Once again, the key passage

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.

The Pope used the phrase “first step” twice.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. iowapapist says:

    I wish that the Holy Father had commenced his reply with “The Church is unequivocally opposed to the use of condoms, however…” A response like this would not have given nearly as much fodder to the secular media, apostate Catholics and others who seek the ruin of the Church.

  2. spschultz says:

    One major item which seems lost in all this mess is the fact it was L’Osservatore Romano that once again threw the Church and the Pope under the bus by releasing the most “controversial” of the Pope’s comments out-of-context and BEFORE the release of the book — a move in direct violation of the media agreement not to “leak” anything before the publication date. The secular media managed to follow this guidance, yet it was the Vatican’s “semi-official” newspaper which once again leads the charge in making the Pope and the Church look bad. Perhaps it’s time for L’Osservatore Romano to be held accountable? Any “Catholic” publication which declares the Simpsons as the model Catholic family simply no longer deserves any credibility.

    Second, had the Pope said the first indication an alcoholic might be getting serious about stopping his addiction could be IF he acknowledged his problem, we wouldn’t be running around proclaiming, “Pope says being an alcoholic is okay!” Instead, we’d rightly understand the message to mean the first step in conversion from sin involves a person recognizing and beginning to take responsibility for his sin. However, since in this case the Pope talks about sex and condoms, a whole bunch of people who should know better feign ignorance and claim the Pope said something that he VERY clearly did NOT say!

    I’ve seen far too many people, particularly in comments to Fr. Z’s posts, seeming to be more interested in using this as an opportunity to publicly throw stones at the Pope for everything he does “wrong” in their eyes. They seem so focused on the splinter in their brother’s eye, they cannot see the log in their own. Many comments I’ve seen display precious little of the Christian charity to which we are called — and to which we WILL be held accountable.

    The Pope didn’t use the exact right words many think he should have — okay. However, it’s already done. What remains is how we react. Are we going to remain in an endless loop parsing IF he said the right words, IF he said them to the right person, IF he said them in the right venue, etc., or are we going to pick up our cross and follow Jesus by using this as an opportunity to educate our fellow human beings about authentic Church teaching and help guide them into the light of Truth?

    My further comments on the Pope’s REAL message: http://tutorfidelis.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/pope-says-condom-use-not-okay/

  3. kgurries says:

    The Pope says that there may be a “basis” in individual cases. Basis for what? I think he refers to that interior act of “responsibility” that represents a first step towards a humanization of sexuality. Its hard to read much more into it.

    The difficulty is that this “act” can be considered in different ways. I think the Pope is considering this under a specif aspect that many have overlooked. I tried to touch on it here:

  4. kgurries says:

    Let me also say that I tend to agree with those who understand this act as an “evil” — even if a “lesser evil” under the circumstances. My point is that the Pope has something different in mind. I think the moral object (will-act) that he considers is very precise and distinct from the act of fornication. He is considering an act that appears to have some real moral basis. That is why the act can represent a (positive) first step towards a humanization of sexuality. Lesser evils are never positive steps — but only smaller steps into the void.

  5. Pete says:

    As John Vennari explains:

    1) The lesser of two evils is a Protestant concept, not Catholic. It has no place in the history of Catholic moral teaching. We cannot choose the lesser of two evils because the lesser evil is still evil, and evil can never be the direct object of our will.

    2) Romans 3:8 condemns the principle that a person may do evil that good may come from it. St. Paul teaches that those who do so, their “damnation is just”. It is forbidden to do evil to achieve good.

    3) The use of these immoral devices is nothing new, so it seems odd anyone would suggest a new morality to go with them. Randy Engel, a veteran journalist who has written extensively about the dangers of modern sex-education and today’s homosexual agenda, noted, “Keep in mind that various forms of sheaths or prophylactics have been used by female and male prostitutes for centuries for two primary purposes: (1) to prevent infection including deadly diseases transmitted by sexual activity; (2) to prevent pregnancy, especially out-of-wedlock pregnancies that would endanger inheritance rights and weaken marriage alliances. Yet no saint or Church Father or Pope has suggested that their use for any reason was licit.”

    Nor did any saint or Church Father or Pope place any significance to the possibility that use of such a device by a person engaged in heinous acts may be some sort of first step toward moral responsibility.


  6. FredM says:

    I wish the Holy Father had said what he said. I don’t see the confusion. Note the words “may” “some” “in this case or that” “there can be” “first step”. We should hope (pray) that when this hypothetical occurs in reality that the “first step” is a genuine turning towards the good and is followed by a second step.

  7. Mrs Kate says:

    An hiv+ drug user injects, then cleans the needle under the tap, prior to handing it to a hiv- drug user who then uses the same needle to inject…This would be an illustration of the Holy Father’s remark about a first step to a moralization, because the first drug user took a step to prevent transmission of hiv…Different context, but same principle..maybe?

  8. spschultz says:

    @ Pete, nowhere in the Pope’s comments does he talk about the “lesser of two evils” — what part of “does not regard it as a real or moral solution” remains unclear to you? He is NOT saying “protected” sex among diseased people is “less evil” than unprotected sex among diseased people. Again – NOT a real solution and NOT a moral solution!

    As I said in my post above, the Pope is merely commenting, admittedly in a very academic way, that IF a person begins to show some responsibility for his actions, such an action MIGHT indicate a movement in that person towards a conversion from sin. The road to redemption is open to even the most heinous of sinners. However, in order to begin this journey, the sinner MUST first recognize his sin.

    So if someone thinks “maybe I should do something to prevent the spread of disease to another human being,” such a thought MIGHT indicate the beginning of a change in that person and POSSIBLY a movement away from evil (again NOT a moral solution) and towards good. SOMETHING must happen in every sinner (including you and me) if we are to move out of the darkness of evil and into the light of the Truth. While choosing the “lesser of two evils” is, once again, NOT the real solution and NOT the moral solution — and therefore still sinful, such a choice MIGHT indicate the beginnings of a change of heart in that person. The Pope is not saying to DO something, he’s commenting on WHAT a person’s actions MIGHT indicate is happening inside that person. Such a person is still in grievous mortal sin, but MIGHT be entering onto the path of redemption.

    Please, get over the media spin and read the Pope’s actual words (or, as I mention in my post above, are you more concerned with throwing stones at the Pope than with understanding what he actually meant?). He is not championing doing evil in order to achieve good. He’s making a deep theological point on the conversion from sin.

    St. Augustine was a terrible sinner before the spark of accountability lit in his soul, which began his journey to sainthood. He used to pray for God to grant him chastity, “but not yet.” However, the Lord took Augustine’s small spark, which Augustine hoped would only lead him away from sin, and build it into the roaring flame of sainthood. We see in this an example of exactly what the Pope in commenting on: even in the worst of sin, there remains hope of redemption — a very charitable message as far as I’m concerned.

  9. Supertradmum says:

    I repeat a comment I made, as it seems appropriate here.
    Because I teach young adults, I am not amazed at the inability of people in 2010 to think through situations on their own. For some reason, the art of rational discourse has been lost and replaced almost solely by knee-jerk reactions based on feelings or half-truths 0r laziness rather than research and reflection.

    Many of the comments here show immaturity of thought and fall into the category of taking a comment meant for discussion, not in order to change some position, but in order to understand a position, and twist it. The media and some commentators here need to realize that the Catholic Church has always discussed issues, and not merely mandated without understanding. This is a huge difference with some religions, such as Islam, which only demands blind obedience outside of any thought.

    If one is an adult Catholic, one must work through the beliefs, or else be quietly obedient until one does understand, either by a gift of the Holy Spirit (Confirmation), or reflection, which takes time. It is the duty of the laity to try and understand things. That is what it means to be an adult in faith.

    I do not believe the Pope made a mistake. He agreed to answer all the questions asked before the interview started. His answer is in keeping with Thomistic, Scholastic thought regarding serious sin. If one looks at other moral dilemmas, such as the just war theory, or the idea of torture, one sees similar discussions through-out the history of the Church. If his comment sparked debate, it is a good thing, as the Church has a right to defend Her position in the market place, which is what is happening.

    If adults are weakened by such comments, and I do not single anyone here out, those adults must look clearly at their own lack of study, which is the duty of all adult Catholics, to some point. I also think that the clergy is at fault locally for not helping people work through such problems. We are not children.

  10. catholicmidwest says:

    We are so far from what you request re the clergy being able to reason about morals with us. We can’t even get half of them to say mass approximately correctly in this neck of the woods.

  11. catholicmidwest says:

    That, no matter how many times we approach them about the morality, legality, wisdom etc etc of saying mass the way they want to as if it were their own property.

    Re sexual morals, most of them don’t even want to talk about it because they don’t want complaints, and frankly most people of child-bearing age practice birth control anyway, and I’m not sure how far they’d get. It’s the toughest aspect of being Catholic for lay people. Parishes don’t even set an example most of the time-witness how many “lay ministers” are of child-bearing age and do not have more than the requisite 2 offspring. Do you think no one notices these things? They do, but they either don’t say anything or they agree because of their own situations. The trouble is as deep as the sea out here.

    But you know, each of us is responsible for our own actions, and that’s all you can do. Really. That’s what this is about.

  12. Marc says:

    Fr. Z-

    You will find another excellent article by Deacon Aaron Pidel, SJ, on Whoever Desires, entitled “Of Condoms and Popes.” (see: http://whosoeverdesires.wordpress.com/2010/11/24/of-condoms-and-popes/) If you remember, a few months ago, you posted another article by Deacon Pidel, on WDTPRS.

    Pax Christi.

  13. catholicmidwest says:

    Not there, Marc. But it may be just as well. That’s a swarm of Jesuits you have there on that page.

  14. Pete says:

    @spschultz, nowhere in the Pope’s comments does he talk about “sin”. He does talk about “the evil of HIV infection”. And one is left without a doubt with the impression that an act that helps prevent this evil infection must be less evil.

    Hence, while the Church “does not regard it as a real or moral solution” – to the spread of HIV across a continent – “there may be a basis in the case of some individuals”. These are the pope’s words (actually a translation). The “does not regard” applies to the general spread of HIV and not to the individual.

    “Please, get over the media spin and read…”. An Ad Hominem fallacy.

    “St. Augustine was a terrible sinner…”. A Strawman fallacy.

    I suggest you read the article.


    And for those who think is was good for the Pope to spark such a debate – (from the article):

    “I admit I find this difficult to write about, as it forces me to speak on a subject that in the past would only be discussed in the privacy of the rectory or confessional. In fact, there are some pre-Vatican II textbooks on Moral Theology wherein all teaching regarding the Sixth and Ninth Commandments were printed only in Latin, because of the delicacy of the subject. Such measures were safeguards against scandalizing the little ones.”

    And here’s a link to the repercussions of the Pope’s comment:

  15. benedetta says:

    We are just seeing the immediate reactions in the media but this isn’t the kind of thing that can just be over and done with in one spin cycle. Sooner or later the secular press, as well as Catholics who have dismissed the teaching, and anyone else who wishes to make sweeping judgments about “what Catholics believe” or teach or what is sinful, will have to grapple with the authentic teaching, and start to consider that second part in the statement that is being omitted in most reports at present namely the part that says “not everything is permitted” and that “one can’t just do whatever one wants”. The media world and even some Catholic “elitists” would have us believe that we are all essentially animalistic and cannot but behave this way when it comes to human sexuality. That we cannot make any sacrifices or refrain or abstain or hold sexuality as sacred because we are only acting on base instincts, that contraception and abortion then free us to live as we are (or something like that…). If the hypothetical prostitute infected with HIV only looking to use sexuality in the most crass and animalistic manner, namely, to make a profit, at some point has the wherewithal to hesitate for fear of mortally infecting another, then, well, what else are we capable of doing, merely because “it is the right thing to do” (leaving God, the commandments, and whatever else religiosity out of it altogether). I am looking forward to revisiting those atheists and pro-choicers who call embryos “tumors” and the like unless the mother immediately desires the baby in debates in the coming days. The Holy Father is reframing the moral debate in the public square in an effective way. Patience.

  16. Tony Layne says:

    @ Supertradmum: “Because I teach young adults, I am not amazed at the inability of people in 2010 to think through situations on their own. For some reason, the art of rational discourse has been lost and replaced almost solely by knee-jerk reactions based on feelings or half-truths 0r laziness rather than research and reflection.”

    You’ve just articulated the reasons why I wonder about the prudence of the Pope’s remarks. Throwing out provocative ideas to think about doesn’t necessarily prompt people to think; sometimes, it’s like tossing a raw round steak out to a wild wolfpack. It may be fifty or a hundred years before we can truly analyze the impact of this comment dispassionately, without hammering it so it fits into an agenda.

  17. Emilio III says:

    The post Marc mentioned above does seems to be at
    though the link does not work from here.

    He offers (as an aside) what seems to be an excellent summary of the discussion:

    I’ll offer a roughly analogous moral case, but one that does not involve condoms (since, for some reason, condoms seem to be much more effective at preventing thought than conception).

  18. Marc says:

    @Midwestcatholic, you know what they say: “If you met one Jesuit, you’ve met one Jesuit.” Or, “Jesuits are like a box of chocolates.” With that said, for your enjoyment, Deacon Pidel’s commentary can be found at http://whosoeverdesires.wordpress.com/ –scroll down three entries to “Of Popes and Condoms) or try http://whosoeverdesires.wordpress.com/author/aaronpidelsj/

    You will remember Fr. Z’s previous mention of Pidel analysis at: “Jesuits comment on the new translation, and get it right” (https://wdtprs.com/2009/12/jesuits-comment-on-the-new-translation-and-get-it-right/)

    Worth reading. Pax

  19. AnnAsher says:

    Amen Pete!

  20. abiologistforlife says:

    Petee: “In fact, there are some pre-Vatican II textbooks on Moral Theology wherein all teaching regarding the Sixth and Ninth Commandments were printed only in Latin, because of the delicacy of the subject. Such measures were safeguards against scandalizing the little ones.”

    This is true, certainly (the practice of putting such matter in Latin wasn’t restricted either to Catholics or to theology, either; it was done in medicine & psychology as well sometimes); however, I’m not certain this was entirely wise even then. In the modern age of mass media it amounts to giving up the arena to those who promote an amoral view of sexuality. It was the very reticence to talk and write about sexuality, the treating of it as a taboo subject, that allowed the disaster of the “sexual revolution” to be so swift and complete — the advocates of “liberated”, unrestrained, a-moral sexuality practically had the field to themselves, as the other side was presented too much in negative terms; the complete Christian view of marriage, sexuality and chastity was hardly ever presented in an integrated way.

    John Paul II’s Theology of the Body talks and Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est have been great steps forward (though ToB is highly intricate and not particularly accessible to the average Catholic or the average person curious about Catholicism). If Theology of the Body talks had been given in the 1950s, perhaps things wouldn’t be so messy today.

  21. Traductora says:

    A minor point that no one seems to be mentioning: the Pope does not imply that the hypothetical male prostitute he is discussing is even a Christian, much less a Catholic.

    Hence, he is talking about someone who is morally ignorant to begin with but is showing at least a glimmer of natural virtue by being concerned for others, even though his concern is expressed by an act (using a condom) which is, as the Pope said in his first sentences about this, not likely to be effective at preventing the evil (HIV contamination) anyway.

    I can’t see any way that this affects Catholic moral teachings or beliefs, although I am not surprised that the press leaped on the mere mention of the word “condoms,” their favorite rallying cry, to twist it and portray it as something completely different. IIRC, when the Pope was flying to Africa last year, a reporter managed to get a quote from him that was also completely taken out of context and made to sound as if BXVI approved of condoms. Perhaps in his most recent statement, he was trying to clarify that, although I fear he is crediting the press and the opposition with way too much good faith.

  22. dspecht says:

    Again: I think it was at least imprudent what (or that or in wich way) the Pope said (it).

    That beeing said I can only endorse spschultz and others here:
    No Pete (and J. Venari),
    the Pope was NOT speaking about two evils, one lesser than the other – and was at least NOT justifiying to commit a lesser evil. That´s not was His words say.

    And very good example, Mrs Kate!!

  23. dspecht says:

    And by the way, in the concrete example of a male prostitute (given a male john) the use of a condom does not seem to be a evil at all. So the Pope even could have said (what He did NOT, remember!!!) that in such a case the use of a condom is really jusitified – and it would still be correct (IMHO).

    Because (argument:) Not the condcom as such or its use is an evil, but the use of it as an instrument of contraception. But in this case it is no instrument of contraception, so it seems to be no (specific) evil at all!

    As I said before: the contraceptiva are only evil insofar and in respect as they are contraceptive.

  24. benedetta says:

    Well said, Traductora!

  25. kgurries says:

    Traductora, I make a sililar observation in my article referenced above (see footnote 3). I think the Holy Father is considering the case of one who is so affected by habitual sin that their will-act looses a certain degree of voluntariness. The Holy Father uses the analogy of addiction and likens sexuality (in this context) to a self-administered drug. I find it amusing that so many analogies have been given by commentators — and yet most have overlooked the Pope’s own analogy!

  26. Thomist says:

    At http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/popes-publisher-defends-benedict-xvis-condom-remarks/ you can see clarity come through.

    All Fr Fessio:
    In the case of condom usage, the good of protecting against infection cannot justify the immoral sexual act, even though performing that act with a condom may be a lesser evil than performing it without one.

    The “may be” in that last sentence refers to what I said above: that condomized sex is in one sense a lesser evil. That is, in the case of a single individual act, the prevention of infection by condom usage makes that particular act less evil.

    So, as Fr Fessio emphasises, the Pope explained that even if the sexual act is not procreative, the Church still opposes condom use.

    Why? Because it has been shown (and it makes sense) that when there is widespread use of condoms, the sense of security against risk leads to greater promiscuity: more frequency; more partners. And this leads to overall greater risk of disease among the sexually active population. So in this sense, condom usage is the greater evil.

    So: Round One went to the Pope: no change in Church teaching, just “clarifying and deepening” the same old, unchanging, beautiful but difficult Catholic teaching about the true meaning of sexuality.

    Round Two goes to the Pope as well. Still no change in Church teaching. No broadening of exceptions (there are no exceptions in either case). Still the same old, unchanging, beautiful but difficult Catholic teaching about the true meaning of sexuality.

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