Grammar experts needed for pope comment on condoms

November 21, 2010

ossrom luce002Male prostitutes? Did Pope Benedict actually say that only male prostitutes can use condoms to avoid transmitting the HIV virus? Why did he limit this unsuspected flexibility only to men?

Well, it’s not actually clear from the new book Light of the World, where this statement appears, that he is only talking about male prostitutes. In fact, the Vatican’s own daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, has him granting this conditional dispensation to female prostitutes. And his spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi has made a statement that supposedly clarified the pope’s comments but skirted around the gender isssue altogether.

(Image: L’Osservatore Romano of 21 November 2010 with front-page mention of pope’s book — Luce del Mondo in Italian — at lower left. Interview excerpts were on the back page)

The problem is that the pope gave the interview in his native German, which is not 100% clear on this issue. The key phrase about condom use reads in the English translation: “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be the first step in the direction of a moralisation.”

bookcover germanIn German, Benedict says “ein Prostituierter,” which signifies a prostitute of the masculine gender. This could refer literally to a man. But he could also be using the grammatical masculine gender, the default when speaking about any human individual in general. A phrase like  “Every citizen has the right …” would be expressed in the grammatical masculine gender — “Jeder Bürger hat das Recht…” — but it would not disqualify half the population. Benedict could have made himself clearer by expressly saying “male prostitute” — “ein männlicher Prostituierter” — but he didn’t.

(Image: Cover of pope’s book in German, with the title Licht der Welt in his own handwriting/Herder)

English can get way with simply saying “a prostitute” because we don’t signal genders with specific word endings. German forces the speaker to indicate a grammatical gender, often regardless of the sex or sexlessness of the object involved. So tables, trains, dreams and dishes are gramatically masculine in German without any hint of secondary sex characteristics. By contrast, a German could call a sultry 16-year-old actress “das Mädchen” — neuter gender for “the girl” — and refer to her as “it” with perfect grammatical accuracy.

The English translator got around this by adding the adjective “male.” The French translator was able to follow the German example and write “un prostitué” in the masculine gender rather than “une prostituée.” But Italian grammar apparently doesn’t allow such an easy switch, so the Vatican daily referred to “una prostituta” in the feminine gender.

bookcoverThe difference isn’t just grammatical. If Pope Benedict means only male prostitutes, he is speaking about gay sex, which cannot lead to procreation. The Church rejects artificial methods that block procreation, such as condoms and contraceptive pills. Since that doesn’t apply between two men, a condom could be condoned even though the Church thinks homosexual sex is wrong anyway.

(Image: Cover of pope book in English/Ignatius Press)

But if he means male or female prostitutes, then he is allowing condum use for a sex act that could possibly led to pregnancy, i.e. when a male visits a female prostitute. From there, it’s only a short step to condoning it in a marriage where the man is HIV-positive. And then the question will arise, why not allow condoms for heterosexuals who aren’t infected?

Since he rules out artificial birth control in another chapter, a good grammarian would have to conclude from the context that Benedict does indeed mean masculine gender here in the sexual sense. I’m curious to see how the Vatican explains that its own newspaper used the feminine. Maybe a long essay about Italian grammar?

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What I do in my private life is none of the pope’s business.

Posted by peergin | Report as abusive

Please ask His Holiness the Pope for clarification, overpopulation in the long run also can mean death and suffering, while abstinence is the holy way to purity and strength, but many yield to masturbation, and the Old Testament appears to prohibit or restrict masturbation to men.
However, he did not answer me when I asked him concerning the passages in the Gospels referring to the brothers and even sisters of Jesus (Matthew 13:55-56 and in three gospels where it refers to His mother and brothers waiting for him).

Posted by IDEAltar | Report as abusive

Additional information: does Italian grammar allow such an easy switch? Answer: it could, even though such a word could sound a bit “out of register” in a Pope’s speech; even though, if required to choose, faithfulness to the original in such a delicate matter should probably prevail on style. The logical solution would probably have been a periphrasis like “uomini dediti alla prostituzione” or similar (I miss the full German sentence therefore it’s just an example). This is just to mean that, if they had wanted it – or realised it – they could have specified it rather easily.

Posted by Aldovai | Report as abusive

[…] English, and “Prostituierter” clearly refers to a “male prostitute” despite the fact that some bloggers have been speculating that the fact that German has grammatical gender means that […]

Posted by Condoms in translationLanguage on the Move | Language on the Move | Report as abusive