What the pope is saying about sexuality


By Frank Wessling

By this time it should be clear enough that Pope Benedict XVI only took up the subject of condom use on the narrow grounds of controlling AIDS, not to change Church teaching on contraception.

For several days after publication last week of his comments to a German interviewer the media exploded with speculation, as if the lid had come off a pressure chamber and momentous things could be coming.

Most of us have seen or heard the news. Asked about allowing condom use to control the spread of AIDS, the pope responded this way:

“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, … an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.”


When the Church says anything related to sex, the whole world pays attention, and this certainly followed that pattern.

If something momentous does come from fresh thinking and talk about how we behave sexually let’s hope it will include an appreciation of how important it is to be both honest and realistic with moral questions. This pope is deeply experienced in thinking through difficult issues. He models what we might call a Catholic resistance to shortcuts.

In this case, he seems to assume that we’re all smart enough to know — when we stop to think about it — that there’s a difference between judging the sexual activity of a prostitute and that of a married couple. One is already on an immoral path, so the use of a condom in order to save a client from AIDS is an indication of at least some moral consciousness. With a healthy married couple, the condom’s significance is different. It is meant as a control on their fertility and a barrier to the possibility of a new human life.

Pope Benedict hasn’t suggested that the contraceptive use of condoms in marriage looks any different to the Church today than it did yesterday. But this is an opportunity to bring up something he wrote a few years ago indicating that he wants more interest in searching for the ways of virtue in sexuality and less obsession with the ways of sin.

 In a 1996 book, “Salt of the Earth,” he said he realized that keeping every act of sexual intercourse open to new life was a difficult teaching of the Church and hard for married couples to follow. He sympathized, he said, but proposed that we focus differently, “less at the casuistry of individual cases and more at the major objectives that the Church has in mind.”

Those major objectives are three, he said. “The first and most fundamental is to insist on the value of the child in society …. to recover the original, true view that the child, the new human being, is a blessing” and not the burden or threat sometimes implied.

The second objective of the Church is to oppose a radical separation of sexuality from procreation. Benedict illustrated this with a reference to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” “in which sexuality is something completely detached from procreation.” Attitudes and meaning shift from seeing children in the context of relationships between men and women to seeing them as products open to manipulation.

Third is resisting the temptation to “resolve great moral problems simply with techniques, with chemistry” rather than by how we live.

These objectives of Church teaching on sexuality are often forgotten and ignored as we focus too tightly on methods of control and performance. The 1996 comments by Benedict were brought up last week by Peter Steinfels, a veteran Catholic journalist and co-director of the Center on Religion and Culture at New York City’s Fordham University. They help in keeping our balance if we intend to start another round of Church debate on sexuality and its uses.

Keep first things first. Using Steinfels’ words: “Openness to children as blessings, refusal of a drastic separation of sexuality from procreation, (and) recognition that moral problems cannot be resolved by technique or technological manipulation.” When we do that, it becomes possible to trust that our vision is true. Then it further becomes possible to treat difficulties in following the vision with some flexibility because a rejection of fundamental values is not at stake.

The pope did two things with his new comments on condoms. He offers new hope to people ministering in parts of the world where AIDS is a terrible problem, and he opens the entire topic of sexual morals for fresh discussion in the Church. Let’s try to stay balanced in the winds to come.

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