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The Pope's message turned upside-down

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 24, 2010

Today, what the world thinks Pope Benedict said is almost exactly the opposite of what he clearly intended.

In Chapter 11 of his new book, Light of the World, Pope Benedict mounts a strong defense of his argument that condom use is not the appropriate means of fighting the AIDS epidemic.

This week, millions of people received the impression that the Pope made precisely the opposite argument-- that he recommended condoms as a defense against AIDS—due to the most spectacular public-relations bungling of this pontificate.

“Pope confirms his approval of condom use against disease,” reads the headline in the Boston Globe. The identical story, running in the New York Times, carries an only slightly less inaccurate headline: “After Condom Remarks, Vatican Confirms Shift.” The London Daily Mail took the prize, however, with this appalling interpretation of the Pope’s remarks: “Just days after the historic change of attitude to sex, he declared the contraception can be used by anyone if it prevents HIV.”

In fact, Pope Benedict made absolutely no public statement on this subject yesterday. These newspaper stories referred to a new “clarification” offered by the papal spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi. Having previously confirmed, quite accurately, that the Pope intended no change in Church teaching, Father Lombardi had questioned the Pontiff on a specific point. In Light of the World, the Pope makes a highly speculative point about the morality of condom use, using the example of a male prostitute. Some readers concluded that the Pope was referring specificially to homosexual acts. But when questioned on that point, Father Lombardi told reporters, the Pope said that the same moral reasoning would apply, “whether it’s a man or woman or a transsexual.”

Right. The Pope’s reasoning applies to a male or female or transsexual prostitute.

Is it really necessary to point out that someone who is engaged in prostitution has moral problems that extend beyond the use of contraceptives?

Pope Benedict said that for such a person, the decision to use a condom might show a flickering of moral sensibility. Thousands of pundits leapt to the conclusion that the Pontiff was endorsing condom use. It would be equally logical to say that he was endorsing prostitution!

When the Pope made this point in the interview that formed the basis for Light of the World, his interlocutor, journalist Peter Seewald, immediately raised the obvious question: ‘’Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?” The Pope replied:

She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

Any objective reader who digests the Pope’s full argument, as it is presented in Light of the World, recognizes that his emphasis is on the first portion of that sentence: the insistence that condoms do not offer a “real or moral solution” to the AIDS epidemic.

Yes, the Pope does go further; one cannot lightly dismiss the latter part of the sentence. But in no way can it be interpreted as an invitation to doubt the Church’s constant teaching.

Ironically, just a few pages earlier in the book, the Pope had admitted that he was caught off guard by the reaction to his famous (or notorious) Regensburg address. He explained that he had intended to deliver an academic lecture, and not taken into account that his words would be interpreted as a political statement. Now, perhaps, this brilliant scholar is being reminded anew that he cannot overlook the way his statements might be distorted.

In an earlier comment on this debacle, I blamed L’Osservatore Romano for publishing the Pope’s remarks out of context. Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, John Allen reveals that the Vatican newspaper actually did not break an embargo on the book, as I had charged; L’Osservatore Romano had the publisher’s permission to print the excerpt in question. Allen suggests, therefore: “If you want to be mad at somebody over the timing, try the Vatican Publishing House.” I value John Allen’s advice, and in this case I am fully prepared to take it. I am angry with the Vatican Publishing House, too.

Nor is the premature publication of this excerpt the only reason to be angry. Why didn’t the Vatican publisher warn Pope Benedict that his statement was bound to be distorted? Why didn’t the Pope himself recognize that risk? Why haven’t other Vatican officials offered real clarifications—as opposed to the turgid and confusing statements from Father Lombardi? There is plenty of blame to go around.

However the blame is allocated, the net result is the same: The Pope tried to make one argument, and the world now thinks that he said the opposite. How many such grotesque errors must this pontificate endure, before we see a real effort to clean up the way the Vatican presents ideas to the public?

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: jflare293129 - Dec. 02, 2010 12:37 AM ET USA

    I still think the Pope acted quite appropriately. Those who twisted his words will twist them regardless. They did so when Christ walked the earth too, remember? Christ exhorted us to challenge the world without regard to the world's hate. We'll suffer for it, so what? I haven't seen many people in the West being martyred for Truth yet. Rather than tell the Pope to ease up, how 'bout if we pray for him--and ourselves--to make those challenging, difficult statements?! We love you, Papa!

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 29, 2010 1:40 PM ET USA

    Our bishop engaged in "high 5s" and colloquial jargon while visiting with the youth of the parish. Nonetheless, several parents insisted upon genuflection and a traditional kiss of His Excellency's ring. The bishop endured it, but he clearly preferred the "Joe Six-Pack" approach. The Holy Father must not follow suit, surrendering the dignity of his office by dismissing due formalities. The office of the papacy is sacred- set apart- for a reason. "Discretion is the better part of valor."

  • Posted by: John3822 - Nov. 28, 2010 12:23 PM ET USA

    I think this is much to do about nothing - no matter what the Pope says, there are those who will twist it. They twisted Jesus' words nicely - let the Pope speak the truth and those who are interested in the truth will not buy the false articles spread by those who have no love for the Church. Those who are not interested in the truth will believe anything that is told to them as long as it conforms to their thinking.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 27, 2010 12:11 PM ET USA

    The exasperation is something that tradition-minded Catholics have endured for decades. Engaging the enemy on his terms results in failure. The problem is one of orientation. The post-conciliar approach oriented to man and attempts to "update" the Church to contemporary sensibilities has failed. Yes,there are enemies within, but the ones treated like enemies are those traditional Catholics who desire nothing more than to rally with the Holy Father in restoring a truly Catholic orientation.

  • Posted by: Bellarminite1 - Nov. 26, 2010 2:11 PM ET USA

    Is this another case of wolves inside the hen house?

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Nov. 24, 2010 6:56 PM ET USA

    "Is it really necessary to point out that someone who is engaged in prostitution has moral problems that extend beyond the use of contraceptives?" YES, to atheistic people who want prostitution legalized and who see nothing wrong with exploiting others for their own pleasure, it IS necessary to point that out. The Vatican, and all Catholics, are going to have to parse extremely carefully to avoid being willfully misinterpreted. We must understand the enemy's thinking in order to defeat it.

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