When you think of the pope, condoms don’t normally come to mind. This isn’t just because he is an 83-year-old celibate man; it’s also because the Catholic Church has a long-standing “no birth control” rule that’s off limits for discussion. That is, until now.
Recently, Pope Benedict XVI sat down with German journalist Peter Seewald for an interview to be published in a book titled, Light of the World: The Pope, The World and Signs of The Times. When the subject of birth control came up, the pope remarked that condoms are not a “real or moral solution, but in individual cases, the intention to reduce the risk of infection may represent the first step to leading a more human and authentic sexuality.”
What would a case like this look like? The Pontiff continued, "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."
While such a statement may not sound like much to some readers, a seemingly minor shift like this could be a first step away from the traditional Catholic position. The Wall Street Journal reported that the pope’s comments set off a “firestorm” and sent the Vatican into a “frenzy.”
But the lesson here stretches beyond mere latex. It speaks to the dangers of “ivory tower theology,” when theology is developed by leaders who have a theory of how others ought to live—but who don’t take the time to experience how people actually live. It’s one thing to flesh out a theory in a cloistered room with intellectuals; it’s quite another thing to test that theory while standing in the street. Or to put a finer point on it, it is one thing to oppose birth control for married couples; it’s quite another thing to unequivocally oppose birth control in the face of 22 million African deaths from HIV/AIDS.
The current Catholic position on birth control struggles to answer questions such as,
“What about couples in developing countries who truly cannot afford children?”
“What about using contraception for the purpose of preventing STDs?”
“What should we expect or require from non-Christians who have different sexual morals than we do?”
There is great danger in ivory tower theology—untested, theoretical morals that are disseminated from on high and disconnected from real communities. Ivory tower theologians seek to instruct others from the balcony rather than walking alongside them as fellow travelers, like scientists whose theories have never been tested outside a laboratory. The Catholic Church’s historical belief on birth control sounds good as celibate Cardinals bat it around behind closed doors, but when forced into the light of millions of people dying, it cracks and crumbles. Such a theology is knowledge without know-how. It can perhaps satisfactorily guide congregants in belief, but not adequately instruct people—many of whom are non-congregants—in practice.
Such a great chasm often exists between the theoretical and the practical that former Secretary of State Colin Powell once warned: “Experts often possess more data than judgment. Elites can become so inbred that they produce hemophiliacs who bleed to death as soon as they are nicked by the real world.” In the Seewald interview, Pope Benedict XVI was nicked by the real world, and he’s been bleeding ever sense. Because, in the end, the question the pope is trying to answer is this: What’s the greater moral good—sticking to church teaching about human sexuality or preventing a pandemic?
Being raised evangelical, I’ve not spent much time thinking about the moral implications of birth control. Protestants, after all, rarely discuss such things. And by “rarely,” I mean “never.” And perhaps this is where the Catholics are ahead of the game. They are asking questions about the ordained purposes of sex, the belief in God as the granter of life and the extent to which humans should interfere with the natural systems God has established. But these questions need to not just be rooted in Scripture—they need to be worked out within orthodox Christian communities. Any theology—Catholic, Baptist, Reformed or Charismatic—needs to be tested and lived out in the real world.
Indeed, God didn’t see fit to simply hand down moral pontifications from His heavenly throne. He poured the fullness of His being into a flesh-wrapped human named Jesus. He came and lived among us. In the same way, we practice incarnation in life through loving our neighbors, caring for the least of these and participating in the local church. Doesn’t living incarnationally call us out of the balcony to work out our salvation while walking alongside others as fellow travelers?
Indeed, that’s why something else Pope Benedict XVI said rings true—both in theological conversations and in the lived experience all over the world. Even though the Catholic Church’s hardline teachings on condoms may be wrong, the pope’s words on what we are called to do in the real world are a convicting call to action. He said, “The solution must have two elements: firstly, bringing out the human dimension of sexuality, that is to say a spiritual and human renewal that would bring with it a new way of behaving toward others, and secondly, true friendship offered above all to those who are suffering, a willingness to make sacrifices and to practice self-denial, to be alongside the suffering.”
It’s a call to real, deep change and a commitment to chastity—something that’s much more than a "nice thought." And it’s something that’s lived out, day by day, by real people making real sacrifices to heal real brokenness. It’s what happens when we bring theology out of the ivory towers and into the street.
Jonathan Merritt is a faith and culture writer who has published widely in outlets including USA Today, BeliefNet, and Christianity Today. He is author of Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet and blogs at jonathanmerritt.com.