Catholics are obsessed with rules about what can and cannot be done. Contraception, abortion, women in the priesthood, even kneeling for the Eucharist are often subjects of controversy whenever Catholics discuss their faith.
Thus, when Pope Benedict XVI made his now-famous comment in Light of the World about condoms, it was inevitable that his utterance would be treated as a new rule. The media is reporting that Catholics may now use condoms during sexual intercourse to avoid transferring HIV.
There is, of course, no new rule about condom use: The Church still teaches that contraception during intercourse between a man and woman is forbidden, even in the case where one or the other is HIV positive.
What Benedict actually said is much more interesting than what is being wrongly reported by the media. The Holy Father was probing into an imagined individual’s moral psychology, rather than rehearsing a new item in the next edition of the Catechism.
The context of the condom comment was his response to a question about how to fight the spread of AIDS in Africa. The Holy Father described how the “fixation” on condoms has led to the “banalization” of sexuality, where it is no longer viewed as an “expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves.”
Up to this point in the conversation with Peter Seewald, the pope is simply reiterating the Church’s teaching as stated, for example, in Humanae Vitae.
But then another thought occurred to one-time professor Benedict — a situation in which the use of a condom might be considered a moral act.
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.
The Holy Father imagines the moment when a prostitute, while conducting business, becomes concerned about the physical well-being of his or her customer — wanting to keep that person from being infected by a deadly disease.
Reflections on the moral psychology of a prostitute are not what you normally expect from a pontiff. Benedict’s imagining that, even in the midst of such degrading labor, a person can become aware of the moral dimension of sexuality seems to belong more to the substance of a Dostoevsky novel than the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Benedict’s observation is much more interesting, more morally probative, than what has enthralled the media for more than a week. It’s grounded in the Catholic anthropology of the human person’s natural desire for God, the good, and happiness.
There’s no aggregate of sinful habits or base acts that can remove this desire completely. As a result, it’s a human propensity that can find expression at any moment and in any circumstance. Conversion, so to speak, is a perennial possibility.
If Benedict had further developed his observation about the imagined prostitute, he might have come to the conclusion he was no longer talking about condoms as understood by the Church. Condom use is banned for Catholics, because it is a means of contraception. When a condom is put to other uses, however — whether as a balloon or a medical device to inhibit infection — it is no longer functioning as a condom.
Some will say this is just a play on words; but for Catholics who have been brought up to identify condoms with contraception, it’s important to insist upon the distinction.
Once we move past the obsession with the rule about contraceptives, Catholics and non-Catholics alike may notice that Benedict was giving a message of hope to those involved, whether by choice or circumstance, in degrading and dehumanizing actions.
The pope is reminding all of us that, regardless of how far we fall or how much we fail, we remain God’s children, and our desire for Him can never be extinguished.