Eamonn Keane
The Pope and condoms
By Eamonn Keane
November 27, 2010

Erroneous interpretations of Pope Benedict XVI's comments on condoms in his book-length interview titled Light of the World with German journalist Peter Seewald have been widely circulated. According to these interpretations, the Pope is said to have changed Catholic teaching on the use of condoms and on the intrinsically evil nature of contraceptive acts. If these assertions were true, then one would have to judge Light of the World as partly a mishmash of contradictory affirmations, since in response to other questions in the book, Pope Benedict reaffirms Catholic teaching on how best to deal with the AIDS epidemic and on the immorality of contraceptive acts.

The first point to note about what the Pope actually said about condoms in Light of the World is that he was not talking about contraception at all, but rather about a decision by a male prostitute to use a condom to prevent the spread of disease. The second point to note is that in response to a subsequent question by Seewald, Pope Benedict XVI stressed the fact that relying only on condoms to address problems associated with the AIDS epidemic is expressive of a certain banalization of human sexuality that creates the conditions in which AIDS is most easily spread. Opposing such banalization of sexuality is, says Pope Benedict, "part of the great effort to help sexuality be valued positively and have a positive effect on man in his totality."

One of the best and most succinct responses I have seen to the erroneous interpretations of Pope Benedict's statements on condom use in Light of the World was a letter authored by Monsignor Vincent D Twomey that was published in the Irish Times. Monsignor Twomey is a former doctoral student of Pope Benedict XVI and author of the outstanding book Pope Benedict XVI: The Conscience Of Our Age (Ignatius Press, 2007). Below I reproduce Monsignor Twomey's letter in its entirety.

The Irish Times
Wednesday November 24, 2010

Pope's perspective on condom ban


Confusion has been caused by one sentence taken from the Pope's latest, book-length interview with a German journalist. This confusion was caused not by the media but by the incompetence of those entrusted with the translation of the German text into Italian. Contrary to widespread reports in the media based on the Italian translation, the Pope did not say (in the original interview) that using condoms may sometimes be justified to stop the spread of Aids (World News, November 22nd).

What did he say? After pointing out that, in the approach to dealing with Aids, the fixation on the condom implies a trivialisation of sex, against which we must fight, the Pope added (in the American translation which is an accurate rendering of the German text): "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 moralisation, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way towards recovering 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 only really lie in a humanization of sexuality." In Italian, the opening phrase was translated as: "Vi possono essere singoli casi giustificati . . ." ("certain cases may be justified"). The term "justified" is misleading, since it means that the act (using a condom) thereby takes on a positive moral quality, which it has not got. It is still a gravely sinful act. There is no mention of using the condom to stop the spread of Aids.

The Pope goes on to affirm explicitly that this is not a real or moral solution to the problem, 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."

All the Pope is saying is that, for an individual living a life of sexual abandon (prostitution), the use of a condom might, just might, set off a process of self-reflection in that person which might lead to a more responsible attitude to the use of his sexuality. This is not a case of "justifying" the use of a condom.

Claims that the church has changed her teaching are unfounded. — Yours, etc,


Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology,

Divine Word Missionaries,


Co Kildare.

© Eamonn Keane


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Eamonn Keane

Eamonn Keane is married with five children. He studied Commerce and Education at the National University of Ireland and Religious Education at the Catholic Teachers Training College in Sydney, Australia. He currently serves as Head of Social Science at Sydney's Redfield College... (more)


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