The media campaign surrounding Light of the World by Benedict XVI
The book-length interview by Peter Seewald with Benedict XVI, Light of the World, was presented during the course of a press conference in Rome on Tuesday, November 23, the day of its release in bookstores for the German, English and Italian editions—the French edition was [originally] not supposed to appear until Friday, December 3. Now as of Saturday the 20th the Vatican daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, had already made public several excerpts from the work, among them the one about condoms, disregarding the embargo imposed until the 23rd and “without advance notice to the Press Office” directly by Fr. Federico Lombardi.
On Sunday, November 21, international press agencies and all the newspapers ran headlines about the “revolution”, the “turning point” brought about by the pope with regard to condom use. That same day, Fr. Lombardi was obliged to publish an explanatory note that said: “The pope reaffirms that ‘the Church does not of course consider condoms to be the authentic and moral solution’ to the problem of AIDS.” In view of the media kerfuffle, the French edition of the book went on sale at the end of the week, instead of waiting for December 3.
Two questions arise: 1. To what extent is the editor-in-chief of L’Osservatore Romano, Gian-Maria Vian, responsible for this press campaign? 2. Did the statements by the pope allow such exploitation by the media?
1. The responsibility of L’Osservatore Romano
Should we speak about responsibility or irresponsibility? Did Gian-Maria Vian not know that by publishing that passage without any commentary he would inevitably sow confusion in the minds of the faithful who adhere to Catholic moral teaching and give a weighty argument to all who advocate condoms as a means of preventing AIDS? Some Vatican-watchers have not hesitated to scold their colleague severely, such as Paolo Rodari of Il Folgio, who spoke of a “debacle”, or Vittorio Messori, who emphasized that L’Osservatore Romano had not even heeded a “minimal demand of prudence” in publishing that excerpt, which would inevitably make that splash. Or Frank Rocca, Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service (RNS), whose review of the book appeared in The Wall Street Journal, who received no reply from the organizers of the November 23 press conference when he asked whether there was a need for greater coordination of communications at the Vatican.
The foreseeable result occurred, obviously. As the French newspaper Le Figaro editorialized, the pope’s declaration opened a “breach”, introducing the idea of a kind of relativism in the Church, which was disposed to slacken its morality in certain cases. And so it happened that Radio Ville Marie in Quebec did not hesitate to take a poll among its listeners, asking them a question formulated as follows: “Do you agree with the position of Benedict XVI on condom use to curb the spread of AIDS?” It is not hard to guess that the responses were almost 90% in the affirmative! And so it happened likewise that French First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, ambassador for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, said on the French radio network RTL on World AIDS Day, December 1, that she was “touched” and “grateful” for the statements by Benedict XVI about condoms: “A certain number of African countries are Christian and listen carefully to what the pope says. I think that it is quite an enormous step toward something very new.”
To be precise, we should refer to the Explanatory Note by Fr. Lombardi, which explained that the pope’s “contribution” to the debate, “on the one hand, remains faithful to moral principles and transparently refutes illusory paths such as that of ‘faith in condoms’; on the other hand, however, it manifests a comprehensive and farsighted vision, attentive to recognizing the small steps (though only initial and still confused) of an often spiritually- and culturally-impoverished humanity, toward a more human and responsible exercise of sexuality.” This “on the other hand”—the expression of a “comprehensive vision”—is what must be studied in order to understand the pope’s statements better and to see whether or not they authorize the interpretation that the media have given to them.
2. Do the comments of Benedict XVI justify this media exploitation?
As indicated by Fr. Lombardi, Benedict XVI does not renounce fidelity to objective moral principles, all while taking account of subjective dispositions of the person envisaged in this particular case, the one of a “male prostitute” using condoms in order to avoid adding homicide to homosexual acts for hire. In fact, in his response to Peter Seewald, the pope in fact says that the Church “does not regard [the condom] as a real or moral solution,” and in the chapter devoted to the crisis caused by pedophile priests, he denounces moral relativism: “the thesis was advocated – and this even infiltrated Catholic moral theology – that there was no such thing as [an action] that is bad in itself. There were only things that were ‘relatively’ bad. What was good or bad depended on the consequences” (p. 37 of the English edition, Ignatius Press).
But he wishes, on the other hand, to take into consideration “a certain conversion process taking place in an individual’s life,” as Cardinal Raymond Burke declared in the National Catholic Register dated November 23. The prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura added : “[Benedict XVI is] simply making the comment that a person who is given to prostitution, at least considers using a condom to prevent giving the disease to another person — even though the effectiveness of this is very questionable — this could be a sign of someone who is having a certain moral awakening. But in no way does it mean that prostitution is morally acceptable, nor does it mean that the use of condoms is morally acceptable. The point the Pope is making is about a certain growth in freedom, an overcoming of an enslavement to a sexual activity that is morally repugnant so that this concern to use a condom in order not to infect a sexual partner could at least be a sign of some moral awakening in the individual, which one hopes would lead the individual to understand that his activity is a trivialization of human sexuality and needs to be changed.”
And so therefore, according to Cardinal Burke’s reading, when the pope presents condom use in this very particular context, one must understand “moralization” in the subjective sense of a personal crisis of conscience, which however does not correspond to the objective sense of what is moral in itself, since homosexuality, prostitution, and the condom remain objectively immoral. We might very well ask whether such distinctions between the subjective and hypothetical level (for we are dealing only with a hoped-for development towards a future conversion) and the objective level of morality have any place in a book destined for the general public. We might very well think that interpretations will quickly outstrip these subtleties and that the only result will be what the media anticipated: a breach in morality.
Fr. Matthias Gaudron, in his review of the book by Benedict XVI (see Documents), has the intellectual honesty to say neither more nor less than what the pope actually stated, but he also shows that in envisaging some “particular cases” the pope provides a certain foundation for the intrepretations that the press has given to his comments. To Peter Seewald’s question asking whether the Church is not fundamentally opposed to the use of condoms, the Note of the General Headquarters of the Society of Saint Pius X responds with a reminder about objective and certain Catholic morality (see Documents), whereas Benedict XVI answered with the particular case of a subjective and hypothetical “moralization”.
(Sources : VIS/Zenit/Osservatore Romano/NCR/RVM/RTL/private sources – DICI No. 226 dated 12/04/10)