Is the pope Catholic? The whole world broke out the champagne the weekend before Thanksgiving when the news came that Pope Benedict XVI had approved the use of condoms in certain circumstances to prevent the transmission of HIV. In Light of the World, a new collection of interviews with the German journalist Peter Seewald, the pope says:
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.
That’s quite a turnaround from last year, when the pope, on a visit to Africa, claimed that condoms were ineffective and indeed only fueled the epidemic. Liberal Catholics are understandably jubilant—"the takeaway is that the pope admits that condoms prevent AIDS," Catholics for Choice head Jon O’Brien told me by phone. "Catholic health organizations, which receive millions and millions of dollars to fight AIDS, can now say it’s OK to use condoms. That’s incredibly significant." Or maybe not. On November 22 papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi denied that the pope had said anything that "reforms or changes" church teaching.
If so, church teaching is even weirder than I thought: gay men, because they are already committing a sin, can protect themselves from a fatal disease, but an infected husband cannot use a condom to protect his HIV-negative wife. Because a priest is more likely to be gay than married? Don’t be so cynical. For the HIV-discordant married couple, sex is not a sin: contraception is a sin. To use a condom would make their sacred-married-love sex "banal" and "a sort of drug that people administer to themselves," as the pope says later, and that is worse than wearing a rubber to prevent the transmission of a fatal illness. As Sacred Heart Major Seminary professor Janet Smith put it in The Catholic World Report, "We must note that what is intrinsically wrong in a homosexual sexual act in which a condom is used is not the moral wrong of contraception but the homosexual act itself. In the case of homosexual sexual activity, a condom does not act as a contraceptive; it is not possible for homosexuals to contracept since their sexual activity has no procreative power that can be thwarted." There’s a logic here, but it’s the loopy follow-the-dots logic that led an Egyptian imam to declare that a woman can work in the same office as men who are not her relatives, as long as she breastfeeds them first.