The New York Times reported that “Pope Benedict has said that condom use can be justified in some cases to help stop the spread of AIDS.” That was the gist of stories that appeared in the Toronto Star, Guardian and Associated Press after L’Osservatore Romano, a Vatican-based newspaper, printed excerpts from Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times, a forthcoming book based on German journalist Peter Seefeld’s interviews with the pontiff.
George Weigel, writing in National Review Online, accused agenda-driven journalists of deliberately getting the story wrong. The excerpt in question included Pope Benedict XVI responding to Seewald’s question about the 2009 furor over the pope’s comments that condoms won’t solve Africa’s AIDS crisis. After several paragraphs explaining how condoms are not effective at combating AIDS, Pope Benedict said: “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.”
Seewald sought clarification: “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?”
Pope Benedict responded that the Catholic 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.” He went on to reiterate the official Catholic teaching that abstinence and marital fidelity are the only sure ways to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, a Vatican bioethicist, stressed that the pontiff was defending the use of condoms in “the realm of the exceptional” when it “is the only way to save a life.” He said that in no way did this represent a new Catholic sexual morality.
The Toronto Star dutifully quoted liberal Catholics and African homosexuals applauding the seeming shift in the Church’s moral teaching. Christian Weisner of the dissident We Are Church in Germany said, “one can be happy about the pope’s ability to learn.” David Kamau of the Kenya Treatment Access Movement said, “it’s accepting the reality on the ground … if the Church has failed to get people to follow its moral values and practice abstinence, they should take the next best step and encourage condom use.”
But as Weigel noted, the Pope has done no such thing. Weigel said that the media was guilty of two false assumptions. The first is that all papal utterances are of equal weight. Pope Benedict’s comments came in a series of interviews over many hours and he waxed philosophical, commented on daily routines, and made observations about the world. None of these are ex cathedra statements. Weigel mocked the suggestion that the Catholic Church would announce a change in moral teaching through an interview to be published in book form by a third party. This is simply not how the Church clarifies its authoritative positions.
More importantly, however, Weigel notes the assumption that “the Church’s settled teaching on sexual morality” is alterable is patently false. He said the Catholic Church cannot change its “policy or position” on condoms as a person might change one’s mind about optimal tax rates or “whether India should be a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.” Moral teaching, Weigel says, “cannot change or be changed because the Catholic ethic of sexual love is an expression of fundamental moral truths that can be known by reason and are illuminated by revelation.”
Pope Benedict’s comments about condoms were observations about when condom use might be morally understandable in extreme circumstances, not an endorsement of a new sexual morality. The media was quick to misrepresent the story because it wanted the Catholic Church to change its unalterable sexual morality.