op-ed

The pope, condoms, and Pandora’s Box

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A large hullabaloo has arisen after the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, leaked some comments the pope made regarding condom use in an upcoming book.  Some media outlets have declared that the pope has now actually changed the Church’s millennia-old teaching on the evil of contraceptives.

But what did the pope actually say?  In Peter Seewald’s upcoming book-interview with the pope, entitled Light of the World, the pope said the following about the use of condoms in the case of prostitutes:

“[The Church] of course does not regard it [condom use] 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.”

Before analyzing the pope’s words, it should be noted that this was the pope speaking in an interview for a book, not the pope writing in his official capacity as chief teacher of the Church.  Nothing contained in this book demands the submission of mind and will required of Catholics for a magisterial declaration of the pope.

Now, to look at the quote itself.  Essentially, the pope said two things

1. Condom use isn’t actually a moral solution.  The pope is not changing the Church’s stance that one cannot morally obstruct either the unitive or procreative ends of sexual love.

2. He is theorizing that, perhaps, the use of a condom by someone in a prostitute’s situation might indicate that, on a subjective level, a person is moving towards embracing a more positive approach to sexuality.

This is obviously a somewhat nuanced thing to say, to hold that an immoral act could spring from a positive motive, or that it might signal a positive interior change.  It was also — in my opinion, and with all due respect to this pope whom I deeply admire — imprudent to say, as is evident from the overblown, inaccurate response from secular media sources, and the resulting confusion among faithful Catholics.

Unfortunately, this is not the first such PR nightmare of Benedict’s pontificate.  From the pope’s address in Regensburg regarding Islam, to the lack of an effective response to the wildly unjust accusations against the pope regarding alleged cover-ups of sexual abuse claims, to the removal of excommunication from a bishop who the Vatican didn’t realize was a Holocaust denier, this pontificate has experienced one PR disaster after another.  Why?

First, this pope and the media are as poorly suited to each other as a vegan and KFC. Benedict is a nuanced, deep-thinking, quiet, shy egghead who makes very fine distinctions on difficult theological and moral questions, and who has spent his life writing scholarly works for audiences who are capable of understanding such fine distinctions.  The media is a hostile mob of ignoramuses.  They don’t want to recognize distinctions, they hate the Church, and they want to see Benedict look ridiculous and fail.

But beyond Benedict’s incompatibility with the media, this is another example of the blithering incompetence of the Vatican’s PR and media people, who once again failed to protect the Holy Father from mishap, and who were again reactive instead of proactive in dealing with the fallout.  In fairness to the pope, all of us are capable of saying something regrettable with a microphone in our face.  Because the pope makes so many public statements every year, he needs a PR team to keep him from accidentally saying something unnecessarily controversial, but they fail him time and again.

As Catholic newsblog Creative Minority Report pointed out, the Vatican’s PR team almost certainly had the rights to strike from this book-interview anything they wanted, and they didn’t think to strike this very easily misunderstood statement.  Further, the Vatican’s official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, was the publication that actually leaked the contents of the book while they were still under embargo, an infuriating, biting-the-hand-that-feeds-you, selfish, moronic move by an increasingly bizarre newspaper.  (This is the same publication whose editorial board thought it proper to publish a “greatest rock and pop albums of all time” list, and to announce that, after thorough analysis, they had determined Homer Simpson to be Catholic.  Because that’s the kind of analysis you really need from the Vatican’s newspaper.)

If the Vatican’s PR team worked for the PR department of any Fortune 500 company, they all would have been fired years ago, starting with the secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (under whose umbrella of responsibilities the Vatican’s media relations fall), and going down to the papal spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi.  Fr. Lombardi has actually directly misrepresented the pope on at least two occasions, and his responses to this scandal have only deepened the levels of popular misunderstanding for the pope’s statements.

The solution to these media headaches?  I’m not sure if there is one, at least not immediately.  Cardinal Bertone is due to retire shortly, and if the pope moves out of the good-ol’-boy network of Italian bishops and appoints somebody who can get things done, it could have a salutary effect.  Unfortunately, in the meantime, the pope is way too much of a kindly, forgiving gentleman just to go in and start firing people.

Some have posited the theory that the pope has intentionally said controversial things to arouse discussion.  Unfortunately, to this writer, it feels like he’s just opening Pandora’s Box.

John Gerardi is a student at Notre Dame Law School. He writes on topics relating to religion and society.