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Why did the secular press get the pope so wrong about condoms?

They were not helped by the claims of some Catholics that Catholic teaching on sexuality was collapsing

By on Monday, 6 December 2010

A priest skims a copy of Light of the World, a book-length interview of Pope Benedict XVI conducted by the journalist Peter Seewald

A priest skims a copy of Light of the World, a book-length interview of Pope Benedict XVI conducted by the journalist Peter Seewald

Francis Philips got it dead right in her last blog; the pope’s gripping, highly readable and indispensable book The Light of the World (and if you haven’t read it yet you really should) is about a great deal more than just sex.

The extraordinary distortion by the secular Press of his passing remarks about condoms is now generally seen for what it was: a sign of the fact that papers have to have splash headlines; that’s the way they’re designed: hence the Sunday Telegraph’s declaration of a “historic U-turn by [the] Catholic church”. So the secular response is understandable: journalists need stories; it’s not so much that they don’t care about the truth, but that they really aren’t necessarily equipped, in a story about the Church, to recognise it when it’s staring them in the face.

But parallel to this kind of understandable secular distortion, there was a jumping on this particular bandwagon by some Catholics who really didn’t have that kind of excuse. Perhaps the most informative example of the “historic U-turn by Catholic Church” syndrome among Catholic journalists was the Today programme’s “Thought for the Day” on the morning after the Sunday Telegraph splash headline, uttered from on high by Clifford Longley, the BBC’s token “authoritative” Catholic and the elder statesman of the Tabletistas.

What a difference a week or two makes. Longley may already be hoping that his remarks will have been forgotten: but they haven’t, not by me, nor should they be. “The interview [the pope] gave to a German journalist”, he glibly pronounced, “has transformed the terms of the internal Roman Catholic debate about the use of condoms in the fight against Aids HIV”. (Already, very evidently, just wrong). “But”, he went on, astonishingly, “I think he has actually changed much more than that. From today the entire polar icecap of Catholic sexual morality has started to melt”.

We have now reached a level of implausibility which is more than simply jaw-dropping. We need some kind of provisional explanation before going any further, of why Longley should say such a thing, even in the slightly hysterical atmosphere then prevailing. I can only suppose that this total dissolution of Catholic sexual morality is so much what he wants to happen that it clouded his judgement; it wouldn’t be the first time that wishful thinking has caused a radical distortion of Catholic teaching: “the Spirit of Vatican II” is riddled with it.

“Henceforth”, he went on, “the emphasis changes from natural law, which is where the ban on contraception comes from, to what the pope calls ‘the humanising of sexuality’.” But how is that a change of emphasis away from the natural law? The natural law is a body of unchanging moral principles known not from revelation (though parallel to it) but by reason, principles regarded as a basis for all human conduct: for the pope to speak in this way of “the humanisation of sexuality” is simply the understanding of the natural law in particular human circumstances: there is no movement away from natural law—say, to revelation or ecclesial authority; we are still within its ambit. Longley’s “analysis”, in short, is utterly meaningless.

Longley’s explanation of his melting polar icecap is an excellent example of the kind of—to a layman—impressively intellectual sounding but actually totally bogus pronouncement that does nothing to elucidate an argument but which if you’re not attentive allows it to be accepted by default in the mental fog which has descended by the time it has been uttered.
There is a real refusal here to acknowledge the difference between juridical and pastoral discourse. The pope is a teacher of doctrine and the moral law; he is also a pastor: a pastor above all, and perhaps overwhelmingly most importantly, when he speaks directly to his people, as he is clearly doing in this interview—that’s why it’s with a journalist, not a theologian.

What was Longley’s real agenda here? That is the question we need to ask. Why did he try to transmute pastoral remarks about particular human circumstances into quasi-juridical pronouncements universally applicable? Could it be that, thus transformed, such remarks could then be lobbed into the complex web of objective moral teachings which the Church over the centuries has defended, in the hope of causing maximum damage? Who knows? But it looks suspiciously like it to me

  • paulpriest


  • paulpriest

    Truth is a Person – Our Lord Jesus Christ – Doctrine itself is Holy Mother Church's pastoral teaching of Dogma – A priest preaching in the Gorbals will preach differently in the Gambia – A priest preaching to a group of nuns about chastity will not necessarily convey the same Truth in an identical way to a group of prostitutes; like teaching about justice and mercy to a group of policeman and convicts – as Aquinas states throughout the ST: circumstances matter!

  • paulpriest


  • EditorCT

    WHY NOT?

  • EditorCT

    WHY NOT?

  • EditorCT

    WHY NOT?

  • EditorCT

    WHY NOT?

    Please explain the scandal you think I've caused. Name the actions of mine which have caused scandal.

  • EditorCT

    Does a priest preaching about condoms in the Gorbals preach a different truth from the priest preaching in Gambia? That is to say, can the priest preaching about condoms in the Gorbals, say it is acceptable to use condoms? Ever? Under any circumstances? Can the priest preaching about condoms in the Gambia, say it is acceptable to use condoms? Ever? Under any circumstances?

    Explain how the priest preaching to a group of nuns about chastity differs, in essence, from the priest preaching to a group of prostitutes. Can the priest preaching to the prostitutes ever say that it is acceptable to prostitute themselves? Ever? Under any circumstances?

    Same question in your next example: how will the priest preaching about justice and mercy to a group of policemen, differ in what he teaches from a priest preaching to a group of convicts, Can the priest ever tell the convict that it is acceptable to break the law? Ever?

    In all of the above cases, the law of God must be proclaimed. True? False?

    Finally, if it is impossible for a priest, even for the Pope, to tell a sinner in confession or through his preaching that it is permissible to sin, how much more reprehensible to do so through an interview with a journalist in a book which, the Pope knows perfectly well, will attract the widest publicity.

    You, my friend, need to educate yourself about the nature, extent and limits of papal authority. You are scandalised at me for doing my baptismal duty by correcting error, but you defend the error in the name of charity! Crackers.

  • paulpriest

    Ok – to put it bluntly – you're libelling the Pope
    You say he said it was sometimes permissible to do something evil: Not true!

    He was referring to the possibility of an action indicating an intention with due concern for another human being being a first step towards moralising. The means of exacting this intention are utterly irrelevant – the motive of a secondary [non-aggravational] aspect of the sin was being analysed – not the means [which he stated were sinful].
    You really should read your Aquinas, Lady – Circumstances affect sin in three ways – but the first way is that circumstance can change the very nature of the sin itself. Selling one's body is usually a sin against the sixth commandment – selling one's body while hiv+ is a more grave sin against the fifth!

    You persistently repeat that the media are correctly reporting and assessing that the pope now justifies the use of condoms in specific circumstances – That is a downright lie!

    The Pope said no such thing, he gave no indication in that direction and you are evoking scandal and bearing false witness against your neighbour.

    Retract: Resign : Repent !

  • paulpriest

    Er…are you serious?
    You're lying about the Pope – for whatever nefarious, duplicitous, misguided reasons – maybe you're so far up your sedevacantist bahookey that you've hoodwinked yourself into believing the Pope said what he most definitely didn't say and you're a victim of wishful thinking and invincible ignorance?

    I'm sorry – but that's scandal ma'am !

  • paulpriest

    Pathetic response really Ma'am – but nice try in attempting to make it look like I was saying something I never would.
    You were too busy ranting to notice I said 'same truth' – merely different pastoral means in delivery.

    You're oh so wrong in all of this you know? you're in a hole – so stop digging !

  • EditorCT

    Unfortunately, paulpriest, the saying “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” applies here. If you think St Thomas Aquinas would support the Pope's views on condoms, then you don't know said Aquinas.

    Circumstances may mitigate the guilt in a particular case, but the law stands. Nobody can ever teach that evil is permitted, no matter the circumstances. You are misreading St Thomas Aquinas if you think otherwise. A simple analogy: if someone runs a red light because they have a passenger in need of emergency medical treatment, the fact remains that the driver breaks the law if he goes through the red light – no matter the circumstances. In court, however, the judge may take account of the mitigating circumstances and pass a light sentence or perhaps no sentence at all. What he will NEVER do is say “you didn't break the law.” Nor will any police officer advise someone to run a red light. All advice will be to drive safely within the law. Now, that's a simple analogy from a human law, but it serves the purpose. Individuals must always conform to the law. The law does not conform to individual circumstances.

    Since you think I am lying in what I state about the Pope, seems odd that the entire world heard the same words while you and a few of your buddies heard the real thing.

    Well, here's what greater minds than mine heard and – please – note especially the reference to the difference between what Pope Benedict has said and what previous popes have taught on the subject.

    From Dici website:

    What Pope Benedict said:

    To the question, “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?” the pope answered, according to the authorized English translation of the original German version, “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.”

    To illustrate his statement, the pope gives only one example, that of a “male prostitute”. He considers that, in this particular case, it “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.”

    The case in question, therefore, concerns someone who, while already committing an act contrary to nature, for mercenary reasons, would take care not to infect his client fatally in addition… Legitimacy of condom use, regarded as a step toward moralization, in certain cases: that is the problem posed by the pope’s remarks in Light of the World.

    What Benedict did not say and what his predecessors have always said:

    “No ‘indication or necessity can turn an intrinsically immoral action into a moral and licit act” (Pius XII, Address to the Italian Catholic Union of Midwives, October 29, 1951).

    “No reason, however grave, may be put forward by which anything intrinsically against nature may become conformable to nature and morally good” (Pius XI, Encyclical Casti Connubii, 54).

    Now the use of condoms is contrary to nature inasmuch as it deflects a human act from its natural end. Their use therefore remains immoral always. END OF QUOTE

    Now, this all seems very clear to me. What about Popes Pius XI and XII then – are they lying, too?

  • EditorCT

    Did you read the linked statement in my post? How can you say it is not true, packed, as it is, with sound Catholic moral theology, quotes from previous popes etc? How can it not be true?

  • EditorCT

    Quote anything from any post of mine that supports your claim that I am a sedevacantist. That is a personal slur. I do my best to avoid personal insults, paulpriest, which is why I have resisted making the suggestion that you ought to change your username. I've refused to give in to the temptation to say that newcomers or visitors to this blog might think you are ordained and – thinking it would be most unkind – I've so far kept the thought to myself that that cannot help the Church in the current crisis. Have I given into the temptation to say that the modern cohort of clergy are theologically illiterate, but, well, your posts take that description to a new high? Have I? No. So, why do you call me a sedevacantist?

    And once again, paulpriest, would you quote what you think the Pope did say. If I've been misquoting him all this time, I'll be right on the button to say so and apologise profusely. Just you copy and paste his exact words onto a comment, addressed to moi. Please and thank you. Amen.

  • EditorCT

    I know exactly what you said paulpriest. And I asked you for examples. One for each of the scenarios you typed.

    Please oblige. Show me the difference in delivery by a priest teaching the various groups you name. Or, to make it simple for you, let's stick with the condom example. I'm a reasonable gal.

    You wrote (and I've copied and pasted from your post)

    A priest preaching in the Gorbals will preach differently in the Gambia.

    Show me how. Let's make the subject “condom use.” Show me how the priest will deliver the Truth about condoms in the Gorbals and then how he will deliver the Truth about condoms in the Gambia.


  • EditorCT

    There's a lot of folk on here, unable to see the wood for the trees.

  • FrHeythrop

    EditorCT “What about Popes Pius XI and XII then – are they lying, too?” No, they were just operating with a pre-modern anthropology that is no longer credible or appropriate.

  • paulpriest

    The Pope did not say that which you mendaciously claim.

  • paulpriest

    Change my username ? You mean use a name which isn't my own?

    Calling you a sedevacantist would be a compliment – because then you would at least have a modicum of justification for the way you persistently abuse, demean and degrade the present Pontiff – as you have with every one for the past 52 years. You're a scoundrel ma'am – you condemn liberals,progressives and modernists without realising you're the biggest modernist of the bunch.

    You're the one lying about what the Pope said – so I think you must have access to the exact words in order to distort it out of all proportion – and I have already repeatedly commented on the issue here.

    If you are sincere – and it's quite possible you are – then you are too stupid to comment on such issues without embarrassing yourself and scandalising that which you purport to defend..

  • paulpriest

    You can't help yourself can you ?
    It's there in front of you and still you're blind to it!
    He's NOT referring to condoms – he's referring to the intention as being a potential moralising factor – the motive HAS NOTHING to do with the means or the goal or the objective intrinsic moral disorder within the act or the grave sin already invoked.

    I repeat: You're either a scoundrel or you're downright stupid.
    The allocutio and casti connubii have NOTHING to do with this….you really need to read the Summa Theologiae on the nature of sin.
    On another thread you made great claims about not making any appeals to motive – yet this did not prevent your presumption of motive within this theoretical position by inserting 'mercenary' did it?

    Ma'am you seem to be a decent person – if you realised what you are actually doing here – I sincerely do not believe you'd be able to continue with it…

  • EditorCT


    I was quoting the priest on the Dici website who used the word “mercenary” – but I thought that's what prostitutes did – prostituted their bodies for money? So, what's wrong with saying that – that was the example given by the Pope himself. It's the exception to the rule for prostitutes that you are fighting so hard to defend.

  • EditorCT

    Would you explain how one “operates with a pre-modern anthropology”?

    Oh and does this “pre-modern anthropology” apply to any other sphere of human life, or only the sexual?

    I must have missed that class.

  • EditorCT

    Well, then, please tell me precisely what the Pope said. I've read it over and over again, and I see what I see.

    You put the Pope's exact words in quotation marks for me, paulpriest, please and thank you.

  • paulsays

    sedevacantist :) sounds like a good nickname to me,

  • Ndubuisi

    Yes EdiorCT,I think what d pope was saying is that One using CONDOM for d protecion of anothers life(which has the chance of being out of selfish love) is a sign towards Gods love i.e first step towards repentance even though the person still lives in sin but PAPA should say so if that is what he meant.But I ask,what about those who will not try to see it this way? and even if I try to see it from this angle I ask again,why does the church then cannonize people who died because they will not yield to a particular sin or even break a promise?or are we hearing that it would be humanizing of LIE or of BREAKING VOWs made to God if St. Philomina had gone to bed with the said husband against her vow to Christ and in the Bible the Maccabees? so that tomorrow our priest(or laymen) will go on sexual sprey breaking their vows to God in order to humanize sex?
    from Nigeria,Africa

  • Cmsnaith

    The Pope is both a theologian and a philosopher, and when he speaks it is as these things. Therefore, in understanding what he says, one must examine closely exactly what he said.

    “She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution,”

    Does not regard [the use of condoms] as a… moral solution. It is very clear here that the pope is saying the use of condoms is not moral (ie, immoral). It's wrong to use condoms. Okay, clear enough.

    “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.”

    This is where things get confusing for most people, I think. Is the pope, here, granting permission in “this or that case”? I don't think so. If you read it carefully, you see that the pope says “in the intention.” So the pope here seems to be distinguishing between two things involved in various circumstances. 1) the act itself, and 2) the intention. As the to act itself, he is saying that it is immoral and wrong. He essentially condemns the act of using condoms.

    So what's he saying about intention here? He's saying that within the intention of preventing infection there is a virtue, what he says is “a first step in a movement toward a different way… of living sexuality.” Is he saying using condoms is permissible, or allowable? No. What he's saying is that, in REAL and EXISTING cases, where (for example) a male prostitute already uses a condom for the sake of preventing infection, there is in that prostitute something hopeful. There is an attitude whereby “a first assumption of responsibility [exists], on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.”

    The pope is NOT saying that certain circumstances prevail which permit the use of condoms. He stated clearly that the Church does not regard the use of condoms as moral (and therefore not permissible). He's merely making an observation about a potential hope: that people who use condoms to prevent aids are assuming responsibility for their sexual partner's health, and taking an initial step in realizing that hey! not everything is permissible. That's a good first step if you ask me, and I think the pope's comment draws from the recent philosophical movements of our times toward subjectivism and relativism, whereby all things are permissible.