Great headline, isn’t it? Cue Paul Merton and Ian Hislop wisecracks on Have I Got News For You. It’s a headline, however, that’s got little to do with the facts. The Pope’s statement, made in the course of an extended interview that will appear in book form, was a brief comment on the hypothetical case of a male prostitute. Faced with the choice between spreading AIDS and using a condom, such a person might opt for the lesser of two evils – using the condom. Not exactly breakthrough doctrine – the Catholic Church has always subscribed to the notion of acting on the lesser of two evils. Besides, in recent years a number of theologians as well as churchmen like the former Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, have suggested that condom use in certain situations might be morally acceptable.
So is the Pope’s thinking on this – issued as a personal view, incidentally – the start of a slippery slope? If it is, the vast majority of Catholics in the Western world are already at the bottom of that slope, waiting for the Pope and the official Church to join them. Look at the size of Catholic families in Ireland, England, the US, today compared to, say, 1950s. Of course Catholics are using artificial birth control methods. Teaching has lagged seriously behind overwhelming practice.
And don’t forget – this isn’t new territory. I remember 1966, when a papal commission recommended the relaxation of traditional Catholic teaching on contraception. Two years later raised hopes were extinguished when Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which maintained the traditional view.
A final and important point. There’s a strong temptation –to which much of the liberal media yield – to present the Pope as a celibate old man talking through his tiara about the unknown world of sex. However, if you look at this latest interview and others, and his writings, you’ll see he grounds his views on the belief that sex should be about more than exchanging bodily fluids. It should be a body and soul encounter, involving the whole person, not just the naughty bits. That’s a commendable view and one that it’d be nice to hear more frequently from those who lay claim to a moral perspective on the world.