A Strange Global Misunderstanding
There’s something surreal about the continuing insistence that Pope Benedict has somehow changed Catholic teachings on condom use. This Christian Science Monitor article captures, pretty well, the error:
Secular Europe is a region that Pope Benedict views as critical to rebuilding Roman Catholicism. The pope’s notice of acceptable condom use in some cases, such as by male prostitutes, may be a technically narrow shift; the pope also stated that “fixating on condoms is a trivialization of sexuality.”
But given the Vatican’s more conservative direction under Benedict, this is being read as a shift from negative to positive language on matters related to sexual behavior — at a time when the public image of the church in Europe is badly damaged over priestly child abuse scandals in Ireland, Germany, and Belgium.
The only explanation for so many writers and editors’ considering “acceptable condom use” as an appropriate paraphrase of Benedict’s statement is that they lack the intellectual vocabulary to be more accurate. It’s a bit like saying that it is acceptable to hit a bank clerk over the head rather than shoot her dead during a robbery. In the actual quotation, the Pope strove to articulate quite a different view.
Perhaps the most substantial underlying error is the focus on acts rather than spiritual frame of mind. Condom use by a male prostitute, in the Pope’s example, is an indication that a glimmer of hope exists for moral reasoning, which may lead from the understanding that transmitting a deadly virus is immoral to the understanding that perpetuating a sinful lifestyle is immoral.
Prophylactics are more tragic than actively sinful. The sin comes in the context that make condom use the “lesser evil” — whether that means the practice of promiscuous sex that risks the spread of infectious disease or the deterioration of a married couple’s circumstances to the point at which they can no longer be open to new life in their families.
However, the typical presentation of condoms in the secular arena is as devices that take away the danger (read: sin) of sex. Thus, in Benedict’s words, “the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality,” which is the underlying problem perpetuating the AIDS crisis in Africa and some instances of the moral disintegration of the West.