by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
While driving home one night listening to a British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) “World News Report,” I first heard the media claim that Pope Benedict XVI had modified the Catholic Church’s position on condoms.
The report was based on an excerpt from the book, “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times.” The book is the publication of an extended interview of Pope Benedict XVI by Peter Seewald, a veteran German journalist. I was confident that the report was inaccurate and anxious to have the opportunity to read the actual words of the pope that had triggered such an interpretation.
While reading the Holy Father’s book, I was impressed by the author’s difficult and penetrating questions, which the Holy Father answers with clarity and charity. I was amazed again and again at how thoughtfully and insightfully the pope responded to the vast array of questions, several of which were inspired by the more controversial events of his papacy.
On the Holy Father’s pilgrimage to Africa, during an in-flight press conference, a journalist, who first characterized the Catholic Church’s methods of addressing AIDS as being perceived
as “unrealistic and ineffective,” then asked the Holy Father if he intended to address the African AIDS epidemic.
Pope Benedict responded with candor:
“I think that the most efficient, most truly present player in the fight against AIDS is the Catholic Church herself, with her movements and various organizations. . . . I would say that this problem of AIDS cannot be overcome merely with money, necessary though it is. If there is no human dimension, if Africans do not help [by responsible behavior], the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: On the contrary, they increase it.
“The solution must have two elements: firstly, bringing out the human dimension of sexuality — that is to say, a spiritual and human renewal that would bring with it a new way of behaving toward others; and secondly, true friendship offered above all to those who are suffering, a willingness to make sacrifices and to practice self- denial, to be alongside the suffering.
And so, these are the factors that help and lead to real progress: our twofold effort to renew humanity inwardly, to give spiritual and human strength for proper conduct toward our bodies and those of others, and this capacity to suffer with those who are suffering, to remain present in situations of trial.”
In “Light of the World,” Seewald recalls the severe criticism that the Holy Father endured for these statements and observed: “In Africa you stated that the church’s traditional teaching has proven to be the only sure way to stop the spread of HIV. Critics, including critics from the church’s own ranks, object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms.”
Pope Benedict responded by reiterating that the church is doing more than anyone else both to prevent AIDS and to care for those with AIDS: “She (the church) is the only institution that assists people up close and concretely, with prevention, education, help, counsel, and accompaniment. . . . The church does more than anyone else, because she does not speak from the tribunal of newspapers, but helps her brothers and sisters where they are actually suffering.”
Then he reiterated what he had said in Africa: “We cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms. Much more needs to be done. . . . As a matter of fact, you know, people can get condoms when they want them anyway. But this just goes to show that condoms alone do not resolve the question itself. More needs to happen. . . . The 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 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.”
It was against this backdrop that the Holy Father expressed the hope that perhaps the use of a condom by “a male prostitute” might be the beginning of a moral breakthrough in showing some minimal regard for the safety of another. He characterized it as perhaps “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.”
It is important to note that Pope Benedict uses the example of a male prostitute, implying that his comments are directed toward homosexual activity where there is already no possibility of openness to engendering new human life. The individual is already involved in a severely disordered behavior that by its nature is incapable of fulfilling one of the essential purposes of sexual intimacy — the potential creation of new human life. In this context, actions to prevent conception are irrelevant, because there already is no possibility.
The pope is obviously not granting any measure of moral approval to homosexual behavior or, for that matter, any sexual intimacy outside the marital covenant. The Holy Father is straining to find some glimmer of hope in a morally dismal circumstance. One commentator compared the Holy Father’s example of a male prostitute using a condom to a bank robber who does not use a gun. These actions reduce the risk of harming others, but they do not alter the moral reality that robbing banks is wrong or that sexual intimacy outside of marriage is intrinsically evil.
The Holy Father had already identified the trivialization of sexuality as one of the primary reasons we are fighting an AIDS epidemic. It is not following the church’s teachings — (1) abstaining from sexual activity outside of marriage; 2) monogamy; and 3) fidelity within marriage — that is fueling the AIDS epidemic.
No, just the opposite. The conditions that created the social environment for the AIDS epidemic to erupt and continue have been fostered by those asserting that chastity, monogamy and fidelity are passé. It has been the promotion of homosexual activity as moral and the denial of a binding commitment and openness to the creation of new human life as integral to sexual intimacy between a man and a woman that continues to encourage high-risk behavior which has left millions either dead or suffering.
The distorted media reports regarding this matter reveal a great irony:
A secular culture, which claims the Catholic Church has become irrelevant and embraces uncritically the so-called sexual revolution, still craves the pope’s approval.
I encourage you to read “Light of the World” in its entirety. It reveals a man who is a great intellectual, a master teacher, a dedicated priest, but first and foremost a devoted disciple of Jesus Christ who has been transformed by his love and mercy. It is from this perspective of one who has encountered the risen Jesus that the Holy Father offers with humility and love the beauty and truth of the Gospel to a confused modern world. Reading “Light of the World” will, among many other benefits, make you proud that Benedict XVI is our pope.