I am grateful to Ruth Gledhill for tweeting frequent updates to the Pope’s condom story. I have been out and about and keeping track of comments on Twitter. Not only did she jump into the story with both feet, but then had the integrity to feed informed comment subsequently – comment that changed the story and posed questions of comprehension to the media commentariat.

The BBC website proclaims (in common with loadsamediaorgans):

Pope’s condom comments welcomed by campaign groups

Well, they won’t welcome them once they’ve engaged brain and thought about them. Why? Because this is a great example of people hearing what they want to hear, responding to it… and only then looking at the actual text of what the Pope said. So, the media story ends up being about the media handling of the issue rather than the content of what the Pope said.

It seems to me, from reading the text and one particular comment on it (fed by Ruth Gledhill and to be found at http://www.catholicworldreport.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=220:pope-benedict-on-condoms-in-qlight-of-the-worldq&catid=53:cwr2010&Itemid=70 – but WordPress won’t let me embed the link) that the Pope hasn’t changed his mind or the mind of the Roman Catholic Church on the matter of condoms, contraception or sexual morality. He hasn’t even opened the door to exceptions to the Church’s rulebook on these matters. He has answered a question with the precision one would expect from him (an academic), but with nuances too sharp for blunt interpreters.

Janet Smith contextualises and then quotes the interview given by the Pope:

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.

Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?

She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

The comment goes on to make clear that the Pope has not changed his view that the issue is about sexual behaviour, not condoms. The example he uses is of a homosexual prostitute – so he is saying nothing about the procreative element of heterosexual sex. Janet Smith concludes with an analogy that is, at the very least, suggestive:

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.  Nonetheless, the intent of a bank robber to rob a bank in a way that is safer for the employees and customers of the bank may indicate an element of moral responsibility that could be a step towards eventual understanding of the immorality of bank robbing.

This might not be comfortable – and it certainly will be a nuisance to those who think (or hope) the Pope has opened a door to the relaxation of condom use – but I cannot see that the Pope has said anything remarkable or that deserves the ‘liberal’ headlines dominating our media. It’s a good story – but it smacks of misreading.

Unless I have misread it, of course.