I’ve been away on retreat with the students and had to catch up on work yesterday. So I’m late to the conversation on this one, but I have some observations on Peter Seewald’s new book, Light of the World where he interviews Pope Benedict XVI, a person he had interviewed in an older book (a must read) while he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. In particular, the Pope was asked questions on the AIDS crisis and the use of condoms to combat that, especially in Africa.

The media has spun the words of the Pope to appear to sanction condom use, which ISN’T what the Pope said. He has stated an opinion that has been the opinion of many moral theologians for many years. The fact that the Pope shares that opinion, even privately, is indeed a breaking news story worthy of headlines. But it hardly changes church teaching on the matter. We need to remember that responding to a question by a reporter isn’t the same as the Pope making an infallible statement, or even writing a encyclical and functioning in an official teaching capacity.

But more to the point, the head of the Vatican Press Office offers the best clarification I’ve seen so far. The USCCB media blog has his statement in full but this snippet is the one that I think is the money quote

“…the Pope considers an exceptional circumstance in which the exercise of sexuality represents a real threat to another person’s life. In such a case, the Pope does not morally justify the disordered practice of sexuality but maintains that the use of a condom to reduce the danger of infection can be ‘a first act of responsibility’, ‘a first step on the road toward a more human sexuality’, rather than not using it and exposing the other person to a mortal risk.

In short, it means that the use of a condom by someone who always or often engages in risky sexual behaviors can show that God is working on them a bit to consider a more human way to live sexually than they presently are. This “first act” is better than not taking any precautions at all.

It doesn’t mean that the church says that if you want to have sex outside of marriage (or even inside marriage) that it’s OK if you use a condom. However, if you’re going to have sex anyway (meaning: you’ve already decided to sin) and you don’t want to get HIV or some other disease, then using a condom could be seen as a “first act of responsibility” that shows some responsibility for the human person. It’s still a sinful act, but it at least shows some moral responsibility. The road to conversion is slow and everyone gets their on their own time. This could be that first step on a very long journey towards a more healthy sexuality.

Now there’s a lot that we could say about this. A colleague of mine made an interesting point: “Well, obviously this doesn’t mean that the use of condoms is “intrinsically evil.” Meaning it’s always wrong. I think we can say that’s accurate. Obviously it can lead to some good in certain instances.

The second point is even more interesting I think. The more conservative side of the church has railed against this kind of argument for years. Now that the Pope has opined this, the spin doctors are fighting for control of the story and offering the same opinion on the subject that moral theologians have been offering for years on this topic. You can’t have it both ways.

I’d also add that in the past when John Paul II said things in private interviews that there were many who would jump on his words and claim that he was speaking infallibly. Many would point out that he wasn’t only to be smacked down and told that they were splitting hairs. But as soon as the Pope offers an opinion that doesn’t meet with their right-wing agenda, then suddenly he’s not teaching anymore, but just offering a private opinion.

In many ways it’s good to discern the difference. In this case I would offer that he’s not changing church teaching but rather offering the position of moral theologians as something for us to consider as church.

I haven’t even gotten to what he said about heath care–which is sure to annoy the most staunchest republican Catholic. We’ll take that up later in the day.