To much fanfare, the Vatican recently decreed that under certain conditions the trapping of male semen by a thin balloon of rubber fastened around the penis when it is inserted into various orifices (mouths, anuses, vaginas?) is officially, morally, and doctrinally acceptable to the Roman Catholic Church.  Now, why would anyone ever say that religion is no more than a fantastic spiritual exercise?

The big news began with the current Pope’s commentary on the acceptability of using condoms to prevent AIDS, a worthy statement, especially considering the extent to which powerful American (Catholic and non-Catholic) demagogues have supported religious, anti-homosexual regimes in Africa, where the disease is rampant.  But, as might have been expected, the Pope’s comments were quickly overcome by the niceties of intentions, varieties of penetration, and extent of disease.

Pope Benedict surely thought he was only referring to men who have sex with men (or, as he later clarified, very, very bad women).  In the case of male homosexuals, contraception is not (yet) an issue.  The heinous crime of homosexual congress should not, said his holiness, rule out the use of condoms to prevent a graver evil—that is, transmitted death by AIDs.  An admirable admission, one might say.

But then, others got the idea that this was also a loosening of the Church’s attitude toward condoms generally, and perhaps (even!) a softening of the hard Papal line where contraceptive ingenuity was concerned. Think again!

To provide a sense of the confusion the lowly penile rubber balloon caused, let me quote from a recent AP story by Nicole Winfield on the controversy:

Moral theologians have filled blogs and religious publications with interpretations and counter-interpretations, criticisms of the media, L’Osservatore and the pope himself, with many questioning whether he should have even broached the issue in such a casual way, given the nuance of his message and the risk that it would be misinterpreted.

Matters weren’t helped by the fact that the official Italian translation of the original German published in L’Osservatore contained two translation errors: It used the word ‘justified’ in the pope’s remarks — implying to some that the pope was justifying condom usage in some circumstances.

And it also used the feminine version of ‘prostitute’ as opposed to the pope’s original masculine — an important distinction given that condoms in heterosexual intercourse can be used as a form of artificial contraception, which the church opposes.

Indeed. Language itself is indicted here, as the distinction between male and female is hardly unimportant “theologically.” The Pope, to his credit, did clarify that it made no difference whether the prostitute was male or female. As long as contraception was not the issue, one could prevent the semen from flowing free. Hurrah!

Ah, but there’s the rub. The female has to be a prostitute! For the estimable George Weigel, this was a relief. I can only begin to imagine why.

Eventually, people noticed that a (non-prostituted) woman could be in danger of contracting (or transmitting) AIDS and in danger of contracting a child at the same time. A dilemma! Call the theologians!

Leave it to a Jesuit, the Rev. John Fuller, a medical and doctrinal doctor both, to parse the difficulty. “The statement did not discuss a scenario which the Vatican itself has studied and apparently shelved: the use of a condom by a married couple where one partner is HIV-positive and the other is not. In such a case, Fuller noted, ‘the intention is not to contracept, but rather to protect another’s life.'” Oh, the subtlety of a Jesuit!  Not for nothing are they considered the intellectuals of the Church!

“Was will das Weib?” Freud once asked.  The answer, which even the great biologist of the mind did not consider, is: to be able to use a condom without becoming a prostitute.  Thus spake Benedict!