The Pope, the Press and Condoms — Oh My!

Here we go again. Once again, a major story about the Catholic Church is being derailed by controversy, once again the secular press betrays its inability to understand anything related to the Church’s moral teaching, once again translation issues are at the core — and what in God’s name is wrong with L’Osservatore Romano?

At issue is a statement by Pope Benedict — the book-length interview with Pope Benedict XVI by Peter Seewald called The Light of the World, due to be published November 24 in English by Ignatius Press, and of course, translated into other languages as well. Of course there was much speculation as to what the Pope would say about the sex abuse scandal and other controversial issues. Yesterday there was an unexpected leak of some of the text ahead of time — in L’Osservatore Romano, of all places — for its Sunday edition, and it has caused a firestorm.

In an article titles “Il Papa, La Chiesa, e i segni dei tempi,” [The Pope, the Church and the signs of the times], the Vatican paper gives excerpts, stated to be from the Italian edition of the book, published by the Vatican’s own publishing house. According to this version, the Pope is speaking about the reaction to his words about condoms making the problem of AIDS in Africa worse, and reiterates what he said there about the need to humanize sexuality, and added:

Vi possono essere singoli casi giustificati, ad esempio quando una prostituta utilizza un profilattico, e questo può essere il primo passo verso una moralizzazione, un primo atto di responsabilità per sviluppare di nuovo la consapevolezza del fatto che non tutto è permesso e che non si può far tutto ciò che si vuole. Tuttavia, questo non è il modo vero e proprio per vincere l’infezione dell’Hiv. È veramente necessaria una umanizzazione della sessualità.

In English this would read:

There can be individual justified cases, for example, when a prostitute uses a prophylactic and this can be the first step towards a moralization, a first act of responsibility in developing again the awareness of the fact that not everything is permitted and that we cannot do everything that we want. Nevertheless, this is not the true and proper way of conquering the HIV infection. A humanization of sexuality is truly necessary.

The press is now trumpeting the idea that “the Pope condones condoms in certain cases.” It is even being hailed on the left as a “softening” of the Church’s stance on contraception. On the other hand, some combox warriors on the traditionalist side are starting to lose their faith. It’s a mess.

The English translation, however, is completely different, and makes no mention of “justified” wearing of a condom. The brief except in Italian not only did not supply the whole context, it also omitted the clarifying question of the interviewer and the Pope’s answer. Here is the full English text of that portion of the book, supplied to Catholic World Report online (evidently) by Ignatius Press:

On the occasion of your trip to Africa in March 2009, the Vatican’s policy on AIDs once again became the target of media criticism. Twenty-five percent of all AIDs victims around the world today are treated in Catholic facilities. In some countries, such as Lesotho, for example, the statistic is 40 percent. In Africa youstated 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.

The media coverage completely ignored the rest of the trip to Africa on account of a single statement. Someone had asked me why the Catholic Church adopts an unrealistic and ineffective position on AIDs. At that point, I really felt that I was being provoked, because the Church does more than anyone else. And I stand by that claim. Because she is the only institution that assists people up close and concretely, with prevention, education, help, counsel, and accompaniment. And because she is second to none in treating so many AIDs victims, especially children with AIDs.

I had the chance to visit one of these wards and to speak with the patients. That was the real answer: The Church does more than anyone else, because she does not speak from the tribunal of the newspapers, but helps her brothers and sisters where they are actually suffering. In my remarks I was not making a general statement about the condom issue, but merely said, and this is what caused such great offense, that we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms. Much more needs to be done. We must stand close to the people, we must guide and help them; and we must do this both before and after they contract the disease.

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. Meanwhile, the secular realm itself has developed the so-called ABC Theory: Abstinence-Be Faithful-Condom, where the condom is understood only as a last resort, when the other two points fail to work. This means that the 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 [i.e. for this growth in the positive understanding of sexuality - my note] 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.

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.

So in the English version, there is no talk at all of “justified” condom use. What happened here? Was the Italian text wrong or the English? True, this book was somewhat rushed into production, so maybe the Italian translation wasn’t done as carefully as could be. Fr. Z has seen the German, and obviously understands the language. He notes that the Italian translation is incorrect in at least one place. The German definitely speaks of a male prostitute not female.

If I can get hold of the German, I will be able to clarify this, because I understand the language. No one has put it up yet that I can see. Individual German press reports are saying the Pope used the term rechtfertigen, which does mean “justify” — but then press reports can’t be trusted. This morning, Fr. Lombardi, the Papal press spokesman, put out a clarification — which doesn’t clarify much, since I suspect it was based on the Italian text:

The head of the Holy See Press Office, Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, has issued a statement clarifying passages of the book Light of the World, in which Pope Benedict discusses AIDS and condom use.

The statement says Pope Benedict states that AIDs cannot be solved only by the distribution of condoms, and, in fact, concentrating on condoms just trivializes sexuality, which loses its meaning as an expression of love and becomes like a drug.

At the same time, the Pope considered an exceptional situation in which the exercise of sexuality represents a real risk to the lives of others. In this case, the Pope does not morally justify the exercise of disordered sexuality, but believes that the use of condoms to reduce the risk of infection is a “first step on the road to a more human sexuality”, rather than not to use it and risking the lives of others.

Father Lombardi’s statement clarifies Pope Benedict XVI has not reformed or changed the Church’s teaching, but by putting it in perspective reaffirms the value and dignity of human sexuality as an expression of love and responsibility.

But I will say that I think the English translation makes much better sense in context, and is more in harmony with Benedict’s usual thought. The use of “justify” would actually contradict what the Pope says clearly about condom use not being a moral solution.

Because of the embargo on releasing any of the book before publication — though prominent English-speaking Catholics, including Janet Smith and, I believe, George Weigel have read it, the press has generally quoted only the Italian — although Ignatius Press released the English excerpt above shortly after OR brought out its piece. Therefore even those who have read the book were caught of guard and are having to scramble to reply, so yes, L’Osservatore Romano is pretty much to blame here.

Because the Pope’s statement is lengthy, complex and even paradoxical, it’s going to be misunderstood, A number of things are happening here.

1. The Pope is clearly not speaking ex cathedra here;that is, he is not speaking authoritatively as the successor of Peter, using the gift of infallibility, or even teaching with the ordinary Magisterium; nor would a Pope ever attempt to do so in the middle of an interview. If he really wants to clarify or nuance the Church’s teaching in any area, or address certain moral questions put to him, Benedict would do so in a papal document or at the very least in an official statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — which he used to head. Benedict is no dummy. He’s an old hand at this, so we can be sure nothing he said is to be taken as authoritative.

2. If the Pope is speaking of male prostitutes, and homosexual sex, as it appears, he is not speaking of contraceptive use of condoms, which is always wrong. Homosexuals, of course, can’t conceive, so no contraception is possible in this case. The only remaining purpose and effect of the condom is to prevent disease, which would not be wrong per se. Some bishops and theologians have even said this. However, condom use in this case is still enormously problematic because it is anything but 100 percent safe in preventing disease, thus leading people into more sinful acts, which in turn leads to normalizing such behavior. It thus leads them to endanger their lives recklessly not for any moral good, but in the pursuit of a gravely immoral act. The Church certainly could not regard this as either justified or a moral good, though it is possibly a less grave sin.

At any rate, it is perfectly clear that the Pope is not condoning either homosexual relations or contraception as some are saying. Nor is their any clear permission in regard to condom use.

3. In addition, going by the English text, the Pope is not speaking so much about the act as about the intention, and the psychological state of the person who is achieving a greater moral awareness. A greater moral awareness and good intentions in themselves don’t indicate a person is not sinning. In fact, some kind of moral awareness is necessary for us to sin at all. Catholic theology clearly states that people who don’t know that a proposed action is sinful aren’t held guilty of sin for committing it. On the other hand having a moral awareness of the wrongness of the act, and yet committing it means you are rejecting God’s law, and therefore are sinning. The moral awareness in itself is a good thing, but the action is still sinful. Something to keep in mind here.

What I think is really happening is this: On the plane ride to Africa last year, the Pope pleaded for a “humanization” of sexuality — a plea that was completely ignored in all the hoopla and indignation over his statement that condoms make the AIDS problem worse. He was widely understood to have meant that condoms don’t prevent the spread of AIDS. Prominent experts have actually indicated that he was right. But that was far from the whole of his meaning.

The secular world simply takes a the pragmatic approach to every moral question. The problem underlying poverty, it believes, is overpopulation and contraceptives are the cure. This completely overlooks the issue of a lack of just distribution of wealth and resources, and the way it robs people of their human dignity. What is left when you ignore these elements, and concentrate solely on the mechanics of preventing birth, is the effort to control the human population as if they were cockroaches whose numbers need to be kept down. AIDS? Let’s promote condoms and prevent Africans from dying in front of us as if they were flies — after all, we want to be able to sleep at night — but let’s not question whether their lives are lived morally or with any dignity.

Pope Benedict believes the real cause of the indignation he aroused in his remarks on the way to Africa was his statement that condoms would not solve the real problem of AIDS. That problem is the de-humanization of sexuality. He pleads for it once again in his book, and does so through the specific, previously-raised issue of condom use. What he is doing is taking an individual case of the tearing of our sexuality away from our humanity, and demonstrating how, even in the greatest depths of degradation, it might by tiny increments, be brought back.

Because amazingly enough, while the secular media constantly harps on how inhuman and cruel the Church’s “rules” on human sexuality are, in the end, Benedict is not really about the rules. He is about the love. He is about the sinner learning to care about his human dignity and that of others. That certainly does not involve any compromise with evil. He clearly recognizes the human reality is complex. But the press once again, focuses solely on the search for a justification for sin. It’s all about the mechanics. It is about “how far can I bend the rules without sinning? But what if the rule could be changed? Change the rule!” Benedict is saying “please wake up; please get away from the lifestyle that is degrading you and discover real love and the real purpose of your sexuality. God loves you and will help you to change.”

The press, I fear, is never going to understand this.

I will put up more individual links as I get them. In the meantime, here is an excellent commentary by Dr. Janet Smith.

This story by Catholic News Service is rather good.

Update, Nov 22, p.m.: Of course as always, here is the great Jimmy Akin:

Blogger Simcha Fisher has coined a new term: Blabbatore Romano. I love it!

Important update, Novembere 22: The German text has surfaced on Italian Vaticanist Sandro Magister’s site. In a way, it deepens the mystery. There is certainly no trace of the sentence that appears in such radically different ways in the Italian and the English. Instead, there are the simple words of the Pope “I can say that . . .” What gives? At any rate, no trace whatsoever of the idea that condom use is “justified” in any circumstances. It almost seems as though the person who did the Italian translation (or someone in the Vatican he or she consulted?) has an agenda and wants to have the Pope say something he didn’t say.

All I can say is that the person who did the Italian translation should be shot. (After a trial, of course). The English certainly doesn’t alter things to the same extent. But why add anything at all? The original German makes the whole thing seem like more of an aside rather than a developed statement. Anyway, here it is:

“Die bloße Fixierung auf das Kondom bedeutet eine Banalisierung der Sexualität, und die ist ja gerade die gefährliche Quelle dafür, dass die Menschen in der Sexualität nicht mehr den Ausdruck ihrer Liebe finden, sondern nur noch eine Art von Droge, die sie sich selbst verabreichen. Deshalb ist auch der Kampf gegen die Banalisierung der Sexualität ein Teil des Ringens darum, dass Sexualität positiv gewertet wird und ihre positive Wirkung im Ganzen des Menschseins entfalten kann. Ich würde sagen, wenn ein Prostituierter ein Kondom verwendet, kann das ein erster Akt zu einer Moralisierung sein, ein erstes Stück Verantwortung, um wieder ein Bewusstsein dafür zu entwickeln, dass nicht alles gestattet ist und man nicht alles tun kann, was man will. Aber es ist nicht die eigentliche Art, dem Übel beizukommen. Diese muss wirklich in der Vermenschlichung der Sexualität liegen”.

The mere fixation on the condom means a banalization of sexuality and something that is already precisely the dangerous source for the fact that human beings no longer find an expression of love in sexuality, but only a kind of drug that they administer to themselves. Therefore the struggle against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the wrestling for sexuality to be positively valued and for making it possible for its positive effect on the whole of a person’s being to develop. I would say when a male prostitute uses a condom, this can be a first act in a moralization, a first piece of responsibility taking, in the process of developing an awareness once again that not everything is permitted and that a person cannot do everything he likes. But it is not the real way to overcome evil. This must really lie in the humanization of sexuality.

Canonist Ed Peters weighs in with a really blistering attack on L’Osservatore Romano.’s incompetence.


The Pope, the Press and Condoms — Oh My! — 7 Comments

  1. Can you update your story to include a direct link to Sandro Magister’s article where you pulled the German text from? Thanks!

  2. Sorry, I thought I already had! I do have the link and will put it in. I would be a little cautious though, since this is still not an “official” source for the German text. But to me it sounds authentically like what the Pope would say.

  3. Thanks, that is why I need the link to further vet the information. While not official, the given the length of german text that you have posted it probably is not coming from a translation of a foreign journalist text back into German. That makes it likely to be from an advance copy of the book.

    But like you said, it is unknown if this is the actual text that has been published.

    Thank you again so very much.

  4. Great work (as usual), but…

    Doesn’t the German transcript look a little too convenient, like it’s been scrub clean of controversy? As you showed above, the translated Italian quotes the Pope as saying, “There can be individual justified cases…” while the translated German is, “I would say…”. All the questions about whether Church doctrine is at stake very conveniently disappear.

    Same with the elimination of the reference to HIV infection.

    Fr. Z actually suggested the idea to us in his post on Ed Peters’ commentary (in his red text): “Elsewhere I mused about the possibility that the Holy See had an agreement with the publisher that they could strike passages deemed inopportune before going to press.”

    My theory is that is exactly what happened, that the Italian is closer to the original, not the German text Sandro Magister published, and L’Osservatore Romano broke the embargo when they saw what some overzealous editor was up to. I think it is at least possible that someone at the Vatican didn’t think we could understand and explain what the Pope really said. If this theory of mine is correct, this is scandalous.

  5. Someone:

    No, I frankly don’t believe this is the case. Keep in mind that the Italian and the English have two different versions of one of the same presumably original passages, which in your scenario was struck out of the German version.

    As it happens, I am a medieval historian, and one of the things I have studied is the editing of medieval texts. These kind of texts exist in all sorts of manuscripts with many varied readings. We learn how to deal with these variants. What I have learned is that if there are three different readings of the kind just described, it is much more likely that the shortest one is the original and the others are additions.

    And keep in mind we haven’t even considered the French, Spanish and other translations yet! They could originally contain the same or even different versions of these passages. So far all we know is that the German, which is the original language version, is the only one that doesn’t have these passages. To my mind, this is further evidence that the others are additions. Why strike the offending passage out of only one edition?

    In any case, the Vatican has got to explain this.

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