A Papal Crack of Light?

Pope Benedict XVI’s recently published comments stating that condom use could be deemed acceptable in certain circumstances is a strategic move that produces the appearance of a more progressive Catholic teaching while actually reinforcing atavistic and inhumane ideas regarding birth control and sexuality. Benedict is quoted as saying that

There may be a basis [for condom use] 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.

The statement that condom use is a step towards more moral, responsible sex is undercut by the specific context of male prostitution that Benedict offers. In this construction, any man using a condom is assuming the status of a male prostitute. The specific concessions for condom use thus uphold the Catholic church’s vilification of contraception, and support the idea that sex is only morally permissible as a means of reproducing the heteronormative nuclear family, while giving the appearance of providing a more progressive position on the issue.

This tactic is even more deplorable if one reads male prostitution as a code, not just for promiscuity, but for homosexuality as well–an equivalence that is difficult not to make given the context of the HIV epidemic that has raised the moral stakes of the issue in the first place. Indeed, the Pope’s recent statements were made in response to journalist Peter Seewald’s questions regarding comments made during a papal visit to Africa in 2009, when Benedict stated that condom use not only would not prevent the spread of HIV, but might actually make it worse. In Seewald’s recent book, Benedict is quoted as saying that he

does not regard [condom use] 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.

The ideological force of this statement is readily apparent: men who have sex with more than one partner–a categorization with the specter of the promiscuous gay male lurking in the background–are less-than-human in their sexuality. Condom use is permissible in these cases because deviant and perverse sexual practices necessitate it, whereas a “healthy”, “moral” and “fully human” sexuality would have no need for such measures. Condom use is permissible by Benedict only as long as use of the contraceptive is made to do the double work of both stopping the spread of disease and marking the condom user as practicing a sub-human form of sexuality. In this sense, the condom serves as a double prophylactic, preventing both biologic and “moral” diseases from spreading.

A similar strategy was employed by the Vatican in the 1960s when nuns working in the Congo were permitted to take birth control pills because they were at risk of being raped by revolution fighters. As Peter M. J. Stravinskas explains in The Catholic Answer Book, the use of contraceptive technology was sanctioned by the Vatican in this case because the act of rape is not one of “true human intercourse” (134). (One can only wonder, judging by history, if the Church should perhaps issue condoms to Catholic priests as well.) In the case of the Congo, contraceptives were permitted so long as they provided the double prophylactic function of protecting the nuns from unwanted pregnancies and reinforcing Western stereotypes that demonize the black, male aggressors as sub-human.

Despite their perpetuation of repressive and homophobic sentiments, Benedict’s recent statements are being lauded as contributing to the prevention of sexually transmitted disease. Given the cultural power that the Catholic church still exerts, these accolades are the equivalent of celebrating an abusive father for deciding to only beat his kids on the weekend: the people breath a sigh or relief for the reprieve they have been ceded while overlooking the fact that the stick they are being abused with is still extremely long.


2 Responses to “A Papal Crack of Light?”

  1. osondu Says:

    I like the subtility of your analysis of Pope Benedict’s reasoning: ‘homosexual men are less-than-human in their sexuality. Fully human sexuality would not need a condom, which does “double duty” preventing both biologic and “moral” diseases from spreading’. For me, that sheds real light on what he was saying. You are really smart!

    I can only wish you were happier – forgive the judgement – the write-ups are generally railing at one thing or the other.

    I believe quite strongly that the real gainers from condom users are the condom manufacturers, they enjoy brisk business whenever biologic and moral diseases spread!

    • kulturbot Says:

      Thanks for your comment, and for your wish for my happiness. I think that treating a group of people as
      subhuman because their lifestyle does not fit with someone’s idea of normal deserves criticism. Homosexuality is not
      a moral disease, nor is the HIV crisis being manufactured by condom makers. The question we should be asking is who
      gains from discriminating against homosexuals, and what right does a tradition which demands celibacy of its clerics have
      to define what is “normal, healthy sexuality”?

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