by Phil Lawler, November 22
Pope Benedict has not changed the Church’s teachings, or even intimated that they might be subject to change. The Holy Father has not called for a new debate on the morality of contraception. He has not suggested that condom use might sometimes be morally justifiable.
Yet today millions of people around the world believe that the Pontiff has changed Church teaching, has opened the question of contraception for debate, and has justified condom use in some circumstances. How did that happen?
Yet again, Pope Benedict has been badly served by his public-relations staff. In this case, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano bears most of the blame for a truly disastrous gaffe.
An exciting book project subverted
The stories that are dominating media coverage of the Vatican this week can be traced to an interview in which Pope Benedict XVI responded to questions from the German journalist Peter Seewald. That interview was the basis for an exciting new book, Light of the World, which is due for publication this week.
The book is the 3rd such collaborative effort between the Pope and Seewald. But it is the first since Benedict XVI assumed the Chair of Peter, and the notion that a reigning Pontiff would submit to a book-length interview is a sensation in itself. Readers who expect something very special from such a book will not be disappointed. Light of the World is indeed sensational.
As an interviewer Seewald does his job well. He respectfully but persistently pressed the Pope to explain his thinking on a host of issues, many of them controversial. Pope Benedict, for his part, is candid and lucid, presenting his thoughts with that simple clarity that makes him such a great natural teacher. In Light of the World the reader will find the Pontiff’s honest thoughts on topics such as:
•the nature of papal infallibility and Petrine authority;
•the real reason for lifting excommunications on the traditionalist bishops of the Society of St. Pius X;
•the limits of dialogue with Islam;
•the possibility of a papal resignation;
•the message of Fatima;
•the day-to-day life of the apostolic palace;
•the true causes of the sex-abuse scandal and the prospects for reform.
On every one of these topics, this reader found the Pope’s remarks refreshingly honest and thought-provoking. The Holy Father offers a number of fascinating revelations, along with an enormous amount of profound theological reflection. The book is, again, sensational.
Those of us who received advance copies of Light of the World were told that the text was under a very strict embargo. We were forbidden to quote from it, cite it, or even make any specific revelations about its content until the formal launch of the book this week. Such embargos are not unusual in the world of publishing (although the publishers were unusually stern about it in this case), and professional journalists routinely honor them.
Moreover, L’Osservatore broke the embargo, and published the excerpt, during a weekend when the Vatican was happily distracted by a consistory. At a time when Church leaders should have been celebrating a joyous occasion—the elevation of 24 members to the College of Cardinals—top Vatican officials were scrambling to explain the Pope’s words, which had been published prematurely and outside of their proper context.
The launch of Light of the World should have been another joyful occasion. With appropriate planning, the publisher was poised to introduce the Pope’s book with a major publicity campaign. Now that publicity—which might have offered an accurate and favorable portrayal of the Pope’s book—will be nearly lost in the deluge of misinformation currently sweeping across the world.
What the Pope said—and did not say
Of all the passages that might have been culled out of the book, L’Osservatore Romano chose some speculative remarks by the Pontiff on the subject of condom use. Any capable journalist should have realized in advance that these remarks would be misinterpreted—especially when they were presented out of context.
In the passage that L’Osservatore published, Pope Benedict was not backing away from earlier statements, in which he had said that the distribution of condoms is not the proper way to fight the spread of AIDS. On the contrary, the Pope was defending that stand! Far from retracting his previous words, the Holy Father was explaining and elaborating on them.
In that context, when Seewald pressed him on the question of whether condom use might ever be advisable, the Pope replied:
There may be a basis 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, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.When Seewald asked for a clarification, the Pope quickly added that the Church can never regard condom use as “a real or moral solution.”
Here the Pope was making a theoretical point, not a practical one. He was not teaching, but explaining a point. He was not speaking with authority—in fact, earlier in the book he had explained why nothing the Pope says in an interview should be regarded as authoritative—but speculating. Nothing in what the Pope said, or the way he said it, reflects any change in the Church’s teaching.
In her helpful explanation of the Pope’s words, Janet Smith observed that “the Holy Father is not making a point about whether the use of a condom is contraceptive or even whether it reduces the evil of a homosexual sexual act; again, he is speaking about the psychological state of some who might use condoms.” To place the Pope’s speculative remarks about the male prostitute in the proper context, Smith offered an analogy of her own:
If someone was going to rob a bank and was determined to use a gun, it would better for that person to use a gun that had no bullets in it. It would reduce the likelihood of fatal injuries. But it is not the task of the Church to instruct potential bank robbers how to rob banks more safely and certainly not the task of the Church to support programs of providing potential bank robbers with guns that could not use bullets.Journalistic incompetence
If it is “not the task of the Church” to give safety tips to bank robbers and homosexual prostitutes, why did the Pope offer that example? In the context of a lengthy conversation, with a sympathetic interviewer, it is easy to see how the Pope might have been tempted toward speculative remarks. But in the weeks between the time of the interview and the date of publication, did no one at the Vatican recognize the likelihood that the Pope’s words would be yanked out of context? Did any authoritative Vatican official vet the text of the interview, to ensure that the Pope’s answers to Seewald were not subject to confusion and/or misinterpretation? If not, then this pontificate is now suffering from another self-inflicted wound. Surely any capable journalist would have recognized the potential for trouble, immediately upon reading the Pope’s words. Anyone alert to the rhythms of everyday public debate would have been able to warn the Pontiff that his subtle distinctions about the morality of condom use would be lost upon the secular media. Jeff Miller makes a witty reference to the “Ginger factor”: the tendency of journalists, when they encounter a mention of “condoms,” to block out all other words. Secular journalists, reading the Pope’s words in the fateful paragraph above, would ask themselves only whether the Pontiff was allowing for the possibility of condom use, and conclude that he was. So inevitably the Pope’s statement would be seen as opening a loophole in Church teaching.
In past months L’Osservatore Romano has often embarrassed the Vatican, with puerile articles gushing about the merits of Michael Jackson, the Beatles, and The Simpsons. But this editorial blunder is far more serious. With its gross mishandling of this very serious issue, the Vatican newspaper has given rise to a worldwide confusion on a very important moral issue—damage that it may take years of painstaking work to undo.
“Ironically, the message of this good and brilliant Pope has been hobbled nearly as much by the baffling failures of some of his own aides as by unfriendly coverage from the world's media,” writes Archbishop Charles Chaput for First Things. For the welfare of the Church, these public-relations debacles must end.
Why did L’Osservatore Romano violate journalistic norms, ignore obvious dangers, and print a potentially explosive statement out of its proper context? Was the editor hoping to stir up a ruckus, and push sales of Light of the World regardless of the pastoral cost? Was he hoping to stir up a new debate on condom use—something the Pope was quite obviously not seeking? Or was the editor blind to the dangers of publishing this excerpt? Whatever the answer might be, he has demonstrated that his editorial judgment cannot be trusted. As a necessary first step to address the continuous public-relations bungling at the Vatican, Giovanni Maria Vian, the editor of L’Osservatore Romano should be asked to resign.