Trojan removal (Updated)

Media reports about the Catholic Church are like the Trojan that infects your computer: At first they seem entirely innocent and straightforward, and by the time you find that they are the opposite, it is too late and serious damage has already been done. The controversy over the pope’s recently publicized statement about condoms is only the latest example: What most people will remember are the initial reports, according to which the pope said that “condoms can be justified in some cases.” That is not what he said, but we will no doubt be hearing for months and years to come not only that he did say it, but also (after this already garbled report gets distorted further and further) that the Catholic Church has in some way softened her teaching on contraception.

I don’t have much to add to what others have already said, but since the misconceptions have already started to appear here at my own blog (in one of the combox discussions down below), it seems I ought to do my small part to expose this urban legend while it is still young. The controversy concerns an answer the pope gave to an interviewer who asked him about his widely discussed comments on AIDS and condoms during his 2009 trip to Africa. You can read his full response here. The crucial passage is the following (with the pope’s words in italics):

[T]he 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 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.

[Interviewer's question:] Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?

She of course 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.

End of quote. Here, it seems to me, are the points to emphasize:

1. Contraception is not even at issue here (contrary to what one commenter in the combox of another post down below seems to think). Contraception has to do with preventing conception from occurring. What the pope is talking about is the example of a (presumably homosexual) male prostitute who wears a condom so as to avoid infecting his “customer” (also presumably male) with HIV. Conception, and thus contraception, are not even possible in such a case.

2. What the pope is saying is that if a male prostitute happens at least to care enough about his “customer” not to want to infect him with AIDS, perhaps that minimal degree of concern could lead him someday to a more human view of sexuality. That is a psychological observation, not a recommendation or a claim about the ultimate moral character of the actions in question.

3. The pope also criticizes the “fixation” many have on condoms as a means of AIDS prevention, and says that such condom use “is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection” and indeed that it is “not... a real or moral solution” to the problem (my emphasis). In other words, to the extent that the pope speaks directly to the moral side of the issue at all, his remarks point away from the recommendation of condom use.

4. All of this was in any event said in the informal context of an interview, rather than in an official ecclesiastical document such as a papal encyclical, or even in a theological book or article. That means it does not have, and is not meant to have, any binding force at all as official Catholic teaching, and is not even intended as a fully thought out expression of personal theological opinion. It is merely an informal psychological observation with which Catholics are free to agree or disagree.

In short, there is nothing about either the context or the content of the pope’s remarks that in any way modifies Catholic teaching. Anyone who thinks he can now justify condom use by saying “The pope says it’s OK” is deceiving himself.

Further commentary from Janet Smith, Jimmy Akin, Ed Peters, and Fr. Zuhlsdorf.

UPDATE: Some more commentary from Fr. Joseph Fessio, Mark Latkovic, Stephen A. Long, and Anthony McCarthy.
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