Additional Reflections: Pope Benedict XVI On Condom Use

William E. May
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

The journalist Peter Seewald and Pope Benedict are named as co-authors of the book, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times, published by Ignatius Press. In it Seewald asks Benedict a host of questions on such matters as these: What caused the clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church? Was there a "cover up"? Have you considered resigning? Does affirming the goodness of the human body mean a plea for "better sex"? Can there be a genuine dialogue with Islam? Should the Church rethink Catholic teaching on priestly celibacy, women priests, contraception, and same-sex relationships? Is there a schism in the Catholic Church? Is there any hope for Christian unity? How can the Pope claim to be "infallible"? Is there a "dictatorship of relativism" today? [1]

I begin by calling attention to the vast scope of issues taken up in the book in order to provide a context for the very brief replies that Benedict made to 2 questions raised by Seewald regarding condom use as a way of avoiding AIDS.

Seewald first asked: "On the occasion of your trip to Africa in March 2009, the Vatican's policy on Aids once again became the target of media criticism. Twenty-five percent of all Aids victims around the world today are treated in Catholic facilities. In some countries, such as Lesotho, for example, the statistic is 40 percent. In Africa you stated that the Church's traditional teaching has proven to be the only sure way to stop the spread of HIV. Critics, including critics from the Church's own ranks, object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms."

In part of his reply to this question Benedict said: "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" (emphasis added).

Seewald then asked: "Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?"

To this Benedict replied: "She of course 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" (emphasis added).

It seems clear to me and to others from the passages just cited, in particular those that I have emphasized in my citations, that Benedict did not teach that condom use to prevent AIDS is a morally good act nor did he propose it as a lesser evil. Nor do these passages indicate in any way that Benedict thinks that the Church should change her teaching on contraception. He does not, of course, consider contraception in the passages cited above. Using condoms does not necessarily involve the intention to contracept (it could, however, if the sex it "protects" is male-female genital coition). But, as we have seen, Benedict does not say that condom use for this purpose is morally good but rather that it indicates a desire on a person's part to avoid harming his sexual partner (obviously, if those using condoms for this purpose are males then there would be no need to contracept).

It is pertinent here to point out that Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver - who also had a pre-embargo copy of the book, has written as follows:

In the context of the book's later discussion of contraception and Catholic teaching on sexuality, the Pope's comments are morally insightful. But taken out of context, they can easily be inferred as approving condoms under certain circumstances. One might reasonably expect the Holy Father's assistants to have an advance communications plan in place, and to involve bishops and Catholic media in a timely way to explain and defend the Holy Father's remarks.

Instead, the Vatican's own semi-official newspaper, l'Osservatore Romano, violated the book's publication embargo and released excerpts of the content early. Not surprisingly, news media instantly zeroed in on the issue of condoms, and the rest of this marvelous book already seems like an afterthought. [2]


The Holy Father had agreed to collaborate with Seewald in writing this book, as he had done in the past. He chose to do so now precisely as a way of letting the world know that the Catholic Church and, in particular, the Pope, are deeply concerned with the lives of ordinary people, whom they seek to serve by proclaiming the truth: the truth about the meaning of human life and love, the truth of the beauty of marriage and the conjugal act, the truth of the gift of human life that is the crowning gift of marriage, and the truth of the evil of sex between persons who are not married. This proclamation of the truth is a genuine service, for it is not meant as an act of judgment, which is reserved to God alone, but rather is given with a compassion that recognizes the human plight, and seeks to illumine it. The Holy Father has done this in acknowledging that God's grace is powerful enough to reach a soul even in the midst of a morally illicit act, to awaken within that soul a desire to help others. Such a desire can serve as the starting point of a conversion away from evil, towards the embrace of the true good and what constitutes true humanization.