Despite some of the reports out there in tabloid land about the Pope “ending the ban on condom use” he actually has done no such thing.
Here’s the Guardian’s headline: Pope Benedict edges away from total ban on use of condoms – that world “total” is the crucial one here, and “edges” is definitely the right verb – the movement is minuscule.
What happened is that, in an interview, for somebody’s terribly serious (i.e. will not be widely read) book, he made some remarks that were highly hedged in scholarly qualifiers, about the hypothetical possibility that using condoms for disease prevention might, given the possibility of “real risk” to others and in no way approving of “disordered sexuality”, be the lesser evil in cases (his example was that of a male prostitute) where HIV infection was present and risked being passed to the other partner.
Nothing there about the church’s stance on contraception, and although some HIV health workers are hailing it as a first step to a long overdue acceptance of the need for practising safe sex for all couples, conservative Catholic commentors are downplaying it as “colloquial” commentary, not a “magisterial” pronouncement, and therefore not binding nor superseding previous pronouncements against condom usage as a teaching of the Church.
Of course, the publicity surrounding this will serve to allow those Catholics who already engage in safe sex practises to feel less guilt about doing so, and that can only be a good thing. The logic of the Pope’s hypothetical is very much along the lines of the Church’s teaching which allows the removal of a fallopian tube containing an ectopic pregnancy despite the strictures against abortion – since the death of the foetus is not regarded as the primary purpose of the surgery (the primary purpose of the surgery is to prevent fallopian rupture and subsequent septicaemia and possible death of the pregnant woman), therefore salpingectomy is allowable even though the death of the foetus is an inevitable consequence – it is viewed as “unintended although foreseen”. (This teaching means that even though it is surgically possible to remove an ectopic pregnancy from a fallopian tube while conserving the tube for future fertility, this option is not acceptable to the Church because the death of the fetus then becomes the “direct intent” of the surgery.) Therefore, if the intent of the contraceptive barrier device is to prevent disease, and preventing disease is deemed acceptable, then the simultaneous effect of preventing pregnancy becomes “unintended although foreseen” also.
Expect there to be a lot of havering about what the Pope did and did not mean in his “colloquial” remarks, and for there to be far more heat than light, and for virtually nothing to change with regards to what priests and nuns are already telling people about condoms – the pragmatists have already been indicating that they’re no big deal, the literalists have always been condemnatory, and the faithful have always taken their own counsel on this matter above all others. In 1968, the year of the Humanae Vitae encyclical wherein the Pope announced that the Church’s teaching on contraception remained unchanged and unchangeable despite the broad desire for reform, 44% of Catholic women were using artificial contraception. By the 80s, more than 80% of Catholics said they disagreed with Humanae Vitae (including prominent theologians and bishops), over 75% of Catholic women in the USA had used artificial contraception, while a large majority of priests did not believe that it was immoral. In the last few decades, the acceptability of flouting the Church teachings regarding contraception has only grown, and with it has come more questioning of the Vatican’s general credibility.
Many observers have noted the irony: the Vatican’s deep concern that changing the teachings on contraception would undermine its moral authority has been in actuality the attitude that has brought about the result they feared – their refusal to change this teaching has been a major driver undermining the faithful’s trust in the Church’s teachings on other matters. The Pope may well be attempting to have his cake and eat it too with this very carefully worded hypothetical related in this book interview – attempting to shore up his personal credibility with those who reject Humanae Vitae while not actually supersede a predecessor’s encyclical by exercising his own magisterial authority.
It’s a crack in the monolith, that’s all. It’s going to take more cracks and fissures than that to topple it.