How The Church Teaches

Cardinal Ratzinger’s Letter on «The Many Faces of AIDS»

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By Steven A. Long

NAPLES, Florida, DEC. 5, 2010 ( In the current media-engendered vortex of illusion regarding the Church’s teaching about disordered sexual acts and condoms, the principal constituent is of course a certain incomprehension regarding how the Church teaches, as distinct from journalistic interviews.

Also to blame, of course, is the current culture of the 24-hour news cycle that holds that nothing could be more defining or important than the story of the moment. Thus, the media swirl may too quickly become self-hypnotizing. But in the Roman Catholic faith, the magisterium serenely propounds the doctrine of faith and morals, and when direction from the universal teaching authority is required no one is left in doubt as to the provenance of the supplied doctrine.

Such an occasion occurred — for those with memory to recall — in 1988, when then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger addressed a memorable letter as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to Archbishop Pio Laghi, who was at the time nuncio to the United Sates, regarding the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ administrative board’s document «The Many Faces of AIDS.» In that document, Cardinal Ratzinger, representing the CDF with the full knowledge and support of Pope John Paul II, formally expressed the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

One might have expected the media to make some reference to this formal teaching instrument, understanding the difference in Roman Catholic life between journalistic conversations and magisterial acts. Doing so would have placed discussions about Catholic teaching in their proper historical and doctrinal context.

Nonetheless, for those who wish to place the recent journalistic remarks of the Holy Father in their magisterial context, his own pellucid words from 1988, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, are perhaps the best source. These may be found below. They represent the formal teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, and anyone claiming the contrary should of course be able to point to some official magisterial pronouncement supporting such a claim.

The idea that Pope Benedict the XVI is unaware of the nature of the Church’s teaching instruments, or that he intended to alter Church teaching with a few brief comments in a journalistic interview, is preposterous on its face. This is something the current media culture seems to fail to grasp.

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On «The Many Faces of AIDS»
Letter to Archbishop Pio Laghi
May 29, 1988

The lively discussion, widened and sometimes distorted by the press worldwide, which followed the publication of the NCCB Administrative Board’s well-known document, «The Many Faces of AIDS,» and in which were involved distinguished representatives of the episcopate, has generated in many of the faithful, and not only in the United States, a good deal of confusion regarding the authentic Catholic position on the moral problems involved. The Holy See wishes, therefore, to express its deep concern that the unity so necessary among the bishops in the teaching of Christian moral doctrine be clearly and publicly demonstrated.

In the first place, and on a more general level, one must keep in mind the problem posed by the worldwide reaction which accompanies certain documents issued by various episcopal conferences. This requires a particular sense of responsibility and prudence in the choice of themes to be treated and in the manner in which these statements are published, not to mention a careful composition of the texts themselves. At least in some cases, when the subjects under discussion are of interest to the universal Church, it would seem advisable to consult in advance with the Holy See.

Secondly, regarding the precise moral issue in question here, I want to draw attention to the clarification which appeared in the March 10 edition of L’Osservatore Romano, in an unsigned article entitled «Prevention of AIDS: Christian Ethical Aspect,» and I quote, «To seek a solution to the problem of infection by promoting the use of prophylactics would be to embark on a way not only insufficiently reliable from the technical point of view, but also and above all, unacceptable from the moral aspect. Such a proposal for ‘safe’ or at least ‘safer’ sex — as they say — ignores the real cause of the problem, namely, the permissiveness which, in the area of sex as in that related to other abuses, corrodes the moral fiber of the people.»

In the case here under discussion, it hardly seems pertinent to appeal to the classical principle of tolerance of the lesser evil on the part of those who exercise responsibility for the temporal good of society. In fact, even when the issue has to do with educational programs promoted by the civil government, one would not be dealing simply with a form of passive toleration but rather with a kind of behavior which would result in at least the facilitation of evil.

The problem of educational programs in specifically Catholic schools and institutions requires particular attention. These facilities are called to provide their own contribution for the prevention of AIDS, in full fidelity to the moral doctrine of the Church, without at the same time engaging in compromises which may even give the impression of trying to condone practices which are immoral, for example, technical instructions in the use of prophylactic devices.

In a society which seems increasingly to downgrade the value of chastity, conjugal fidelity and temperance, and to be preoccupied sometimes almost exclusively with physical health and temporal well-being, the Church’s responsibility is to give that kind of witness which is proper to her, namely an unequivocal witness of effective and unreserved solidarity with those who are suffering and, at the same time, a witness of defense of the dignity of human sexuality which can only be realized within the context of moral law. It is likewise crucial to note, as the board statement does, that the only medically safe means of preventing AIDS are those very types of behavior which conform to God’s law and to the truth about man which the Church has always taught and today is still called courageously to teach.

I am confident that these considerations, which are known to His Holiness and have his fullest support, will be welcomed by the cardinal and bishop members of the conference and I wish to express my sincerest hope for a successful conclusion of this important meeting of the entire episcopate of the United States.»

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

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Steven A. Long is a professor of theology at Ave Maria University.

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