Pope Benedict and Condoms: a Touchy Subject

The payoff for getting into debates with today's Catholic hierarchy seems pretty low.

In the past, the organization Catholics for Choice has used Catholic World Youth Day as an opportunity to probe the Church’s ban on contraception, running media campaigns during the Youth Day gatherings in Toronto and Cologne (in 2002 and 2005, respectively). The campaign, called Condoms4Life, was originally launched on World AIDS Day ten years ago, with posters and newspaper ads proclaiming, “Catholic people care. Do our bishops?”  The current campaign features both heterosexual and gay male couples, with the words:

We believe in God.

We believe that sex is sacred.

We believe in caring for each other.

We believe in using condoms.

On posters created for this year’s World Youth Day, happening in Madrid in August, a special message was added:

Thank you, Pope Benedict, for acknowledging that condoms save lives. 

Getting the Pope involved may have cost Catholics for Choice the campaign, as the ads were for the first time rejected by the partnering advertising company. Catholics for Choice president Jon O’Brien says:

At this stage it is not clear whether the municipal authority in Madrid vetoed the ads or whether it was Cemusa, the local billboard and bus shelter company. In either case, it appears that pressure has been applied to ensure these advertisements don’t run. Whether that pressure came from the church hierarchy, conservative politicians or other forces, it is an outrageous infringement on free speech.

It’s one thing to criticize Catholic bishops, as a group, or to assert that it’s morally and ethically coherent for a Catholic to use contraception, but thanking the Pope for being pro-condom will not fly, as Catholics for Choice has learned.

The campaign’s tagline, “Good Catholics Use Condoms,” is, of course, theologically provocative, but practically quite obvious, as 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women use some form of contraception (other than the Church-approved Natural Family Planning). But it’s not surprising that the proposed Madrid ads, with their shout-out to the Pope, would cause unprecedented alarm among Spanish authorities.

After the Pope told the journalist Peter Seewald last November that using condoms to prevent HIV transmission in certain cases could be “a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality,” people alternately cheered, gasped, and were cautiously optimistic about a potential sea change in the Church. Caught off guard by the uproar (and seemingly surprised that Benedict’s marginal movement on the issue should be such a big deal), the Vatican did a great deal of “clarifying” in the following month, emphasizing that the contraceptive (as opposed to disease-preventing) use of condoms is, and will always be, wrong.

It was not a happy time for the Pope and his posse—the Times cited “internal Vatican tensions”—and Benedict hasn’t uttered the c-word since.

Catholics for Choice, occupying the interesting position of the critic from within, points to the experience of many, if not most, Catholics today. While Catholics across the world have various views on abortion, contraception, and homosexuality and gay marriage, a significant portion of the Church body finds itself not completely in agreement with (and living by) the Church’s teachings. This gap between theology and lived religion, always present for Catholics (particularly as contraception has become so widespread in America, but before that, too, with regard to premarital sex, for example), has grown more apparent in recent years. Between the Pope’s 2009 declaration that condoms shouldn’t be used to fight AIDS in Africa, the Bishops’ intractable opposition to the health care bill last spring (even when the Catholic Health Association and a group of nuns supported it), and, of course, the abuse scandal, a lot of American Catholics are wondering if this is still their church.  

So if the deciders of Madrid don’t want to rile the Pope, I don’t entirely blame them. It’s brave of Catholics for Choice to continue to push Church leaders on reproductive rights issues, but the payoff for getting into debates with today’s Catholic hierarchy seems pretty low (though Peter Seewald certainly struck gold—how, I don’t know). The greatest possibility for change, even radical change, in the Church these days seems to be among lower-level priests and nuns. The question in the meantime, if you’re a Catholic, is how long do you grit your teeth before you get out?