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The Pope and Condoms

There has been a great deal of confusion about Pope Benedict XVI’s recent statements in the book of interviews Light of the World (Ignatius Press, 2010) concerning the morality of using condoms.  Actually, what Benedict says is quite clear, but contemporary sound-byte discourse struggles to follow reasoned and nuanced argument.  Here are some clarifications.

  • Does the pope believe homosexual intercourse is moral?  No.
  • Does the pope believe heterosexual intercourse outside of marriage is moral?  No.
  • Does the pope believe that it is more moral to use condoms for sexual intercourse outside of marriage than not to use them? Yes.

The last question is the crucial one in this discussion, and the pope answered correctly.  Why? 

  • Using a condom can prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
  • By using a condom, even in a sexually immoral act, the person has shown some concern for the other person’s wellbeing.  Benedict states, “this 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” (p. 119).
  • Furthermore, the use of a condom with “the intention of reducing the risk of infection” can be “a first step in a move toward a different way, a more human way of living sexuality” (p. 119).

The media’s focus on the narrow issue of condom use misses a crucial ethical contribution by the pope.  The Christian faith rightly contends that the modern age’s fundamental assumption that freedom and limits are mutually exclusive is erroneous.  Morality, sexual or otherwise, invokes limits on our actions and desires in the name of love.  In doing so it sets us on the path to freedom.  Freedom comes not from the absence of limits but rather is the result of becoming a morally mature human being who lives in love.

Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).  Freedom comes from being a disciple of Jesus Christ.  It results in becoming like him who is like God, and “God is love” (I John 4:8).

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