Assumption of Responsibility: Condoms and the Pope

11/23/2010 12:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

About six years ago, the morning after a blizzard, I walked a half-mile on a Saturday morning to hear Jesuit priest and peace activist Rev. Daniel Berrigan talk about reading The Bible. During the question-and-answer period, a gay man seated in front of me raised his hand to ask Berrigan, who was working at that time in HIV and AIDS ministry, for his Christian perspective on distribution of clean needles and condoms as means for preventing the spread of AIDS. Berrigan looked lovingly around the exquisite church sanctuary, paused to think, then said this: "Just because you can't do everything ... it doesn't mean you have to do nothing."

I thought of that response Sunday morning as I read the New York Times' account of the pope's interview with German journalist and author Peter Seewald. According to the Times, Benedict has said that there may be circumstances in which the of use of a condom might not be "condemned by the Church." According to the Times, the pope cited the example of a male prostitute as one such case: "There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility."

At first, I found it hard to know what to make of this, but the more I thought about the pope's statement, the more it struck me as maybe the first genuinely "pro-life" utterance to come out of the his pontificate.

It may be that lives are saved as a result of these words, which is something.

Yes, it would have been far better had he said "in the case of a male prostitute or a woman in a marriage to a man with HIV/AIDS," but it is unlikely that Benedict will extend such license to women. Because a condom used primarily to prevent the transmission of AIDS prevents pregnancy secondarily, the pope will stop short of approving the use of condoms by women even though he knows women in developing nations die of complying with Vatican policies on condom use every day, in great numbers.

When it comes to reproductive issues, few, if any, practicing Catholic women I know comply with Catholic teaching, but many throughout the world, especially those who are uneducated and poor, do follow the rules. Because condoms save lives, any hint of loosening up in Vatican policy relative to the use of condoms must be taken as good news. Should he approve the use of condoms for male sex workers, Joseph Ratzinger put himself on the slippery slope of heading in the right direction, which is how Catholic change happens.

Twenty-seven million of the 33 million people in the world who have AIDS live in nations in Africa, like Zimbabwe, Botswana and Swaziland, wherein the Roman Catholic Church is evangelizing strenuously. In these nations, Roman Catholic vocations (for the priesthood) are up and the Church is growing. The pope knows that 20 percent of the people in these regions are infected with HIV or AIDS. He knows that Roman Catholic teachers, medical personnel and even clerics working to feed, house, clothe, heal and educate people in these parts of the world also distribute condoms. I suppose it's possible the pope does not even entirely oppose this practice; after all, the dead make poor catechumens.

The pope knows that in developing nations women often lack a political voice, that marital rape is often not considered a crime, that women are especially vulnerable in cultures in which the ability to father many children is seen as an outward sign of a man's virility and that this cultural value when combined with Catholic teaching on sexuality constitutes a double threat to women who are uneducated and indigent. Certainly, long experience has taught the pope that women who lack economic and political freedom are easier to subjugate, that requiring women to give birth to large families is a good way to ensure their powerlessness and that women who have too many children are easier to govern.

Catholic women who live with HIV-positive men and comply with church teaching on birth control give birth to more children than they can feed, children born with the virus and babies too weak to survive infancy. When they finally succumb to the disease, such women often leave these children orphaned. Obviously Catholic policy on condom use is all the more murderous in areas in which medications to prevent HIV from becoming full-blown AIDS are unavailable or unaffordable.

Fortunately, the majority of Catholic workers in AIDS-ravaged areas don't give a damn what the guy in Prada shoes has to say on the matter of condoms and HIV.

Six or seven years ago, Vatican approval of the use of condoms under certain circumstances for the prevention of AIDS seemed imminent, but Ratzinger shut the conversation down, and compounded his sin by informing the world that condoms were ineffective in preventing the spread of AIDS. The overwhelming majority of the world's epidemiology experts beg to differ; there is little doubt that distribution and use of condoms is the best way to arrest and prevent the spread of AIDS.

Maybe the pope feels guilty. A few years ago, Joseph Ratzinger, an accomplished intellectual by anyone's measure, informed the faithful that condoms do not work. Now he appears to be saying otherwise: that the use of condoms -- at least for male sex workers-- does indeed prevent the spread of AIDS. Thus, the pope and his hypothetical male prostitute can be said to have in common an opportunity to take, as the pope said, "a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility."

The 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae is often cited in discussions of the Vatican's reasoning relative to reproductive issues. I have read Humane Vitae in translation a few times, and each time I do, I am struck by how open it seems to interpretation. Perhaps it is Humanae Vitae's broad poetic nature that has made it possible for the Vatican to find within it cause enough to endorse the NFP method of birth control. NFP stands for "Natural Family Planning," a glorified and updated version of the rhythm method, with basal temperature taking and a protracted ("ecological") breastfeeding component added on. Not only does the hierarchy endorse NFP, but parishes even offer Catholic couples instruction in NFP. Though unreliable it might be, NFP does prevent unwanted pregnancy.

Whereas a strict construction reading of Humanae Vitae would easily hold that a Catholic couple who elects to forgo sex while the wife is ovulating violates moral principles spelled out in Humanae Vitae, the Vatican's selective interpretation of the encyclical is more generous -- and adequately broad to justify natural birth control. We are reminded by the Vatican's whole-hearted support of NFP that Humanae Vitae is not to be read verbatim, and that the employment of latex, though prohibited when used in the service of contraception, may be acceptable to the Vatican when used to preserve human life.

Some interesting questions are raised: Do prostitutes care whether the use of condoms is canonically licit? Does Humanae Vitae apply if the latex is not used with the intent to prevent pregnancy? Is the pontiff twisted enough to offer the license to use condoms to men alone?

Only a pope with the great moral courage necessary to challenge the Vatican's long tradition of misogyny could approve the use of condoms by Catholic women married to HIV positive men. Ratzinger is no such man or pope. But maybe he has the mettle to do something.

If the pope can increase the number of men who use condoms, if he can take "a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility," he will have done something.

Which is, at least, not nothing.