What the Pope actually meant

I’m sure most of us have seen the response by the Pope regarding the Catholic Church’s work with victims of AIDS/HIV and what place the condom has in fighting this. As can be seen from a few high profile Catholic blogs, writers and journalists themselves felt duty bound to correct the mistranslation of the Pope’s words, in lieu of the Vatican’s late press release.

Dr Janet Smith, who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, penned a blog entry underlining the Pope’s words as the understanding of a warped human subjectivity (namely, a male prostitute) on the path to “moral growth”. She reminds her readers that the condom, in homosexual sexual activity, does not act as a contraceptive, but rather the intention of wearing one is at once a step towards moral culpability (something she, and thus the Pope feels, is absent from such an individual) and of humanising sexual activity.

This outlines some complex notions of the condom in Catholic teaching, but also sees Dr Smith trip up a little; is the condom the means with which live sperm are trapped, leading to a loss of life, or is the condom only prohibited where the possibility of procreation exists, namely during heterosexual sexual activity? This problematic is not outlined here, rather, the Pope’s words refer to the opinion that condom use is a trivial means to stop the spreading of HIV/AIDS in comparison to the humanisation of sexual activity – which is the official line on the matter.

Does this change the Catholic Church’s attitude to condoms? No. Since “she” (the gender which the Pope attributes to the Church) still regards condoms as a failing means to combat disease, there is nothing in the Pope’s words which convey approval for public programmes relating to the distribution of condoms for male prostitutes, since according to Dr Smith this would risk actively condoning sin; what the Church does condone, however, is leading people to the path of Christ – a road which the Church accepts will not be entirely free from what they consider immoral acts.

The analogy Dr Smith chooses to represent the Pope’s stand is that of a bank robber with an unloaded gun. What he is doing is still wrong, but at least there will be less harm involved. This wasn’t the only analogy used to represent the Pope’s words. Thomas Peters of the American Papist spoke about the alcoholic who reduces the amount of days he binge drinks on, noting that while binge drinking is wrong, there is a modicum of harm reduction in his actions.

Lisa Graas, a self-described pro-life Catholic mom of four, lifelong Kentuckian and contributor at David Horowitz’s NewsRealBlog, did not use an analogy herself, but seemed to imply that the Pope was using the figure of a male prostitute as a means of characterising a person who is so ignorant of Catholic moral teaching, might still have “an ounce of moral responsibility” even if that is the moral injunction not to kill someone. The Church recognises this, at the same time as recognising that the person, on the rocky road to Christ, may act immorally.

So this is the point. And to all those who welcome the Pope’s words, remember that what he is saying is actually worse than we originally thought, to be precise male prostitutes are so disgusting that for them condom use is a moral step up. That’s not progress.

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