Harare Zimbabwe



Late in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI published a book-length interview with the German journalist, Peter Seewald. The book created a sensation even before its release date because the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano had published the response to a particular question that the journalist posed to the Pope: “In Africa you stated that the Church’s traditional teaching has proven to be the only sure way to stop the spread of HIV. Critics, including critics from the Church’s own ranks, object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population the use of condoms” (p. 117).

The Pope’s reply created a fire storm of reactions, including criticism from the National Catholic Bioethics Center in the United States and a clarifying “Note” by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith printed in the same Vatican newspaper in late December. Using this apparent controversy as a backdrop, this essay will (1) briefly describe what Pope Benedict actually said, (2) examine some reactions to the Pope’s statement, and (3) try to situate the Pope’s words in the context of the Catholic tradition of moral and pastoral theology in attempting to find a fitting response to the current AIDS situation.

What the Pope Said
Seewald’s question was in reference to a response that Pope Benedict gave to a question posed by a French journalist while flying to Cameroon on March 17, 2009, concerning the spread of AIDS in Africa. The Pope at that time said that “the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics; on the contrary, they increase it.” He went on to say, “The solution must have two elements: firstly, bringing out the human dimension of sexuality . . . and secondly true friendship offered above all to those who are suffering.”

In Light of the World, the Pope repeated that one cannot solve the problem of AIDS simply “by distributing condoms” (p. 118). He repeated his earlier observations regarding the “banalization of sexuality.” He added, however, that there may be cases where the use of a condom may be “a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility” (p. 119). It was in this context that the Pope gave the example of the use of a condom by a male prostitute who was HIV positive in an attempt to protect his partner. When pressed further regarding the Catholic Church’s stance vis-à-vis condoms, he stated: “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” (p. 119). Throughout his brief comments, the Pope maintained that the only real solution to the AIDS crisis was “a humanization of sexuality.”

Reactions to the Pope’s Statement
In my own country, the United States, the reactions to the Pope’s statement were immediate. Contrary to the typical sorts of reactions to statements of the Holy See, most liberals hailed the Pope’s statement while many conservatives criticized it. For example, Professor Lisa Sowle Cahill of Boston College, a Jesuit university, was quoted in a major American newspaper as saying: “I see it as a shift in attention, so that the politics of AIDS is larger on the radar screen than the politics of contraception, and to me that is a needed and appropriate shift.” On the other hand, John M. Haas, President of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and a member of the Pontifical Academy of Life, claimed that he saw an early copy of the book and had suggested to the publisher: “Don’t publish this; it’s going to create a mess. . . . If the pope is opening this debate, I think the pope is wrong.”

These arguments, and others like them throughout the world, led the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to issue a “Note on the banalization of sexuality regarding certain interpretations of ‘Light of the World.’” The “Note” stipulated that the intention of the Pope was clear, “to rediscover the beauty of the divine gift of human sexuality and, in this way, to avoid the cheapening of sexuality which is common today.” It went on to say that what the Pope said was in no way “a break with the doctrine concerning contraception and with the Church’s stance in the fight against AIDS.” Finally, the statement spent time explaining that the words of Pope Benedict should not be understood as accepting the “theory of the ‘lesser evil.’” The Congregation maintained that “an action which is objectively evil, even if a lesser evil, can never be licitly willed.”

A Theological Reflection
In light of this wide range of reactions, what can we say about the words of Pope Benedict and what might all of this mean regarding the Church’s response to the issue of AIDS? It seems to me that the Pope’s words are best interpreted as not dealing with dogmatic or moral theology but rather with the Church’s tradition of pastoral theology.

Pastoral theology, in its most basic sense, deals with what the Church has described as the “care of souls.” This is often done within the context of spiritual direction or more especially in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Although pastoral theology is related to the discipline of moral theology, its concern is more practical, dealing specifically with individual persons and helping them practically in their movement toward salvation. A true pastoral theology takes the person where he or she is at, affirms their attempts to live the Christian life, but also calls them forth to engage in even fuller Christian living.

The pastoral theologian does not disparage the person’s previous attempts at living the Christian life, even with their imperfections. Rather he or she recognizes these as (in the Pope’s words) “first steps in a movement” toward a fuller way of living the Christian moral life. That movement is affirmed, even in its imperfections, as a movement out of self toward the other and toward God. It is not yet a full response, however, and so, while it is affirmed as a movement in the proper direction, it is not seen as a final or full response. It is a movement of growth, but the movement is not yet complete. The Christian life remains unfinished, and the person is called to still further growth.

Within this context, the Pope’s statements in Light of the World might properly be understood as the words of a wise spiritual director or confessor: The use of the condom is seen as an attempt to begin to take responsibility for one’s actions, and to that extent the action is “a first step in the direction of morality.” A first step is not a final step, however. and the Pope concludes that the real solution to the tragedy of AIDS will not occur until there is “a humanization of sexuality.” In all of this, the Pope is firmly in the long tradition of pastoral theology. There is thus no real contradiction between the interview and the Pope’s earlier comments en route to Cameroon.

The statements in Light of the World and this context of pastoral theology do not answer all of the issues involved with AIDS, however, and it seems that we have not yet heard the final words on this subject. Early in February, Msgr Jean-Marie Mpendawatu, Undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, announced that on May 28 the Vatican will hold a one-day conference on AIDS, which among other items will further clarify the Pope’s recent comments on condom use and lead to the publication of a handbook of pastoral guidelines for health care workers working with people suffering from AIDS. I hope that the results will help expand the pastoral theological approach begun by Pope Benedict.

Tom Nairn, O.F.M.

Senior Director, Ethics

Catholic Health Association

St. Louis, U.S.A.;

Visiting Lecturer

Holy Trinity College