In case you have been living under a rock for the last week or so, the mainstream media and blogosphere are abuzz with analysis of what our Holy Father said in a new book Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times. In the book, the Pope responds to questions last summer from a German reporter. He spoke of the morality present when a male prostitute chooses to use a condom to protect his partners.
Modeling our public relations strategy on the keystone cops, L’Osservatore Romano excerpted a section out of context and without proper explanation of Catholic doctrine. As the mainstream press jumped on it trumpeting a sea-change in doctrine (to what they wanted the Pope to say), official Catholic PR channels “clarified” in Vatican-speak thus insuring 99.99% of the world would continue to misunderstand. Sigh.
On the other hand, the Holy See is quite amazing and some have commented that he may have designed the whole incident as a teaching moment. That it may be, as the important point is what people eventually learn from this, not the initial fog.
Pope Benedict actually spoke of condom use by homosexual male prostitutes as a first step toward their moralization. He was speaking of the first flicker of a moral conscience in what they are doing as a good thing. He did not endorse use of condoms in general, in special circumstances, or even take the “first step” toward doing so. The mainstream press, of course, reported this very differently.
Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., founder and editor of Ignatius Press, wrote one of the best explanations in a “guestview” for Reuters:
It is important to note that there are two very serious mistranslations in the Italian version of the Pope’s remarks, upon which many early reports were based, since the embargo was broken by the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano. (That’s another story.) First, the German speak of “ein Prostituierter,” which can only be a male prostitute. The normal German word for prostitute is “[eine] Prostituierte,” which is feminine and refers only to a woman. The Italian translation “una prostituta” simply reverses what the Pope says.
Equally problematically, “giustificati” = justified, was used in the Italian translation of “begründete, and arbitrarily resolves the ambiguity one-sidedly.
The Pope responded: “She [the Church] 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” (italics mine [Fr. Fessio]).
In the first place a solution which is not “moral” cannot be “justified.” That is a contradiction and would mean that something in itself morally evil could be “justified” to achieve a good end. Note: the concept of the “lesser evil” is inapplicable here. One may tolerate a lesser evil; one cannot do something which is a lesser evil.
But the crucial distinction here is between the “intention” of the male prostitute, viz. avoiding infecting his client, and the act itself, viz. using a condom. Since this distinction has been missed in almost every report I’ve read, it calls for some elaboration.
This distinction, in moral philosophy, is between the object of an act and the intent of an act. If a man steals in order to fornicate, the intent is to fornicate but the object is the act of theft. There is no necessary connection between stealing and fornicating.
In the case of the Pope’s remark, the intent is preventing infection and the object is use of a condom.
Here’s an example of this distinction that parallels what the Pope said. Muggers are using steel pipes to attack people and the injuries are severe. Some muggers use padded pipes to reduce the injuries, while still disabling the victim enough for the mugging. The Pope says that the intention of reducing injury (in the act of mugging) could be a first step toward greater moral responsibility. This would not justify the following headlines: “Pope Approves Padded Pipes for Mugging” “Pope Says Use of Padded Pipes Justified in Some Circumstances,” “Pope Permits Use of Padded Pipes in Some Cases.”
Of course, one may morally use padded pipes in some circumstances, e.g., as insulated pipes so that hot water flowing through them doesn’t cool as fast. And one may use condoms morally in some cases, e.g. as water balloons. But that also would not justify the headline “Pope Approves Condom Use,” though in this case it could be true. But it would be intentionally misleading.
In sum, the Pope did not “justify” condom use in any circumstances. And Church teaching remains the same as it has always been – both before and after the Pope’s statements.
Read the whole article at Reuters.