either are indeed liars or really can’t read, since regardless of whatever confusing nuance he also clearly said it isn’t a moral solution.
    3) I’m getting more than a little tired of being reminded that reporters either lie or can’t read; it was “fun” for a day, but at this point…

  3. Deo volente says:

    Brilliant! Even the mainstream press can understand this!

  4. Lori Pieper says:

    So now we’ve got a totally different German text? I hope this is the right one!

  5. RichR says:

    If I have to choose between trusting Fr. Fessio and Damian Thompson, I’ll choose Fr. Fessio.

    Damian’s blog is now off of my RSS reader. He really dropped the ball on this issue.

  6. Maltese says:

    “Muggers are using steel pipes to attack people and the injuries are severe. Some muggers use padded pipes to reduce the injuries, while still disabling the victim enough for the mugging.” The Pope says that the intention of reducing injury (in the act of mugging) could be a first step toward greater moral responsibility. This would not justify the following headlines: “Pope Approves Padded Pipes for Mugging”

    What an asinine example.

    For starters, condom use set the stage, vis-a-vis Griswold, for untold millions of babies being killed. Griswold led to Roe, and the rest is history.

    On the bright side, our Pope LOVES tradition, and has made unprecedented overtures to FSSPX, a group aligned to his heart (as evidenced by Michael Davies statement that then Cardinal Ratzinger is a “one of us [Traditionalists]”

  7. catholicuspater says:

    Look, fellas, regardless of what Fr. Fessio says (let’s also remember he is the publisher of Peter Seewald’s book that started all this trouble) let’s also remember that Fr. Lombardi tells us today that the Pope purposely provoked this conversation to stir a discussion.

    This “brilliant” act by our Holy Father (which in reality is nothing more than the personal opinion of a private theologian and not an act of the official magisterium) has basically confused and deceived the 8 billion people in the world into believing that the Vatican has now proclaimed that it’s okay to use condoms to prevent HIV.

    This “brilliant” act has the wing of the Church which has never accepted Humanae Vitae wildly celebrating the fact that they can openly exhort their people to use condoms and nobody but nobody will try to stop them.

    This “brilliant” act of the Pope will take decades to correct and will be remembered as the defining moment in the history of this papacy. You can tell yourself that nothing has changed in theory, while the world celebrates the appearance of a “seismic shift” in Vatican policy by someone who can now aptly be called the “Condom Pope.”

    This “brilliant” act will be remembered by historians in the same way as the three “brilliant” sermons by Pope John XXII which were later condemned by his successors.

    You may console yourselves into believing that the teaching on Humanae Vitae remains in effect de jure, (perhaps yes, perhaps no) but one thing is clear and noone can deny it: because of these disastrous statements by the Holy Father and Fr. Lombardi, the world now believes Humanae Vitae is a dead letter.

    Maybe the “provocative” comments of the Pope weren’t such a great idea after all.

  8. Ahh…how refreshing. Now if only the media would learn how to read…

  9. Prof. Basto says:

    So, the German word was not rechtfertigen, as had been previously claimed.

    That’s good.

  10. rahook says:

    What I don’t understand is the deafening silence in the Catholic and pro-life media about the fact that condoms are a band-aid solution at best to counter the spread of HIV. It is a well-known fact that the HIV virus is small enough to easily pass through the pores of a condom. But except for one website that mentioned a Roman cardinal who made a statement about this in 2003, Catholic and pro-life commentators have been mostly silent about this, despite the fact that the secular media have been eagerly promoting this falsehood. Why?

  11. SimonDodd says:


    It is a well-known fact that the HIV virus is small enough to easily pass through the pores of a condom. But … the secular media have been eagerly promoting this falsehood. Why?

    Presumably because it’s not so much a “well-known fact” as a trope that’s as frequently-recited as it is long-debunked (see, e.g., this, which notes that while there’s truth to the statement, strictly-speaking, it’s a red herring).

  12. rahook says:

    Well, I wouldn’t say “debunked”. After reading Mr. Adams’ comments, I would still say that using a condom to prevent HIV is a lot like playing Russian roulette.

  13. Jason Keener says:

    If the Pope did purposely want to provoke a discussion with his condom comments, he certainly did that. Unfortunately, the comments also have led to mass confusion and will now result in many people thinking the Catholic Church officially approves the use of condoms. I don’t know how anyone can view the Pope’s comments as being anything other than terribly imprudent. Who could not have guessed that such comments would be twisted and taken out of context by the media? Strange…

    In any event, if the Pope does not care about stirring a public reaction, why doesn’t he start doing other thought-provoking things that make more sense like celebrating the Extraordinary Form of the Liturgy at his public Masses?

  14. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Thanks to Simon Dodd for the link – I found the conclusion particularly interesting:

    “My point is this: for whatever reason–pores, improper use, etc.–real-world research shows condoms don’t offer 100 percent protection against AIDS. Maybe not, say the AIDS experts, but if you tell people that they’ll use it as an excuse not to use condoms. To which I reply: the arguably greater danger is that they’ll use condoms the way some weight watchers use Diet Coke–as an excuse to continue dangerous behavior (e.g., promiscuous sex, not gay sex per se). If that’s “anti-eros,” as some people seem to think, too bad. A friend of mine who died of AIDS attributed his illness to a wild weekend he’d once had. It’s hardly anti-sex to wish he’d stayed home. ”

    What Cecil Adams calls “the arguably greater danger” is one implicit in the Pope’s example, which he (surely?) would have done well to state explicitly and hammer home, no?

  15. Solzy2004 says:

    I tend to agree with posters who think, no matter that it was taken out of context, it was a disastrous statement. I feel like I did when JPII started waxing eloquent about evolution, JUST WHEN IT WAS BEING DEBUNKED ALL OVER THE U.S.!!! Philip Johnson, Behe, etc. David Berlinski is wonderful on the subject…As (tho he’s a new ager) is Bruce Lipton, a cell biologist….

    Sigh… Hey, anyone feel like giving advice? How does one teach CCD properly to kids whose parents don’t follow humanae vitae??? It seems without that background and basis, nothing sticks… and it’s almost…what’s the use?

  16. QMJ says:


    I do deny that the Pope’s comments have made the world think Humanae Vitae is a dead letter. I also deny that his comments were disastrous. For the most part the only people who who think Humanae Vitae is a dead letter are those who already thought it was. For those who do not really know about Humanae Vitae it is our responsibility to inform them and when we do we should do so in light of what pontiff’s since Paul VI have said about these issues, otherwise, Humanae Vitae will become a dead letter.

    Many people have said that the Pope’s comments were imprudent. The reason they give for this is because of how the media is distorting what he said. As I was thinking about this I was reminded of 2 Peter 3:15-16: “Our beloved brother Paul, with the wisdom God has granted him, has written you a letter, in which, as in all his letters, he talks about this. (Though indeed, there are passages in them difficult to understand, and these, like the rest of scripture, are twisted into a wrong sense by ignorant and restless minds, to their own undoing.)” Going by your’s and others’ line of reasoning St. Paul (and, therefore, God) should not have written what he did because like the media today there were people who twisted it into a wrong sense. Even the Devil used God’s word against Him and continues to use it against us, His children, today. Should God not have given us His Holy Word just because the Devil has been able to twist them and lead some people astray? As Christians this is where the rubber hits the road for us. Again, it is our responsibility to not dismiss what the Lord’s vicar on earth has said, but to educate and correct those who do not understand the Church’s teaching. This requires us to constantly seek an ever deeper understanding of what the Church teaches including what our Holy Father says, magisterially or not.

    In Him

  17. kgurries says:

    Fr. Fessio said: “In the case of the Pope’s remark, the intent is preventing infection and the object is use of a condom.”

    This is getting closer to the heart of the matter. I have to wonder if this object defined as “use of a condom” is still a little too broad and open-ended. For example, to “use a condom” to hold water is not the same “object” (in the moral order) as to “use a condom” for contraception. Nor is it the same moral object as to “use a condom” as a barrier against infection. In other words, everything depends on clarity of the “moral object” — which is something altogether different than the object in itself.

  18. The Cobbler says:

    Folks, sensationalism isn’t going to get us any farther than it gets the world.

    Just last week these comboxes were filled with outcry against John Allen for daring to characterize this papacy as one of trainwrecks. Now some of you can’t see any hope that it will be anything else.

    Have you forgotten that the world already hated the Church, or that it has the attention span of a fruitfly? I’m going to make a few predictions here.

    1) This whole thing may be blown over by the time you get back from Thanksgiving, if anything else comes up in the news — say, if the opt-out brings about anything of note. Not completely forgotten, but the lies will sooner or later be reduced to the same old droll from the New York Slimes.

    2) If it isn’t over sooner, it will be just another story by Christmas. At most it will be tagged onto whatever religion-related issue the media manages to drag up for that occassion.

    3) Once it’s just another story, the teaching moment opportunity will be much clearer, because instead of facing blaring accusations (and yes, there are some who will continue using it for that, but those are trolls who will always find something whether it’s there or not) we’ll face individuals who’ve been left confused and be able to clarify on a case-by-case basis both that the Pope still said it’s not moral and that what he did say is that he gets that subjectively some people being beginning to take on responsibility could be a step up from them not caring at all.

    4) Very few people are going to run off and start sinning because of this. Plenty of people will think it justifies the opinion they already held, but those of us who understand the Church’s teaching on these matters A) are already in the minority and B) aren’t going to be fooled. The teaching moment that may bring some to understand weighed against the handful who will be led astray is a gamble I would not be inclined to make, but niether is it certain doom for orthodoxy or anything else.

    5) If confusion persists, the Vatican will eventually issue whatever reiterations of the tradition are necessary, just as it closed the question of women priests after the “spirit of Vatican II” had everybody wondering about it. Yes, as with women priests there will be some led astray and some of these who never come back around, but as with women priests it will eventually become a non-issue for the mainstream Church because such heterodoxy can’t survive long if there’s the slightest bit of orthodoxy around to stand against it.

    6) Someday John Allen will write about this again and you’ll be angry at him for being so negative about it, again.

    Bad move on the Pope’s part? Maybe. But if you think it’s going to bring down an insurmountable deluge of madness from the world, I’d like to know why you don’t think the Church is already dead after the past forty, fifty, hundred years of far worse messiness. Learn to reply to this both accurately and succinctly, and in the meantime quit worrying about its longterm effects (which you can’t do a thing to influence anyway, besides pray, which is never a bad idea). It’s not like it’d help us much if he kept his candid opinions to himself either.

    It’s not even as if the Pope actually preached heresy in a non-infallible but influential setting. If something like that happened, I’d join the bulk of you in calling for — whatever it is the orthodox in the Church are supposed to do about a rubbish Pope (and I know we’ve had a few). But as it is, well, it’s not like the liberals couldn’t make stuff up without this: we’re just going to have to hang on and stay the course as we would have if Benedict had kept his mouth shut.

  19. pfreddys says:

    Ultimately though the most prudent policy is that a currently reigning Pope should not publish books. This had been the policy up through Pope John Paul I.

  20. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Wondering about the nuance of the verb-form ‘mag’ in “Es mag begründete Einzelfälle geben”, I just asked a near-native German speaker, and was told it was distinctly more cautious and tentative than “There may be a basis” – something more in the direction of “There might just (conceivably) be isolated, exceptional cases”.

  21. Supertradmum says:

    I heard this interview on NPR yesterday in the car. Very impressive and easy to understand. In the long run, this entire episode, as Father Fessio stated, is actually a good thing, as people, like those who listen to uber-liberal NPR, have access to an extensive and interesting commentary on morality. I think this comment actually, despite the media, has done more good than harm. Students are discussing this as well, and those of us who understand moral teaching and the nuances of personal responsibility, can lead these young people to some truth.

  22. Dave N. says:

    I read the article, which makes a great deal of sense, except some of what Fr. Fessio has to say seems to conflict with some of what the Vatican spokesman, Fr. Lombardi said yesterday. (Or was it the day before?)

    I’m now officially confused.

  23. edwardswyco says:

    The epitome of “getting it wrong” belongs to the Daily Mail in the UK. The Vatican clarified what the Pope said and they heard the following (real headline): “Women as well as men can use condoms, declares Vatican as it clarifies Pope’s comments.”

    Being patient with them, I registered and politely and accurately tried to explain what the Pope really said – and my moderated comments (surprise, surprise) have yet to appear on their website these past ten hours. Mind you, there’s plenty of anti-papal and anti-clerical comments – they’ve magically gone through the moderation process.

  24. TJerome says:

    journalist is now synonymous with propagandist

  25. JonM says:

    Catholicuspater, in my view, nails this situation.

    With all due respect, I was stunned when I heard this story. And, contrary to many desperately attempting to spin this as a ‘media lies’ story, I was heartbroken when I read the actual text.

    While technically one could interpret what the Holy Father said in line with traditional Catholic morality, the fact is that to the vast majority his statement is blurry and confusing. Frankly, I believe this was intended.

    Furthermore, even if we go with the ‘Evil Media Stikes Again’ line, this is yet another example why it is wrong for the Pope to sit down for an interview as if he is some civil servant or athlete who is to be held to account by the Fourth Estate. If the media is soooo horrible (and it generally is) then why in the world do we feed it?

    As a convert, one who has been ostracized as a result of embracing the entire Church and in so doing attempting to strictly cut out many things that are for 90% of Catholics matters of course… to find an ill advised (and even worse ‘clarification’) forray into a moot and entirely academic point on matters of Life, this is nothing short of feeling betrayed.

    When I walk my dogs, I give clear obvious direction. When shepherds guide their flock, they are to clearly direct their sheep. I defy anyone to honestly claim that this statement is (1) a clear direction to the sheep (2) Something short of a harbringer of a second wave of embrace of simply unacceptable acts (3) Something that we would have expected from Pius XII, Pius XI, or even John Paul I.

  26. The Cobbler says:

    There’s nothing moot and academic about focusing on the development of a conscience. If anything, that’s less academic than simply laying out the objective morality.

    And what about telling parables about, you know, the wisdom of dishonest stewards and the like, with little or no explanation? We don’t seem to have any problem with Christ “pulling media stunts”, if that’s how we’re going to insist on seeing this.

  27. Hidden One says:

    I am not wiser than the Pope.

  28. JonM says:

    There’s nothing moot and academic about focusing on the development of a conscience. If anything, that’s less academic than simply laying out the objective morality.

    Practically speaking, we have thousands of more pressing issues to confront before determining if male (now according to the Vatican, female and ‘transgender’) use of condoms, to prevent the spread of blood-borne disease, is a ‘first step to moralization.’

    How about, if the Holy Father explained that, Yes craddle Catholics, sex out of marriage is a mortal sin. So is pornography, masturbation, and intentional lustfulness. Or, perhaps that marriage is the normal state of life, that is for the dual purposes of procreation and mutual support, and that it should be embraced rather than mocked.

    Of course, he could have chosen to excommunicate obvious, prominent, open and in your face heretics instead of waxing philosophical about gay prostitutes and condoms.

    Another wiser use of time could have been saying emphatically that Yes, you do need to go to Confession and confess all known serious sins before receiving the Eucharist.

    Perhaps a candid indictment of the modern world and its ever tightening vice on Catholic families, particularly younger men seeking to simply live out their normative vocation who are only met by utter hearbreak and frustration given the Great Mancession, ‘girl power,’ and wimpy liturgies/Church functions that are less edifying than a Mr. Rogers talk. And then to awaken to a world that believe condom use as a matter of course is now A-OK.

    I think you get my point. So yes, it was a foolish academic matter to broach at all let alone in public.

    And what about telling parables about, you know, the wisdom of dishonest stewards and the like, with little or no explanation? We don’t seem to have any problem with Christ “pulling media stunts”, if that’s how we’re going to insist on seeing this.

    Our Blessed Lord did not pull media stunts to ‘liven debate’ like this episode. Jesus spoke using extreme examples to illustrate crystal clear moral precepts.

    Speaking of which, more conservative Protestants are (rightfully) agast at this latest turn. As one Baptist clergyman said, ‘why doesn’t the Pope tell these homosexual prostitutes that sex outside of marriage, gay sex, and prostitution are all gravely sinful?’

    Defend this all you want, the fact that tuned in devout Catholics need help with this is proof positive that we are continuing our autodestruction and that, in my opinion, little will change until the Church along with rapidly bankrupting countries hit absolute rock bottom.

  29. JonM says:

    I want to add, one legitimate pursuit of theological investigation would be what women are to do in marriage to a man who becomes HIV infected and forcefully demands sex. Does this hypothetical women, who cannot seek law enforcement protect, have a reasonable cause to use a condom?

    I actually lean towards the answer somehow being yes, though I am cautious as I am not immediately sure of how this would work with Pius XI’s teaching. With that said, this is such a limited case, there is no need to make a splash with it in public. Confessors should be empowered to privately deal with such tragedies.

    Loose lips sink ships and also give everyone an out (‘Well, I could have a blood borne disease, and the Pope didn’t condemn sex out of marriage when he had the chance. Besides, the Church doesn’t take marriage seriously, so this is the best step towards my own moralization…’) Don’t think this sort of rationalization will be rare from now on.

  30. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    JonM (25 Nov. at 12:35 am) has raised an important ‘matter’ in his first paragraph, and I am not convinced “this is such a limited case” (e.g., in lots of parts of Africa today?) – or will be in the future.

    With apologies for the fumbling character of what follows, I’ve got to thinking about such a matter more widely, as a result of the ‘condom quote controversy’. For example, more than a century ago George MacDonald (so heartily though not uncritically admired by Chesterton) in one or more of his ‘realistic’ novels (I can’t immediately recall which, and have not searched, yet) deals with the question of whether someone with tuberculosis and someone without it ought to/can in good conscience marry. And one might consider Father Damian and his decision to come dangerously close to the lepers he came to help.

    There must be a lot of (possibly) relevant casuistry and teaching out there, already. Has anyone assembled any and brought it to bear, accessibly and conveniently (online)?

    It seems to me one of the things raised (implicitly) by the Pope’s chosen example is (so to put it) the whole matter of prophylaxis, licitness, and conscience. Grabbing a handy (but old) dictionary, I find ‘prophylactic’ defined as “(Medicine, measure) tending to prevent disease”.

    “Tending” – presumably nothing ‘prophylactic’ has guaranteed success.

    As far as I can see, the male prostitute with inklings of dawning conscientiousness ought to conclude that the continuing dangers of transmission far outweigh any ‘tendency to preventing’ it, and ought on those grounds alone to stop having even ‘ “semi-protected” sex’.

    An example that had occurred to me, before reading JonM’s comment, was that of a woman where there is a high level of rape (e.g., parts of Africa): would she be justified in not only trying to persuade someone bent on raping her to use a condom but in lying to the potential rapist that she was incurably infected as a means of persuasion? I fear women in danger of rape cannot be assumed to be limited cases.

  31. Vetdoctor says:

    Quote, …”in lying to the potential rapist that she was incurably infected as a means of persuasion? I fear women in danger of rape cannot be assumed to be limited cases.”

    Go and read Doctor Fesser’s blog with his recent comments on lieing. The short answer is that av having a good intention does not make a sin white.

  32. catholicmidwest says:

    Why oh why do discussions of Catholicism always & forever have to devolve to discussions of what you can or cannot do with your pelvic decorations?

    Can we get past this please?

  33. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Dear Vetdoctor,

    Thanks for picking up!

    Who is Doctor Fesser and what and where is his blog?

    (Part of the background of my ‘hypothetical’ may have been reading an article (off line) about ‘takiyya’ which reminded me of a dissertation on St. Augustine and the ‘mendacium officiosum’ I have on the shelf but have not yet got round to reading…)

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