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Benedict’s Bombshell

By John Vennari


"In 1997, to the San Francisco Chronicle, then-Archbishop Levada, who is now the man chosen by Pope Benedict XVI to be Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the following regarding use of these immoral devices for protection against AIDS, “Certainly if someone has decided not to follow the path of abstinence, and engage in extramarital sexual relations, that already is something that is not in accord with God’s plan. It could be the better part of their choice to use the protections that are available.” How can this not be seen as an examnple of the forbidden principle of doing evil that 'good' may come from it?


Our Lord gave to Peter and to his successors the mandate to “confirm thy brethren” in the Faith. Pope Benedict’s latest statement regarding immoral birth control devices has achieved the opposite.

I have received a number of emails from Catholics who are shocked and scandalized over these recent comments. “I hope you deal with this in the next Catholic Family News” has been the constant refrain.

I admit I find this difficult to write about, as it forces me to speak on a subject that in the past would only be discussed in the privacy of the rectory or confessional. In fact, there are some pre-Vatican II textbooks on Moral Theology wherein all teaching regarding the Sixth and Ninth Commandments were printed only in Latin, because of the delicacy of the subject. Such measures were safeguards against scandalizing the little ones.

In the ravaged and uninhibited post-Conciliar Church, however, this healthy Catholic reserve is a thing of the past, and we are forced to deal publicly with subjects that would have made our grandparents cringe.

The Pope’s statements are from the new book Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times, which is based on 20 hours of interviews conducted by German journalist Peter Seewald. It is an interview that extends for 256 pages. It is not magisterial in any way. The Pope’s words in this interview do not bind the Catholic conscience. His statements constitute no formal, juridical judgment on any given topic. His answers are private opinions, an area in which the Pope can err, and in which Popes of the past have erred.

On November 1, 1331, for example, Pope John XXII gave a sermon at the Cathedral of Avignon in which he stated that the souls of the righteous, before the resurrection of the bodies, did not possess the Beatific Vision, and could not possess it until after the final judgment. The Pope held this error for three years despite the bitter controversy it sparked, and only renounced it on December 3, 1334, the day before his death.[1]

It is impossible for a Pope to change perennial Church teaching, since Catholic doctrine is objective truth that comes from Divine Revelation and therefore not subject to alteration. Even a change in disciplinary procedure could not be accomplished by means of the informal venue of a private interview. In this age of aggiornamento, however, when many people believe that the Pope has the authority to “change” doctrine, the damage Pope Benedict’s statement is causing is colossal.

In the interview, Peter Seewald brings up the topic of AIDS, and closes his question: “Critics, including critics from the Church’s own ranks, object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms.”

The Pope gives a lengthy response and concludes: “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 moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward 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 really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.”

Question: “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?”

Answer: “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.”

It is argued that the Pope was not justifying the use of these devices, but was merely noting that use of such a device by a prostitute may be a first step toward some sort of moral responsibility, which is certainly a novel approach to the problem. The worldwide confusion and increase of mortal sin that will result from these public statements about a possible shred of moral awakening in the prostitute who decides to be ‘sexually responsible’ against STD’s strikes me as too high a price to pay.

The absence of any mention of mortal sin when speaking of this topic is a serious deficiency in this section of the interview. There is no mention of looking at sexuality from God’s point of view, but a vague reference to “humanization of sexuality”, whatever that may mean.

Benedict’s approach has caused many to surmise that he is indirectly suggesting the use of such devices may be justified in certain circumstances.

Yet if the Pope is indeed implying this, he would be echoing the sentiments of William Cardinal Levada, the man chosen by Benedict to be Prefect for the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.

In 1997, to the San Francisco Chronicle, then-Archbishop Levada said the following regarding use of these immoral devices for protection against AIDS, “Certainly if someone has decided not to follow the path of abstinence, and engage in extramarital sexual relations, that already is something that is not in accord with God’s plan. It could be the better part of their choice to use the protections that are available.”

Mind you, Levada said this to a secular newspaper read by millions, and in San Francisco, no less.

Levada went on to say that the “better policy” is one that “corresponds to God’s plan, to refrain from sex until you marry and are faithful to one person.”[2] Here too, no mention of mortal sin.

The Pope’s controversial comments drew immediate praise from godless institutions. “This is a significant step forward taken by the Vatican, said Michel Sikibe, executive director of UNAIDS, the United Nations’ AIDSs relief agency based in Geneva. “This move recognizes that responsible sexual behavior and the use of condoms have important roles in HIV prevention.”[3]

Father Peter Makome, a Catholic priest in Zimbabwe was likewise overjoyed at the Pope’s comments, and said he would spread the news: “I’ve got brothers and sisters and friends who are suffering from HIV because they were not practicing safe sex”, said the allegedly Catholic priest. “Now the message has come out that they can go ahead and do safe sex. It’s much better for everyone.”[4]

Then came Vatican “clarifications” that only served to make things worse.

At the November 23 Vatican press conference that marked the formal release of Light of the World, Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, told reporters that he asked the Pope whether he intended his comments to apply only to male prostitutes. “I personally asked the Pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine,” Lombardi said. “He told me no. The problem is this . . . It’s the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship.”

“This is if you’re a man, a woman, or a transsexual. We’re at the same point. The point is it’s a first step of taking responsibility, of avoiding passing a grave risk onto another,” Lombardi said.

According to the Associated Press, “Lombardi said that Benedict knew full well that his new comments would provoke debate and discussion. Conservative Catholics have been trying to minimize the scope of what he said since the weekend. Lombardi, though, praised Benedict for his ‘courage’ in confronting the problem.”

Lombardi said, “He did it because he believed that it was a serious, important question in the world of today,” adding that the Pope wanted to give his perspective on the need for a greater humanized, responsible sexuality.[5]

As we go to press (November 24), the controversy still rages. Perhaps by next month a clearer picture will emerge. (I hope to have read the Pope’s book by then.) I will close with three points to keep in mind throughout this entire calamity:

1) The lesser of two evils is a Protestant concept, not Catholic. It has no place in the history of Catholic moral teaching. We cannot choose the lesser of two evils because the lesser evil is still evil, and evil can never be the direct object of our will.

2) Romans 3:8 condemns the principle that a person may do evil that good may come from it. St. Paul teaches that those who do so, their “damnation is just”. It is forbidden to do evil to achieve good.

3) The use of these immoral devices is nothing new, so it seems odd anyone would suggest a new morality to go with them. Randy Engel, a veteran journalist who has written extensively about the dangers of modern sex-education and today’s homosexual agenda, noted, “Keep in mind that various forms of sheaths or prophylactics have been used by female and male prostitutes for centuries for two primary purposes: (1) to prevent infection including deadly diseases transmitted by sexual activity; (2) to prevent pregnancy, especially out-of-wedlock pregnancies that would endanger inheritance rights and weaken marriage alliances. Yet no saint or Church Father or Pope has suggested that their use for any reason was licit.”

Nor did any saint or Church Father or Pope place any significance to the possibility that use of such a device by a person engaged in heinous acts may be some sort of first step toward moral responsibility.


[1] The Papacy: An Encyclopedia, Vol. II, Philippe Levillain [New York: Routledge, 2001] pp. 850-851.

[2] “William Levada”, The San Francisco Chronicle, October 22, 1995 (emphasis added).

[3] “Vatican Rushes to Clarify Popes Comments in Book”, Wall Street Journal, Nov. 22, 2010.

[4] “Pope’s Words Offer Guarded Hope for Some Believers”, Associated Press, November 21, 2010.

[5] “Vatican: Condom use less evil than spreading HIV”, Associated Press, November 23, 2010."