Is the Pope Becoming Pastoral?

Last week we read some surprising news coming out of the Vatican: there might be some movement on the condom front (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Pope Benedict XVI, in the course of speaking with a German journalist, seemed to indicate that there are times when the use of a condom is permissible.

Peter Seewald interviewed the Pope in anticipation of publishing a book: Light of the World: The Pope, the World and Signs of the Times. They had collaborated on two previous books: The Ratzinger Report and Salt of the Earth. In the course of the interviews the Pope indicated that there may be times when it is permissible for someone to use a condom. He illustrated this by talking about a male prostitute who is HIV positive. He wishes to change his life but isn’t ready yet, and he doesn’t wish to spread the virus any further. The Pope feels that in this case it would be permissible for him to use a condom as a way of not spreading the virus while he continues to reform his life.

This has caused a great deal of confusion in the Catholic world given the historic (and histrionic) view toward condoms and other forms of birth control. Before we learned about AIDS and the role of HIV, condoms were almost exclusively used as birth control for heterosexual couples. Since the Catholic Church condemns all forms of birth control, condom use was always prohibited. In the 1980s gay men began to use condoms as a way to prevent the spread of AIDS, and it widened to include any couple who wished to practice “safe sex.” Unfortunately many groups (the Vatican included) responded to this by incorrectly claiming that condoms aren’t effective in stopping the virus. As recently as March, 2009 the Pope claimed that condoms could “aggravate” the spread of AIDS.

So what gives? The Catholic blogosphere is on fire with the question: “Has the Catholic Church changed its teaching?” The Vatican has gone to great lengths to claim it hasn’t, and in the final analysis, they’re right.

But it’s more complicated than that.

The Catholic Church still prohibits artificial birth control among married couples and any sexual activity among unmarried couples. Since the Catholic Church doesn’t recognize gay marriage, this includes all gay couples. The change has been not one of doctrine or teaching, but pastoral application.

In the past the Church has appeared (at least to me) to draw a bright line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Simply put, if you are committing a sin you need to stop. If you are practicing birth control or cheating your employees, there is no middle ground: stop and stop now. The Pope’s remarks appear to acknowledge that in the struggle to change our behavior, we sometimes need to take intermediate steps. I applaud this step and encourage the Pope to continue doing what he’s doing.

I mentioned earlier that this has created some activity in the Catholic blogosphere. Several writers are getting it right, but many are getting it wrong. My favorite is a string on the Catholic Answers forum.

My final word on this (and I get the final word because it’s my blog) is my hope that this increased interest in pastoral applications will lead the Pope and the Vatican to examine again some of their doctrines. The birth control stuff doesn’t bother me because most Catholic couples already cheerfully ignore this anyway. But I do hope that this leads to a sense of conversion (an intermediate step, if you will) to look again at Church stands that discriminate against women, homosexuals, and other members of our Church. We’ll see.

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