Further evidence that Benedict XVI's comments on condoms were deliberate, clear, premeditated and designed to correct misrepresentations of church teaching appears today in an Our Sunday Visitor interview with Fr Martin Rhonheimer, the moral philosopher close to the Pope's inner circle whose 2004 article I wrote about earlier here.
That article refuted the attempt by some conservatives to extend the Church's teaching on contraception to situations where it evidently did not apply -- the use of condoms as prophylactics to prevent infection -- and argued in terms very similar to those used by Pope Benedict XVI in Light of the World. He confirms to OSV that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), then headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, had "no problem" with that Tablet article. This is doubly significant when one considers -- as another CDF theologian, Fr Maurizio Faggioni, has pointed out -- the Congregation was at the time studying the issue. (For a history of this, see my recent Tablet piece here.)
Rhonheimer, in short, gets us close to the Pope's own thinking.
As he tells OSV:
To use a condom for prophylactic reasons is not contraception; if it intrinsically deprives marital acts of their procreative meaning, this is not because it embodies a contraceptive choice. If a condom is used by people engaging in intrinsically immoral behavior, such as prostitutes, it might even be, as the pope has now asserted, a first assumption of responsibility and a step towards humanization of sexuality. To see things in this differentiated way, I think, is an important clarification, which is useful in defending the Church’s badly understood doctrine about marital sexuality and contraception against the charge that it leads to the death of those involved in immoral kinds of sexual behavior.
Rhonheimer is clear that the Pope's remarks are a highly significant development:
Pope Benedict, after what I assume careful consideration, has made a public statement that has changed the discourse on these issues, both inside and outside the Church. For the first time it has been said by the pope himself, though not in a formal teaching act of the Church’s Magisterium, that the Church does not unconditionally “prohibit” prophylactic use of condoms. On the contrary, the Holy Father has said that in certain cases (in the sex business, for example), their use can be a sign of or first step toward responsibility (at the same time making it clear that this is neither a solution for overcoming the AIDS epidemic nor a moral solution; the only moral solution is abandoning a morally disordered life-style, and living sexuality in a really humanized way). This topic raises many emotions on both sides, which is why I hope Benedict’s step might change the way we discuss these matters, in a less tense and more open way.
But he also rejects -- as, I suspect, does the Pope -- the idea that condoms are "justified" or a "lesser evil": in other words, there is no attempt here to introduce a new moral norm.
What is “justified” is not the use of the condom as such — not, at least, in the sense of a “moral justification” from which follows a permissive norm such as “it is morally permitted and good to use condoms in such and such a case.” What is justified, rather, is the judgment that this can be considered to be a “first step” and “a first assumption of responsibility.” Benedict certainly did not want to establish a moral norm justifying exceptions.
Rhonheimer is also anxious to avoid the conclusion that what the Pope has said could naturally be applied to a sero-discordant married couple, where the infected husband wishes to avoid infecting his wife. "[T]he pope did not address the question of prophylactic use of condoms in marriage," he says. "And I don’t believe that his remarks offer a concrete answer to that question". He goes on to give his reasons why condom use in such a context would not be the morally advisable or prudential course, while suggesting, at the end of the interview, that more is coming from Rome on this: "things will become clearer in the near future by some further statements of Church authorities or official clarifications".
The clear impression Rhonheimer gives is of the Pope wanting to introduce fresh thinking into an area rendered schlerotic by pro-life diehards. The Opus Dei moral philosopher uses the image of "breaking the ice":
It is obvious that the Holy Father wanted to bring this into the open. He certainly foresaw the uproar, misunderstandings, confusion and even scandal which it could cause. And I believe he considered it to be necessary, despite all these reactions, to talk about this, in the same spirit of openness and transparency with which, from his time as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, he dealt with clerical sex abuse cases... What Benedict XVI’s remarks on condoms have brought to light is a general confusion already existing on all sides. Personally I am very grateful to the Holy Father that he had the courage to break the ice.
It is not surprising that "ultras" have acted angrily; some members of the Pontifical Academy for Life have been astonishingly offensive about the Pope, accusing him of acting "self-indulgently" while "neglecting church governance" (Luke Gormally) or telling him that he "should stop talking about aberrant sex and talk more about Jesus" (Christine Vollmer). The absurdity of these accusations reveals the acute discomfort of the accusers: their loyalty to the Magisterium is being tested; they are discovering what it is like to be cafeteria Catholics. Hiding behind the idea that the Pope is being "misrepresented" by senior Vatican officials -- as John Smeaton tries to claim -- just doesn't wash.
Pope Benedict XVI is doing what the Successor of St Peter must always do -- liberate the Gospel from attempts to absolutize historically contingent thinking. He was clear. It was planned. The objective was to dispel some myths -- even at the expense of some misunderstandings and conservative kickbacks.
There is a hint in Rhonheimer's interview of a larger objective Benedict XVI has in view: the recasting of the Church's doctrine on contraception, possibly the most misunderstood and ignored of its modern teachings.
He has changed the public discourse on these issues and has prepared the ground for a more vigorous and appropriate understanding and defense of the Church’s teaching about contraception, as part of a doctrine of marital love and the true meaning of human sexuality. as it is contained in the encyclical Humanae Vitae.
In Light of the World Pope Benedict notes:
The basic lines of Humanae vitae are still correct. Finding ways to enable people to live the teaching, on the other hand, is a further question ... We should also try to express the teaching pastorally, theologically, and intellectually in the context of today's studies of sexuality and antheopology so as to create the conditions for understanding so that people can realize that this is a great task on which work is being done and on which even more and better work needs to be done.
We have not heard the last from this Pope on this subject. And there are suggestions here that more is coming soon.
[UPDATE] For a further insight into conservative discomfort the EWTN interview which George Weigel gave recently to Raymond Arroyo is hard to beat. Arroyo describes the Pope's remarks as "theological musings ... which have caused confusion" as if Benedict XVI were an irresponsible academic flying kites (Weigel adds his own dose of contempt, claiming it was imprudent of the Pope to attempt to have this discussion in this way.) When Arroyo reads to him an AP quote from Fr Jim Martin of this parish that the Pope's remarks had "completely changed the discussion" of this issue, Weigel describes the remarks as "grotesque spin", saying it is "reprehensible that Fr Martin would spin this for his ideological purposes". Yet Fr Jim is saying no more than Fr Rhonheimer here.
Arroyo goes on to quote Luigi Accatoli at the Vatican press conference on 23 November that launched Light of the World in which the Vatican journalist said that Benedict XVI was seeking a way "in which missionaries and other ecclesial workers can help to defeat the AIDS pandemic, without approving -- but also without excluding, in particular cases -- the use of a condom." Weigel tells Arroyo -- as he also does in response to Fr Jim's quote -- that this showed ignorance of empirical evidence demonstrating that condom campaigns in Africa make Aids worse; Accatoli, says Weigel, "has not done research on this issue". In fact, it is Weigel whose research is defective: the same source he cites -- Edward Green of Harvard University -- makes clear that, while in African populations at large condoms have been ineffective, among high-risk groups (such as prostitutes, the context mentioned by the Pope) condoms have a marked effect in reducing transmission of the virus. When it comes to spinning and ignorance, George -- whom I like and admire -- might just be calling pots black.