By Allen, John L., Jr.
National Catholic Reporter , Vol. 47, No. 4
Depending upon who's doing the talking, Pope Benedict XVI's recent comments on condoms, suggesting that in the context of HIV/AIDS the use of a condom could be "a first step in the direction of moralization," either represent no innovation whatsoever or a stunning game-changer.
The irony is that both reactions may be right on the money.
To be sure, Benedict has not reversed traditional Catholic teaching that to be fully moral, sexual intercourse must take place in the context of heterosexual marriage, and it must be open to new life. Even in the context of HIV/AIDS, the pontiff is clear that the Catholic church does not regard condoms as a "real or moral solution."
Yet at the level of pastoral application rather than abstract principles, Benedict also seems to have revived an old bit of Catholic moral reasoning called "counseling the lesser evil." It holds that if someone cannot be dissuaded from behavior the church regards as sinful, then it's permissible to urge the person to at least minimize the harm.
As applied to HIV/AIDS, Benedict's words may therefore license pastors to sanction the use of condoms in concrete cases, even if the church still regards that behavior as less than the moral ideal.
The comments came in a book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald, published in English as Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times. Technically speaking, the book carries no weight as official Catholic teaching, and Benedict openly stipulates that a pope's private opinions can be wrong.
The book is nevertheless fascinating as a window onto the pope's thinking.
While defending traditional teaching against artificial birth control, Benedict suggests that when the intent is to prevent transmission of a life-threatening disease, the use of a condom might have positive moral value.
Benedict offered the example of a male prostitute, though the Vatican later clarified that his point wasn't limited just to that context.
In such situations, the pope said, the use of a condom "can be a first step in the direction of 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."
In one sense, those comments are hardly revolutionary.
Quietly styling condoms as a "lesser evil" vis-a vis HIV/AIDS has long been the practice in many parts of the Catholic world, even in the absence of a papal warrant. Moreover, Benedict's logic hardly comes out of the blue: As far back as 1995, then-Archbishop William Levada, today the Vatican's top doctrinal official, told the San Francisco Chronicle that if someone is determined to have sex in a way inconsistent with God's plan, then "it could be the better part of their choice to use the protections that are available."
In recent years, several cardinals have argued that there are circumstances in which a condom may be the best available choice. Mexican Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, for example, the Vatican's former top official for health care, said in 2005 that an uninfected wife would be justified in asking that her infected husband use a condom if he insists on having sex, since it would amount to "self-defense. …