I am in Rome as I write this blog post. For more than a week I have been here with the President and General Secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops for our annual visit to the dicasteries (departments) of the Vatican. It is truly a wonderful opportunity to share with officials of the Holy See the blessings and challenges of the Church in Canada, and to benefit from insights, clarifications and counsel that they are able to give. The conversations are very fraternal and a great experience of the communion of the Church in Canada with the Holy See.
Some exciting events are taking place while we are here. First was the Consistory on Saturday when the Pope elevated twenty-four men to the rank of Cardinal. Most of the new cardinals were from the Roman Curia, but there were others who represented different parts of the world. These were accompanied by delegations from their own dioceses, who gave loud expression to their joy as their own Bishop received the red berretta from the Holy Father. It was a very moving experience of the universality and the communion of the Church, gathered around our beloved Pope.
Second is the release on Tuesday of this week of a new book-length interview with Pope Benedict XVI, entitled Light of the World. As you likely know by now because of media coverage, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published the Italian version of twenty-one very brief excerpts from the various topics addressed by the Pope. Included was the topic of sexuality, in the context of which the Holy Father addressed the issue of condoms. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was this one particular issue which attracted all the media attention and made the headlines. In order to assist the reader to know what the Pope has actually said I include here an excerpt from the book, provided the website of Catholic World Report. This will be followed by a statement from the spokesperson of the Holy See, Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., who clarifies how the Pope’s words are to be understood.
Excerpt Provided by Catholic World Report (the italics indicate the question being posed by the interviewer Peter Seewald):
“From Chapter 11, "The Journeys of a Shepherd," pages 117-119:
“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 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.
“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 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.”
Statement by Fr. Lombardi (from Catholic News Service)
“At the end of Chapter 10 (Chapter 11 in the English edition) in the book, ‘Light of the World,’ the pope responds to two questions about the struggle against AIDS and the use of the condom, questions that refer back to the discussion that followed the pope’s comments on this topic during his trip to Africa in 2009.
“The pope underlines clearly that, at that time, he did not want to express a position on the problem of condoms in general, but he wanted to affirm strongly that the problem of AIDS cannot be resolved solely with the distribution of condoms, because much more must be done: prevention, education, assistance, counsel, being close to people, both so that they do not become sick, and also in cases where they are sick.
“The pope observes that even in non-church circles a comparable awareness has developed, as is seen in the so-called ABC theory (Abstinence-Be Faithful-Condoms), in which the first two elements (abstinence and fidelity) are much more decisive and fundamental in the struggle against AIDS, while the condom appears as a last resort when the other two are lacking.
“It should therefore be clear that the condom is not the solution to the problem.
“The pope then takes a wider view and insists on the fact that concentrating only on the condom signifies the ‘banalization’ of sexuality, which loses its meaning as the expression of love between persons and becomes like a ‘drug.’ To fight against the banalization of sexuality is ‘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.’
“In the light of this ample and profound vision of human sexuality and its modern challenges, the pope reaffirms that the church ‘of course does not regard (condoms) as a real or moral solution’ to the problem of AIDS.
“In saying this, the pope is not reforming or changing the teaching of the church, but reaffirming it by putting it in the context of the value and dignity of human sexuality as an expression of love and responsibility.
“At the same time, the pope takes into consideration an exceptional situation in which the exercise of sexuality may represent a real risk to the life of another person. In such a case, the pope does not morally justify the disordered exercise of sexuality, but maintains that the use of the condom to diminish the danger of infection may be ‘a first assumption of responsibility’, ‘a first step in a movement toward a … more human sexuality’, as opposed to not using the condom and exposing the other person to a fatal risk.
“In this statement, the pope’s reasoning certainly cannot be defined as a revolutionary shift.
“Numerous moral theologians and authoritative ecclesiastical figures have maintained and still maintain similar positions; however, it is true that until now we had not heard them expressed with such clarity from the mouth of a pope, even if it is in a colloquial, and not magisterial, form.
“Benedict XVI therefore courageously gives us an important contribution that clarifies and deepens a long-debated question. It is an original contribution, because on one hand it maintains fidelity to moral principles and demonstrates lucidity in refusing an illusory path like ‘faith in condoms’; on the other hand, however, it shows a sympathetic and far-sighted vision, attentive to discovering small steps — even if they are only initial and still confused — of a humanity that is often spiritually and culturally impoverished, toward a more human and responsible exercise of sexuality.”
For my part I am very much looking forward to picking up the book when it is released. We are told by news analysts and bloggers who have had an opportunity to see the book in advance that it is an opportunity to hear directly the mind of the Pope on some of the most vexing problems facing the Church and the world today. He faces every question forthrightly, with his customary brilliance, clarity and humility. It will be yet one more wonderful gift that this Pope gives to the Church and world as he shares with us his extraordinary intellect, by which he expounds the beauty of the faith and makes manifest his own deep love for the Lord and for the life of Christian discipleship.