Editor’s Note: Pope Benedict’s comment suggesting a moral purpose in wearing a condom when there is a risk of infecting someone with AIDS may strike many Catholics and non-Catholics as at most a minor concession regarding one of Church’s most conservative dictates, condemnation of contraception.

However, it may also reflect a meaningful shift in the Church’s position as has occurred in other eras on matters ranging from banking to torture, as Daniel C. Maguire, professor of moral theology at Marquette University, notes in this guest essay:

Given some of the positions the church held in the past, it would not have survived if it had not changed. History is, as ever, illumining.

Due to biblical condemnations of interest-taking on loans (e.g. Ex. 21:25; Lev. 25:35-37, Luke 6:33-35), the church solemnly taught for centuries that all interest, even moderate interest, was seriously sinful. 

Three ecumenical councils weighed in enforcing this ban on interest as did a number of popes. Theologians joined the chorus of condemnation. The ban on condoms never could boast such weighty church authority. 

All that changed. As commerce developed in the 15th Century in the financial worlds of Siena and Florence, the laity broke ranks and decided, in their wisdom, that moderate interest was quite moral. One century later a number of theologians followed suit and – after another hundred years – one of the Vatican offices accepted this new position.
Later, the Vatican opened a bank, and by the time of the great modern social encyclicals all scruples about legitimate interest had disappeared from the teaching of the Catholic Church.

And therein lies the tale of Catholic change and growth. 

There are other examples: Pope Innocent IV approved of torture (“enhanced interrogation” in the current euphemism) for heretics and robbers. Happily the Catholic Church eventually saw this as an error and changed its views. 

For centuries, the church required the accused in a trial to offer self-incriminating testimony. It changed its view on that in the early 20th Century. 

Pope Pius IX in the late 19th Century said it was deliramentum, insane raving, to say that people should have freedom to practice their own religion. The Second Vatican Council totally rejected that view.

Traditional Catholic teaching says there are three contributors to the church’s search for truth, the hierarchy being only one of them. The other two are the sensus fidelium, the experience-fed wisdom of the laity, and what St. Thomas Aquinas called the “magisterium,” or teaching office of the theologians. 

Historically one or the other has led the way. Pope Nicholas I in 866 was ahead of both theologians and laity when he broke with almost everyone in European culture by condemning torture. It took centuries for the rest of the church to catch up with him.
Many in the church have not yet caught up with Pope John Paul II when he said that “war is the most barbarous and least effective way of resolving conflicts.”

Regarding condom use, the laity were the leaders as experience let them see the legitimacy and even necessity of condom use. Catholic theologians followed shortly thereafter, declaring condom  use to be permissible and even mandatory at times. 

When Humanae vitae was issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968 retaining the ban on artificial contraception, the conferences of bishops in 14 nations issued pastoral letters assuring their laity that those who could not in good faith accept this ban were not sinners. 

Members of the Catholic hierarchy in Africa where AIDS is pandemic in some places have openly supported the use of condoms in heterosexual and homosexual relationships.
So Pope Benedict is quite in line with history and is being quite traditional in moving away from an untenable position – even though the laity and the theologians got there first.

Could further changes be anticipated in the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexual and reproductive ethics, even in areas such as abortion and same sex marriage?

Many Catholic theologians already defend same sex unions and support abortion in conflict situations as do many Catholic laity. Dialogue with other world religions many of whom are more open on these matters might someday hasten the Catholic hierarchy toward joining this emerging consensus on these and other issues. 

Errors followed by corrections are part of the warp and woof of church history.    
For more on these topics, see Sacred Rights: The Case for Contraception and Abortion in World Religions, Daniel C. Maguire, Editor; and Heterosexism in Contemporary World Religion: Problem and Prospect , Marvin Ellison and Judith Plaskow, Editors.

Daniel C. Maguire is a Professor of Moral Theology at Marquette University, a Catholic, Jesuit institution in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He can be reached at daniel.maguire@marquette.edu.

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