In 1987, a committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published The Many Faces of AIDS. The document adopted a mixed message on condom use, ostensibly upholding Church teaching against it while at the same time endorsing “educational efforts” that could “include accurate information about prophylactic devices or other practices proposed by some medical experts as potential means of preventing AIDS.”
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and now Pope Benedict XVI, opposed that document. In a pointed letter, he warned “against engaging in compromises which may even give the impression of trying to condone practices which are immoral, for example, technical instructions in the use of prophylactic devices.”
He drew the US bishops’ attention to an article in L’Osservatore Romano that condemned condom use without equivocation: “I quote, ‘To seek a solution to the problem of infection by promoting the use of prophylactics would be to embark on a way not only insufficiently reliable from the technical point of view, but also and above all unacceptable from the moral aspect. Such a proposal for ‘safe’ or at least ‘safer’ sex—as they say—ignores the real cause of the problem, namely, the permissiveness which, in the area of sex as in that related to other abuses, corrodes the moral fiber of the people.”
During his 2007 visit to the US, he sounded this warning again, lamenting as “particularly disturbing…the reduction of the precious and delicate area of education in sexuality to management of ‘risk,’ bereft of any reference to the beauty of conjugal love.”
And then, most recently in the interview-book Light of the World, he repeated that condom use is not a “moral solution.”
Yet the Catholic left claims confidently that the Church’s position on condom use has “changed.” Dissenters continue to point to the passage from Light of the World in which Benedict offers a narrow and nuanced observation about an intention behind (but not the act of) condom use and speculates that the flicker of consideration for another person’s safety contained within that intention might in some cases grow into a greater sense of morality: “[The Church] 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.”
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