As new leader of the Catholic Church and in his previous role as cardinal-prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Benedict XVI has been unwavering in his positions on such controversial health-related topics as birth control, abortion, end-of-life issues and genetic testing.
Although the pope is often characterized as highly conservative, his statements on such issues aren’t so much personal views as a reinforcement of church laws and teachings, observed Jann Armantrout, life-issues coordinator for the Diocese of Rochester.
"I believe Pope Benedict will continue the commitment John Paul II had to protecting the life of the most vulnerable and protecting the sanctity of life in each of us," Armantrout said. "When a pontiff is chosen, he’s a herald of truth. I don’t think you’ll see any pope contradict the truth."
The truth may have been hard to swallow for those who hoped for relaxation in the teachings promulgated by the late Pope John Paul II. Some of his critics had called loudly for the church to ease its opposition to artificial birth control, especially to allow the use of condoms in the fight against AIDS in Africa. Yet in a June 10 speech to bishops from sub-Saharan nations, Pope Benedict said that "a contraceptive mentality" has contributed toward "a breakdown in sexual morality." (See related story on page A1.)
Pope Benedict made news again recently when he backed the Italian bishops’ recommendation for citizens to boycott voting on a public referendum. The proposal sought to loosen Italian law on fertility treatment, including embryo research.
"Your clear and concrete commitment is a sign of your concern as pastors for every human being, who can never be reduced to a means but is always an end," he told the bishops on May 30. The referendum was defeated due to lack of voter participation on June 12 and 13.
Benedict XVI also took strong positions on life issues during his 24-year leadership of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In his book The Europe of Benedict, in the Crisis of Cultures, released in June and written over a 12-year period, he spoke out strongly against abortion.
The new pope asked why societies are open to this practice while condemning infanticide. "Maybe because in abortion you don’t see the face of who will be condemned and never see the light," he wrote.
Then-Cardinal Ratzinger was equally direct in his memorandum "Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion — General Principles," made public in July 2004. "The church teaches that abortion or euthanasia is a grave sin," he wrote, and anybody who engages in and/or promotes either practice should not receive Communion.
Pope Benedict has long been a vigorous opponent of moral relativism, the idea that moral principles have no objective standards — that there are no firm rules on what is right or wrong. This mind-set, Armantrout said, "encourages people to think that doctrine is flexible."
Armantrout said she welcomes the new pope’s statements. "If we don’t hold true to our beliefs, like life beginning at conception, then why are we Catholic?" she asked.