Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Pope's Condom Comment


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The media is quickly spreading word that the Pope supposedly changed the Church's teaching on contraception.  I would like to note three things:

1) The Pope has done no such thing.  What he actually said is much, much different:

Vi possono essere singoli casi giustificati, ad esempio quando una prostituta* utilizza un profilattico, e questo può essere il primo passo verso una moralizzazione, un primo atto di responsabilità per sviluppare di nuovo la consapevolezza del fatto che non tutto è permesso e che non si può far tutto ciò che si vuole. Tuttavia, questo non è il modo vero e proprio per vincere l'infezione dell'Hiv. È veramente necessaria una umanizzazione della sessualità.

In English: 

There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a 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.

In other words, the Pope is simply saying that a prostitute who uses a condom to avoid spreading HIV is trying to be morally responsible, and that this failed attempt to be morally responsible is at least step in the right direction.  He does not mean to say that it is morally good to use a condom. 

The official English translation says male prostitute, but the Italian being 'una prostituta' (both feminine words), there is no grammatical basis for adding the word 'male'.  The translator probably adds 'male' because he assumes that only a male prostitute is capable of using a condom, but there are female condoms, so that would be bad reasoning.  Based on the use of femenine words, I agree with the idea that the Pope means a prostitute in general (the female word is in this case used generically for both sexes, prostituto being relatively rare) and is just not thinking about the details entailed. 

2) The Pope has NOT used his Papal authority in making such a statement.   Popes rarely do when they speak in these informal contexts.  Needless to say, the statement is not the infallible (or even authentic) teaching of the Catholic Church.  It is merely the opinion of a part-time theologian who happens to be Pope as well.  As the Holy Father himself admits (in the book that contains the comment in question), "[i]t goes without saying that the Pope can have private opinions that are wrong."  To take Pope Benedict's comment on condoms for prostitutes as authoritative Papal teaching is to confuse and identify the person of Josef Ratzinger with the office of Supreme Pontiff.

3) Now that, not only the media, but also theologians and even bishops, are proclaiming to the world the purported good news that the Church has finally opened her mind and reversed her teaching on contraception, and that condoms are now 'OK' in certain cases, we should take time to reflect on the fact that not everything that comes out of the mouth of the Holy Father is said with prudence.  It was clearly imprudent of him to make such a statement.  The Supreme Pontiff is infallible (and then again, only in certain, limited contexts), but not omni-prudent.  This may sound like heresy to a neo-conservative, but the dogma of papal infallibility has nothing to do with prudence.  Without detriment to his infallibility, the Holy Father is certainly capable of making errors in practical judgment, as has happened many times in history (e.g., Pope Honorius's case, the Avignon popes, the calling of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI's liturgical reforms, etc.).  And this comment on condoms is another clear example of papal imprudence.  As has happened with Pope John Paul II's Assisi meetings, papal apologies, kissing of the Qur'an, etc., now Catholic apologists, catechists, ethics professors, and moral theologians will have to work hard for years to undo the enormous damage that this new comment from the Pope is already causing in public opinion.



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