FaithWorld

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

By Guest Contributor
November 23, 2010

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Father Joseph Fessio, S.J. is founder and editor of San Francisco-based Ignatius Press, the North American publisher of “Light of the World.”

popebook 1By Fr. Joseph Fessio, S.J.

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.

(Photo: Pope Benedict with his new book, 23 November 2010/Osservatore Romano)

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

That’s a good question. So good that the interviewer himself asked virtually the same question during the interview.

The Pope made a statement in the interview, which statement has now been widely quoted in the worldwide media. Immediately, the interviewer, Peter Seewald, posed this question: “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?”

The Pope clarified and expanded on his previous statement.

So let’s look at the two statements.

After saying that “we cannot solve the problem [of AIDS] by distributing condoms…” and that “the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality…” the Pope says: 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 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” (all emphasis mine).

popebook 2That is a heavily qualified, very tentative statement. Nevertheless, it prompted Seewald’s question, quoted above. But let’s first take a closer look at this statement. The original German for “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals…” is “Es mag begründete Einzelfälle geben…”. The English here is a faithful, accurate translation. “Begründete” comes from “Grund” = “ground”, and it means both the soil we stand on and a logical foundation. There is some ambiguity because it could have the weak sense of “some basis for” or a strong sense of “a logical or ethical foundation for”. This is perhaps why Seewald asked the follow-up question, so we’ll turn to that in a moment.

(Photo: German journalist Peter Seewald presents his book of interview with Pope Benedict at the Vatican November 23, 2010/Alessandro Bianchi)

It is important to note that there are two very serious mistranslations in the Italian version of the Pope’s remarks, upon which many early reports were based, since the embargo was broken by the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. (That’s another story.) First, the German speak of “ein Prostituierter”, which can only be a male prostitute. The normal German word for prostitute is “ [eine] Prostituierte”, which is feminine and refers only to a woman. The Italian translation “una prostituta” simply reverses what the Pope says.

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” (italics mine).

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.

popebook 3But 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.

(Photo: Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi during a news conference on the pope’s new book at the Vatican November 23, 2010/Alessandro Bianchi)

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.

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Comments
4 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Fr. Fessio said:

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”.

Father, I’m not sure this example works. The underlying assumption here is that mugging is equivalent to sexual activity exercised apart from the goal of reproduction. That is exactly what is controverted, therefore you’re begging the question, “Is it ever morally acceptable to use condoms?” Granted, there are some who would see mugging and sex outside of marriage/reproduction as morally equivalent… but to assume so misses the point on why the reaction to what the pope said is so perplexing to the world at large.

Posted by rjgrace | Report as abusive
 

rjgrace: No, Fr. Fessio’s example does NOT assume that sex outside of marriage and mugging are morally equivalent. It simply assumes that they’re both wrong (there are degrees of moral rightness and wrongness, you will admit?). There is not question-begging argument going on here. Even so, yes, the Church’s position is controversial–but so is the contradictory. That’s the nature of controversies. They’re controversial. And it’s hard to find common ground on this one. If you think the burden of proof is on the Pope and Fr. Fessio, I think you need to make the case why that is so…. As for me, I don’t see it that way, and in any case the Catholic Church is not trying to police to use of condoms!

Posted by jfpfegan | Report as abusive
 

“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.”

The principle function of padded pipes is neither to prevent heat loss in _hot_ water nor to prevent heat loss in _flowing_ water. The principle function of padded pipes is to prevent heat loss in cold static water; i.e. to prevent the water (cold) sitting (not flowing*) in the pipe from FREEZING. Why? Because in freezing it will stop flowing and expand in volume; in expanding it will try to expand the pipe, cracking it; when later on in time the temperature rises, the solid water will revert to its liquid state and flow out of the pipe, which will not shrink back to its previous size. Unlike a condom.

But is was very funny nevertheless.

* When the tap is on and hence the water is flowing, it is very unlikely to freeze.

Posted by johnfused | Report as abusive
 

Ha! A priest from good ol’ evil incarnate San Francisco is defending this apostate pope’s comments. Good Lord people, look and open your eyes! This pope is not a real pope but is rather a puppet of the New World Order. The end really is near. It will happen in your lifetime. But your faith….your belief is soooo shaky and unstable. You’ll believe science over your God. God help you all. I truly pray that he will open many of your eyes to the truth.

Posted by StinkyLiberals | Report as abusive
 

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