The Pope’s confusing condom comments

For the record, Pope Benedict XVI did not justify use of condoms, as some headlines have suggested, even in limited circumstances. Here’s the quote he gave to a German journalist, which was reprinted in the Italian media this weekend:  "There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images
ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images
ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

For the record, Pope Benedict XVI did not justify use of condoms, as some headlines have suggested, even in limited circumstances. Here's the quote he gave to a German journalist, which was reprinted in the Italian media this weekend: 

For the record, Pope Benedict XVI did not justify use of condoms, as some headlines have suggested, even in limited circumstances. Here’s the quote he gave to a German journalist, which was reprinted in the Italian media this weekend: 

"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." 

I don’t read this as arguing that male prostitutes are justified in using protection, but rather that it could be a stepping-stone toward giving up their behavior. (For their part, male sex workers in the Boston area are apparently not impressed.) As the pope’s spokesman later put it, he believes that he believes that "the use of condoms to reduce the risk of infection is a ‘first step on the road to a more human sexuality." This seems a bit like arguing that a drug addict who switches from injecting heroin to snorting it is making progress.

Nonetheless, some are reading the pope’s comments as a milestone, particularly in contrast to his suggestion during a visit to Africa last year that condom-use "increases the problem" of HIV/Aids. Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper editorializes:

It is no matter, though strange, that the Pope referred specifically to the use of condoms among male prostitutes — a tiny fraction of all prostitutes — and it does not matter that he fell short of acknowledging that the use of condoms is widespread among Catholics, even among priests.

What does matter is that this is the first time any Pontiff has indicated that a condom can be useful in other ways than as a contraceptive.[…] The next step for the church now should be to acknowledge that people do have sex for other reasons than procreation.

Andrew Sullivan, who notes winkingly that when asked about condoms, "his holiness thought of male prostitutes for some reason" thinks the comments represent some small progress on the church’s stance toward homosexuality:

Now, this might seem like the bleeding obvious to anyone with a shred of moral sense – but until now, the Vatican has never dealt with such nuances, and certainly not advocated any form of gay sex that might be more moral than other forms of gay sex. This latter point is revolutionary, in fact, as the Vatican’s rather panicked official response suggests.

Yes, I know Benedict is talking of a prostitute; but once you introduce a spectrum of moral choices for the homosexual, you have to discuss a morality for homosexuals. Previously, it was simply: whatever you do is so vile none of can be moral. Now, it appears to be: even in a sexual encounter between a prostitute and his john there is a spectrum of moral conduct.

And so Pandora’s box opens.

I’m not quite convinced by either argument. With his choice of example, the Pope seems to be suggesting that gay sex is a special case so far outside the bounds of normal morality that the normal rules don’t apply and doesn’t acknowledge that the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease applies to a much broader segment of the human population than prostitutes and johns. The box might have been opened but it seems like a pretty narrow one. 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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