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Pope models condom conversation


CondomsAny church statement to do with sexuality will lead commentators to pick through its entrails for signs. Pope Benedict's remarks on condoms have offered particularly rich pickings. Speculation immediately arose whether his statement might apply to married couples where one partner has AIDS, and whether indeed it heralds the collapse of Catholic condemnation of contraception.

In my view the Pope's words were less significant for their content than for their style. He engaged in a conversation about moral values that did not confine itself to principles, but entered the circumstances of human lives. This style of conversation has been lacking in the public statements of the contemporary Catholic Church.

In Catholic reflection on what matters in human life and how it is to be lived, there have been two kinds of conversation.

The first is an abstract conversation about values. In Catholic teaching on sexuality, sexual expression speaks the language of love, and sexual intercourse is tied to marriage. It should also be open to the possibility of passing on life. In that understanding of sexuality and its association with love and respect, condoms have no place.

This is an extraordinarily high ideal. It demands and generates a parallel conversation. This pastoral conversation engages with people who wish to live well, but whose weaknesses, situation or understanding hold them from embodying fully the values commended by Catholic teaching.

This conversation has been typically conducted in Confession and in spiritual direction. People could relate the large principles of Catholic moral teaching to the reality of their lives and to their individual spiritual journeys. It kept their faith in play.

The challenge has always been to bridge these conversations and to ensure that there is consistency between Christian values and the advice that was given to people, and that God's work in the lives of sinful people received proper respect.

This was done in part by looking carefully at the situations in which people found themselves, and partly by recognising that in human lives the less bad was often a step towards the good. For a meths drinker the decision to choose to wipe himself out on port instead can represent a huge growth in self respect.

In recent years, many sections of the Catholic world, including the Vatican, have felt that the moral values upheld in Catholic teaching, particularly those to do with sexuality and with the value of human life, are under threat in Western cultures. They believe that any accommodation to difficult situations will be seized on in order to attack the values.

So the pastoral conversation has been neglected in favour of a strong assertion of moral principle, whether the principle bear on the use of condoms in dealing with AIDS or on the prolongation of life. This relative neglect of the pastoral conversation has given the impression that the Church cares for abstract morality more than for people. It has also made it more difficult to commend the Christian vision of life.

The interview with Pope Benedict was significant because in it he modelled a pastoral conversation that dealt creatively with the situation and the personal journey of ordinary human beings.

He engaged with the case of a male prostitute affected by AIDS who chooses to use a condom. He said, it 'can be a first step in the direction of moralisation, 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'.

He recognised that in the intention of reducing infection there can be 'a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality'.

The Pope here recognised the importance of the prostitute's intention in evaluating his action. He also recognised that this action needed to be set in the context of a moral journey in which even an ambiguous action can have a positive significance.

From this perspective, the Pope's words certainly do not adumbrate a general approval of condoms. They reinforce the priority of the moral dimension in human life. Their real significance is to recognise the reality that God calls each person on a unique moral journey which will include weakness and sinfulness, and which will sometimes face them with difficult moral situations.

They reveal the importance of recovering a pastoral as well as a theoretical moral language to speak encouragingly of this journey. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, pope, benedict, condoms, aids, africa



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Existing comments

One line carries this article: 'the reality that God calls each person on a unique moral journey which will include weakness and sinfulness'. And to paraphrase Anthony De Mello, too often we leap in and thwart God's intentions.

Patricia Taylor | 23 November 2010  

Andrew, I wholeheartedly agree that the pastoral conversation is long overdue. The Catholic Church's commitment to abstract moral principles without consideration of the context in which decsions are made is a key reason why I and many other Catholics under 40 regard Church teaching as being of marginal importance in making life's big decisions, whether on sexual behaviour, contraception or any other issue.

Paul Locke | 23 November 2010  

As a Catholic and the founder of Australia's smallest AIDS-care organisation which has cared for people living with HIV/AIDS for almost 25 years and has had the cold shoulder from the church for supporting the use of condoms, I very much welcome the news that Pope Benedict has now accepted and publicly recognised that condoms do indeed reduce the risk of HIV infection.

Essentially, he has put a finger into the wounded side of the Body of Christ. It is what millions have waited to hear.

We would now urge the Pope, and his fellow bishops, to very quickly look to the plight of married people whose spouse is HIV infected. This would have been a much better example, with a much greater urgency.

Condoms are not the only weapon in the armoury against the AIDS pandemic, but their life-saving role is undeniable.

On this occasion, we recall how over 20 years ago, we were strongly urged into membership of Catholic Social Services Victoria, and years later quietly dumped and archdiocesan funding support axed.We remain grateful for those bishops, priests and religious who continued..and still do support us.

That break opened up a new era for us..it plunged us into the dreadful realities of the wider world..into the heart of the AIDS pandeminc in Africa itself..where we came to build schools in Malawi that are educating thousands of AIDS orphans.All can be read on our www.aids.net.au website.

Brian Haill President of the Australian AIDS Fund Inc Frankston (Vic)
PO Box 1347,

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 23 November 2010  

"In Catholic teaching on sexuality, sexual expression speaks the language of love, and sexual intercourse is tied to marriage. It should also be open to the possibility of passing on life."

The primary reason of the marriage act is for procreation of children and their education.


Trent | 23 November 2010  

If only he had mentioned women and children in the principle so that the largest growing Catholic audience in Africa could also become self-awareness to 'assumption of responsibility'.

Generally men who are promiscuous and go home to infect and impregnate wives leave orphans.

What a hell on earth with women and children the victims.

'The value of human life' is often practised on the ground but is often the fall-out of Catholic teachings. eg. My Great Grandmother was infected with syphillus from soldier husband in WW1, died insane at 28, with 3 orphans. Her mother was in the asylum too - like HIV there can be a long gestation.

Ironically the Govt needed their soldiers for war and had health officials in brothels to hand out condoms etc and there was a huge drop of infection rate - and unnecessary suffering.

I wish the Pope would support all those women to be alive to look after the kids instead of ending in huge orphanages, a ready supply of sexual slaves and soldiers for milita.
Biology and spirituality tempered with reality please!

Julie | 23 November 2010  

The pope also acknowledged publicly that condoms prevent the spread of AIDS. Two years ago he claimed condoms cause the disease to spread.

Michele Somerville | 23 November 2010  

This response to the media attention to the popes words on addressing the human suffering caused by the continuing spread of Aids is really worth reading. I hope it means more conversations at the pastoral level this style of dialogue based on the real experience of people and pas in challenging moral dilemmas will flourish.

Denise Coghlan | 23 November 2010  

The heart of a foetus beats as early as the 7th week. That is life. At conception the cell of zygote is supplied with blood from which it develops and starts to grow and that is life being supplied. And the Almighty Lord said " Life is in the blood...(open and shut case)......check it out...

Peter | 23 November 2010  

Trent says "The primary reason of the marriage act is for procreation of children and their education".

For the past 340 years Anglicans have had a wider set of reasons:

First, it was 'ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.

Secondly it was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ's body.

Thirdly, it was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
(Marriage service, BCP)

This places sexual pleasure in marriage on an equal footing with procreation, and justifies the acceptance of contraception in that church.

Michael Grounds | 23 November 2010  

The once persuasive power of abstractly presented morality was supported by the perception that a whole group of people(clergy and religious) were living by these abstract principles, the 'less pure' challenged to follow their example.

The fall out of the abuse issue has cut the mustard on this institutional pretense and perhaps is now contributing to the possibility of a conversational awakening where the truth may possibly help us travel more honestly together.Thank you Andrew for picking up the nuances of Roman speak.

Fr. Paul Goodland | 23 November 2010  

I admire Andrew's effort to get something positive out of another Vatican mis-communication.

Surely the Catholic faithful and the Catholic wavering deserve better than a casual example of an AIDS prostitute showing concern for his client's health by wearing a condom when the Holy Father tries to illustrate that even in the carrying out of a "disordered act" a person could show concern for his neighbour.

What concerns me here is that the Pope uses a "disordered sexual act" being carried out by a sick person to illustrate that such a person can be making a moral judgment according to his reading of the situation. He is exercising his conscience.
Why couldn't the Pope have used the example of a healthy man having sexual intercourse with his partner as an expression of their mutual love and physical attraction but when his partner cries out that she is terrified of becoming pregnant he decides to use a condom. Like the hypothetical male AIDS prostitute shows concern for his client.

I would prefer His Holiness to express his love and concern for those people who are faced with having to make delicate moral decisions in the area of human sexuality.

Uncle Pat | 23 November 2010  

Perhaps the Pope feels that actions should be judged by their intentions and outcomes rather than whether they conform to some artificial absolute rule which is why this statement is not in conflict with his previous one.

Condom use to limit the risk of infection during consensual sex is acceptable even if you do not approve of the act itself; whereas condom use to allow men in Africa to use women and girls as objects for their pleasure is not and may make the problem worse by normalising this expoitation.
It is now time to apply the same reasoning to contraception in general.By breaking the nexus between sex and pregnancy they have allowed for the coarsening and cheapening of love and commitment and there are many who have taken advantage of that. However unmarried people have been having sex and married people have been committing adultery long before contraception made it easier and it is debateable whether this behaviour has been significantly changed.

There are also tens of millions of good women whose lives have been enriched by the flexibility contraception brings and who have been enabled to enrich the lives of others. The same flexibility has allowed their husbands the opportunity to share childrearing duties thereby strengthening not weakening family life.

I do not believe, and I do not think most Catholics believe, that contraception within a faithful and loving marriage is sinful.

Aidan Foy | 23 November 2010  

"The relative neglect of the pastoral conversation has given the impression that the Church cares more for abstract morality than for the people". This is a powerful statement and a consoling one for those who struggle with questions of conscience. Well done Andrew!

Claude Rigney | 29 November 2010  

Well said, Uncle Pat !!!

Noel Will | 01 December 2010  

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