Faculty View Pope’s Comments Through Theological Lens


Published: December 10, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI, a known conservative in the Catholic community, has turned heads with recent comments on contraception made to German journalist, Peter Seewald, in the book-length interview, “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs.” Fordham faculty members weigh in on the implications these comments could have on the future of Christian social norms.

The comments, originally printed in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, are the first to be made by a Pope in reference to contraceptive methods since former Pope John Paul XVI in 1968, when he released his “humanae vitae” letter reaffirming the Church’s stance on abortion and contraception. His statement caused much controversy within the Catholic community because it suggests that using condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS between partners is justifiable.

According to Rev. Michael Tueth, S.J., professor of communication and media studies, Pope Benedict’s comments are “consistent with the theological principle of double effect.” Although not stated by the Pope himself, this principle, which contends that an act is not morally wrong if the intention for that act is good, could be used to explain the change of opinion on the matter.

“There are many theologians around the world who have used double effect to argue for the use of condoms [with regards to] HIV/AIDS or disease prevention in general,” Maureen O’Connell, professor of theology, said. The Catholic Church still maintains that condoms should not be used as a form of contraception.

“It is a very legalistic way to think about moral action.” O’Connell said, “It isolates the action, the different components of the action and doesn’t always take into consideration the person and the context. Those things are very important in discerning [the morality of the act].”

Although the Pope expressed his opinion on condom use, he is not altering Church doctrine. “The Pope’s comments are not Church teaching,” Charles Camosy, professor of Christian ethics, said. “His point was about a single person choosing to use a condom to not infect his or her partner with a disease.”

The Vatican does not have any specific teaching about condom use to prevent HIV/AIDS, which opens up the topic up for debate among Catholics.

“People are woefully uninformed so people just don’t know what [Church teaching on condom use] is,” Camosy said, “This certainly opened up discussion for areas that there is no teaching about.”

The Associated Press reported that the Pope’s comments “implied that he was referring primarily to homosexual sex, when condoms aren’t being used as a form of contraception.” The Vatican later clarified that Pope Benedict extended his comments to apply to all “males, females and transgendered people.”

These comments came as a surprise after Pope Benedict XVI received much criticism for earlier proclamations that condom use would in fact increase the spread of HIV/AIDS.

According to Camosy, the Pope intended for his recent comments to be the “first step in thinking about sex more morally.”

O’Connell said, “The pope is more media savvy than we give him credit for. He was intending to float this information. That is my speculation.”

During Paul XVI’s papal term, he commissioned a group of lay people to help inform him of what position he should take, according to O’Connell. She also said the current Pope’s opinion could have also been caused by new experiences with members of the Church.

“People are suggesting he made a visit to Africa. I think that a social justice issue becomes real when you meet people. It changes your opinion,” O’Connell said.

“The Pope was the defender of doctrine, now he is the pastor of a giant parish.” O’Connell said, “Having this forces you to have a more hands-on approach rather than just a juristic or legal thinking of moral problems.”

The Pope’s justification for condom use based on double effect could be seen as revolutionary, but O’Connell said, “People don’t know that [double effect] has been part of Catholic tradition since Thomas Aquinas [in the 13th century]. It’s nothing new to moral theology.”

Double effect is also used to justify female contraceptive pills, if the pill is being used for medicinal purposes. Camosy said, “Maybe the same could appeal to condom use. A proportionate reason could be ‘I don’t want to give my partner a terminal disease.’ If you had intended [to use it to prevent pregnancy], it would be wrong according to the Church.”

The Pope never specified that his comments apply only to people within the confines of marriage, leaving the comments open to those who participate in extramarital sex.

“It will be interesting to see if this is opening the door to more official conversation,” O’Connell said. “I think we can see what has surfaced as a reason that there is work that needs to be done on both sides in terms of seeing the wisdom of what the Pope has said.”

O’Connell explained double effect as “evaluating moral action based on intent, not end result.” It is possible for condoms to inhibit procreation, which is morally impermissible according to the Catholic Church, but it can be justified if a person “permits the bad side effect, but doesn’t intend the bad side effect. If you intend the negative then it is morally bad,” O’Connell said.

Organizations such as UNAIDS are welcoming the Pope’s comments to support HIV prevention. Executive director of UNAIDS Michel Sidibé said in a press release, “This move recognizes that responsible sexual behavior and the use of condoms have important roles in HIV prevention.”

However, not all Catholics agree that condoms will help stop the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Leonardo Palombi, who works with the Sant’Egidio Community’s Dream program of AIDS prevention and treatment in Africa, told America, the national Catholic weekly magazine, that Africa has been flooded with condoms, and the disease continues to spread “because of a lack of responsibility on the part of men, a lack of respect for women and the lack of antiretroviral treatment for all who need it.”

“I wonder if all of that [sex trafficking business, HIV/AIDS pandemic] were going on at the time of ‘humanae vitae’ that those things would be taken into consideration. Paul VI did want to hear from real people and what their experience was showing them about this.”