"Well, that went well," writes Amy Welborn, one of my favorite Catholic bloggers. She's referring to the media maelstrom over "Light of the World," Peter Seewald's book-length interview with Pope Benedict XVI. Did you hear about it yesterday? Long story short is that L'Osservatore Romano broke the embargo for releasing excerpts from the book. And all hell broke loose. Here are the first five headlines I grabbed off of Google News:
Pope says condoms sometimes permissible to stop AIDS
Pope Says Condoms to Stop AIDS May Be Acceptable
Pope Benedict says that condoms can be used to stop the spread of HIV?
Pope signals historic leap in fight against Aids: Condoms can be justified
Pope says some condom use 'first step' of morality
Earlier in the day Times (U.K.) religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill tweeted "About to do Sky News on Pope's condom conversion!" A condom conversion! Wow, this is huge news!
Before we go on, you may want to read the actual remarks from Benedict, helpfully published by BBC. It's not long and has plenty of discussion about how the media perverts news. And you might also note that you won't find the words "permissible," "justified" or "acceptable" in those remarks. You'll note that there is literally nothing in there about procreative sex or birth control.
The remarks are terribly fascinating, and explain some of the somewhat complicated teaching on the church's concern for an individual's moral progress. And the remarks are clearly way too complicated for the media to understand. Even some of the professional folks went for drama over accuracy.
Here's the first paragraph of The New York Times report:
ROME -- Pope Benedict XVI has said that condom use can be justified in some cases to help stop the spread of AIDS, the first Vatican exception to a long-held policy condemning condom use. The pope made the statement in a series of interviews with a German journalist, part of an extraordinary effort to address some of the harshest criticisms of his turbulent papacy.
Well, the first sentence is where the problems arise. You really should read all of the remarks in context but the interview asks about the March 2009 trip to Africa media maelstrom over his comments that condoms won't solve the African AIDS crisis. He expands on that, explaining his view that sexual immorality is the problem that go far beyond a condom fix. And then:
This means that the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man's being.
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.
Anyway, even if some dumbing down of these comments by reporters is called for, they're giving the impression that the Vatican has turned about on birth control and condom usage. And that's really not the case at all. Even if they were accurately characterizing the comments, there needs to be a much more careful use of terms. I know that everyone likes to say "The Vatican" for anything happening within 200 miles of the Vatican, and yes, this is the Pope making these comments. But an interview with a journalist does not count as an ex cathedra official pronouncement. So to call this a Vatican exception is overstating.
Later in the story, the comments are actually explained well. But how many people get past the headline and first paragraph? I mean, at the end of the piece, the article quotes someone saying flat out that it would be wrong to say "Pope Approves Condoms" and that the Pope is saying condom use is immoral but could be an indication of an awakening that someone needs to be more conscious of their actions. That sounds right, it's just in contrast with the beginning of the article that says the opposite.
The BBC said:
Pope Benedict appears to have changed the Vatican's official stance on the use of condoms to a moral position that many Catholic theologians have been recommending for quite some time.
And here's the Associated Press:
Pope Benedict XVI says in a new book that condoms can be justified for male prostitutes seeking to stop HIV, a stunning turnaround for a church that has long opposed condoms and a pontiff who has blamed them for making the AIDS crisis worse.
So are these comments a stunning repudiation of previous Vatican policy or just a reiteration of basic Catholic teaching? Let's check with Vatican reporter John Allen, quoted in the Catholic Herald:
Leading Vatican commentator John Allen said: "Pope Benedict XVI has signaled that in some limited cases, where the intent is to prevent the transmission of disease rather than to prevent pregnancy, the use of condoms might be morally justified.
"While that position is hardly new, in the sense that a large number of Catholic theologians and even a special Vatican commission requested by Benedict XVI have endorsed it, this is the first time the Pope himself has publicly espoused such a view.
"The comments do not yet rise to the level of official church teaching, but they do suggest that Benedict might be open to such a development."
The rest of that article includes comments from others saying that Benedict's comments are reiterations of Catholic teaching, for what it's worth. Anyway, let's see how coverage progresses. On the bright side, things can only improve from here.