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Pope models condom conversation

  • 23 November 2010

Any 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