A close look at the text reveals no change to Church teaching.
By Father 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.
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.
he 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).
That 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.
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” (emphasis 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.
But 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.
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.
...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.
Father Joseph Fessio, S.J. is founder and editor of Ignatius Press, the North American publisher of Light of the World, and publisher of Catholic World Report.