Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Pope on condoms: some conclusions

The Pope's remarks on condoms have generated a tidal wave of blogging by orthodox Catholics eager to counter the absurd reporting by the secular media.

It is pleasing to see that a consensus quickly formed around the basic meaning of the text: one might call this the 'less evil, not justified' response. This is what I said myself; Fr Joseph Fessio's illustration, of muggers putting pads onto the metal bars they use to club their victims has attained some currency, as has Janet Smith's example of using an unloaded gun to rob a bank.

I've seen it said that the Holy Father was really talking about the mentality of the individual using the condom, rather than the objective moral status of the act. The subjective state of the agent is clearly in the spotlight, but while it is possible the Pope had in mind a subjective improvement without a objective improvement, the most obvious interpretation would involve both. (A subjective improvement without an objective one might happen if the agent took a step towards making his action more morally acceptable in a completely wrong-headed way, a way which did not, in fact, make the act more acceptable. Such as a murderer deciding to ask Odin to take his victims to Valhalla before despatching them.)

The text we have been discussing has presented a moving target, however, as successive things have been revealed about it: first, the problem of the translation of the key term (a male prostitute, in the original German), and then the Vatican Spokeman's claim that the Pope told him it would make no difference if the prostitute were male or female. This kind of thing undermines attempts to defend the Holy Father while increasing the confusion and opportunity for mis-reporting in the secular media.

Insofar as there is a real issue here, it is this: as is well known there is an argument that condoms could be used, not for contraceptive purposes, but to stem the spread of disease, such as AIDS. Since this obviously would not come under the Church's prohibition of contraception, we have to look elsewhere for a reason to condemn it, if we are to do so. A number of reaons have in fact been put forward, but they have not found their way into magisterial statements. The matter is one of open debate, though it has been pretty clear that the rejection of condoms is the 'safer' opinion, the one 'favoured' by the Church. I've discussed it in some detail myself.

In the classic case, the married couple where one party has AIDS, the reasons for condemning condom use are clear and overwhelming. It would be an insane risk for them to have marital relations, even with a condom: taking such a risk would be wrong for each of them. The Church's condemnation of duelling comes to mind: you shouldn't risk your life or health unnecessarily.

Would it be better to use a condom rather than not, in marital relations, in this context? That depends on the second argument, which is that there is a problem with 'condomistic intercourse'. Intercourse using a condom is, according to this argument, is not natural intercourse, because there is a barrier between the parties. It is akin to sodomy.

The argument has been made influentially by important Catholic experts, including William Hay and Luke Gormally. It has a pedigree in the debate before the invention of the contraceptive Pill: since it was common to say that contracepted sex (using a condom) was unnatural, and distorted the marital act, when the Pill came out its supporters said that it had the advantage of not distorting the act in itself in the same way. (It was quickly pointed out that the use of the Pill for contraceptive purposes was intrinsically wrong in itself, of course.)

In the context of this second argument it may make a difference whether the prostitute in the Pope's example was engaged in homosexual acts or ordinary sex. If the former, the second argument wouldn't apply. That's why I said that while the use of a condom might be a step in the right direction for a rent-boy (like padding the iron bar one uses to bludgeon people unconscious), it wouldn't necessarily be so for a female prostitute.

The words of the Vatican Spokesman, Fr Lombardi, suggest that the Pope did not, in fact, use the example of a male prostitute having this kind of argument in mind. If the case of male (understood as homosexual) prostitutes and female ones are equivalent, and in both cases there is a 'step towards moralisation' being made in adopting condoms, then it would seem that there is not a problem with non-contraceptive use of condoms. This is what is exciting some liberals inside and outside the Church.

But we are going far too fast. Let's list the caveats.

1. Even if the second argument against the prophylactic use of condoms is rejected, the first argument remains. It is still obviously true that having sex knowing one has HIV is subjecting one's partner to a significant risk of contracting an incurable deadly disease, even with a condom. Such an act is obviously wrong - for married couples and prostitutes alike.

2. Fr Lombardi's version of the Pope's views is not incompatible with the second argument, for two reasons. First, it may be that, while condomistic sex is worse than non-condomistic sex (inside marriage, and outside marriage), subjecting one's partner to the high risk of contracting AIDS is worse than subjecting one's partner to a lower risk of AIDS. If the difference of moral badness between the latter is of greater import than the difference of moral badness in the former, then we may have made some small progress by moving from high-risk non-condomistic to lower-risk condomistic sex. A parallel might be a murder who uses a knife rather than a hand-grenade: it is a more painful method to kill but has less risk of maiming bystanders.

3. Fr Lombard's version is not incompatible for the second reason that the Pope may simply not have this second argument against condomistic sex in mind. This is an answer to a journalist's question, after all, and it may be that if the Pope were asked 'what about this argument about condomistic sex?' he'd say something different. What this is clearly NOT is a rejection of the argument that condomistic sex is not natural: the Holy Father simply isn't considering the matter.

4. Related to the last point, we are simply miles and miles away from an authoritative statment. We start with a book containing the words of the Holy Father in his capacity as a private theologian. Naturally, this is of interest in understanding the Pope's public acts but it isn't an official commentary on them, still less does it rival them. Then we have to understand that this is an interview: whereas in his book 'Jesus of Nazareth' the Pope laboured over multiple drafts and composed each sentence with care, in this book he speaking entirely off the cuff. While we might imagine that there was some editing this is a completely different type of publication. Finally, we have the words of Fr Lombardi, who has no brief either in moral theology nor as a spokesman for the Pope. No one can speak for the Pope - as Fr Lombardi himself has emphasised. And we are at liberty to disagree with him in any case.

One can understand the temptation, on the part of those who don't like the arguments against the prophylactic use of condoms, to seize on the Pope's remarks (and Fr Lombardi's), but they simply don't do what the liberals need them to do: to make it possible for the Church to allow or promote condoms to combat AIDS. The only uses of condoms the Holy Father has referred to remain immoral. Any tension between his reasoning and the argument about condomistic sex being unnatural remains ambiguous.

Perhaps the Holy See will clarify the Church's teaching. This may well have been delayed, as Fr Tim Finnigan suggests, by the fear of the headlines it would generate. But anyone with an eye to the direction of the debate over the last 40 years (and longer) would be foolish to assume that a clarification would generate headlines like 'Pope softens line on condoms'. Much more likely, in my view, would be headlines like 'Pope hardens line on condoms'. It is probable that a clarification would endorse the argument on condomistic sex, and inconceivable that it would say that that condoms were permissible as a prophylactic for a married couple.

Postscript: John Smeaton has an interesting selection of Church statements condemning contraception outside marriage, which is an important side issue. Even in immoral sexual relations, it makes it worse to use contraceptives. Furthermore, the Holy Office said in 1854 that sex with a condom is intrinsically evil, without reference to a contraceptive intention.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Pope on Condoms: from the Anscombe Bioethics Centre

The Pope on AIDS and condoms

What the Pope said:
Peter Seewald: On the occasion of your trip to Africa in March 2009, the Vatican's policy on Aids once again became the target of media criticism. Twenty-five percent of all Aids victims around the world today are treated in Catholic facilities. In some countries, such as Lesotho, for example, the statistic is 40 percent. In Africa you stated that the Church's traditional teaching has proven to be the only sure way to stop the spread of HIV. Critics, including critics from the Church's own ranks, object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms.
Pope Benedict: The media coverage completely ignored the rest of the trip to Africa on account of a single statement. Someone had asked me why the Catholic Church adopts an unrealistic and ineffective position on Aids. At that point, I really felt that I was being provoked, because the Church does more than anyone else. And I stand by that claim.
Because she is the only institution that assists people up close and concretely, with prevention, education, help, counsel, and accompaniment. And because she is second to none in treating so many Aids victims, especially children with Aids.
I had the chance to visit one of these wards and to speak with the patients. That was the real answer: The Church does more than anyone else, because she does not speak from the tribunal of the newspapers, but helps her brothers and sisters where they are actually suffering.
In my remarks I was not making a general statement about the condom issue, but merely said, and this is what caused such great offense, that we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms. Much more needs to be done. We must stand close to the people, we must guide and help them; and we must do this both before and after they contract the disease.
As a matter of fact, you know, people can get condoms when they want them anyway. But this just goes to show that condoms alone do not resolve the question itself. More needs to happen. Meanwhile, the secular realm itself has developed the so-called ABC Theory: Abstinence-Be Faithful-Condom, where the condom is understood only as a last resort, when the other two points fail to work.
This means that the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man's being.
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.
Peter Seewald: Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?
Pope Benedict: 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.
(From The Light of the World London: CTS, 2010, pages 117-119]

Commentary from the Anscombe Bioethics Centre:

This is a significant and thoughtful passage, but one could be misrepresented or misunderstood. Hence it is important to be clear about what Pope Benedict is saying and what he is not saying.

1) The first thing the Pope says is that the fundamental response of the Church to the HIV crisis should be to guide, to support and to accompany the victims - and “she is second to none in treating so many AIDS victims, especially children with AIDS.” [Indeed in 2001 it was estimated approximately 25% of all AIDS care worldwide was provided by Catholic organisations]. Unfortunately this key message of the Pope may well be lost in what follows but an attempt should be made to repeat it, at least to those more sympathetic in the media who may report it.

2) Secondly, in relation to condoms and AIDS prevention the Pope reiterates that, “we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms”. To make the point he considers “the so-called ABC Theory”. While the Western media have never taken abstinence or fidelity seriously in the approach to AIDS, the predominant approach of secular AIDS education programmes in Africa and elsewhere is A-B-C: Abstinence-Be Faithful-Condom so that condom is the third line of defence (or as the Pope says, as “a last resort”) not the starting point. Furthermore, a fixation with condoms can also lead to the “banalization of sexuality” against which the Pope urges a “humanization of sexuality”.

3) Thirdly, (and this is what has been the focus of media attention) the use of a condom could be “a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility”. This is indeed a dramatic statement because it is the first time that a Pope has said something positive, albeit in a very qualified sense, about the decision to use a condom to prevent infection. The example he uses is deliberate – a male prostitute, one whose activity is far from the Church’s teaching and is far from a humanized sexuality, and whose actions are already non-procreative. In this case the decision to use a condom could be a “first step” in a moral development – recognising responsibility for others and for oneself – taking care of others and of oneself. What should be clear is that this first step should not be the last step: that someone in this degrading and dangerous situation needs to find a different way of living altogether. But nevertheless, the decision to try to limit the danger of infection (for oneself and for others) can be a first step in a positive moral development.

Note what is not being said here. The Pope is not saying that the use of condoms is in itself moral or virtuous. Nor is he saying that their use can be “justified” on pragmatic grounds as a policy of AIDS prevention. He explicitly denies both of these moves. The use of condoms is “not… a real or moral solution”. Hence the Pope is not endorsing the arguments of some moral theologians that the use of condoms to prevent infection is objectively justified as a ‘lesser evil’ or by ‘double effect’. Rather, the Pope assumes that the use of condoms in not objectively good but that it might nevertheless represent for some person a subjective and partial move towards the good, “a first step” (the Pope repeats the phrase “ein erster Schritt”) on the way towards greater moral understanding. The Pope is thus considering an individual and thinking of his moral development. He is not suggesting that such an act might be objectively morally justifiable.

How significant is this statement? It is the first time that a Pope has said something positive, albeit in a very qualified sense, about the decision to use a condom to prevent infection. It is also a remarkable statement in terms of its tone and for what is not said. The Pope does not say that condoms are ineffective or that they are likely to make things worse. Indeed he says they are sometimes used with “the intention of reducing the risk of infection” which gives the impression that, in an individual case, they may actually reduce the risk. He is clear that condoms on their own are not the “solution”, and that “much more needs to be done”. But he does not deny that condoms might reduce infection rates in some circumstances. He even states that they might represent a subjectively positive moral step in some individual cases, if it is just a first step on a longer moral journey.

It is very likely that this statement by the Pope will be represented as a change of Vatican policy towards condoms and HIV. However, the Pope is not here addressing the question of institutional policy but is addressing a question of moral theology. He is asking whether in some cases the decision to use a condom might be a positive moral step. Some theologians may well argue that this paves the way for a new Vatican policy of at least tolerating the distribution of condoms: which it may to some extent. But this is more than the Pope explicitly says and to move too quickly to further possible implications is to risk losing the significance of what the Pope is actually saying.

A fixation with the policy on condoms is precisely what the Pope wants us to move on from. No such policy can be a “solution” if it is not part of a broader humanization. Nevertheless, what the Pope has done, without denying any part of traditional teaching is to call attention to a case of someone for whom the decision to use a condom is “a first step in the direction of a moralization”. Thus in some cases the decision to use a condom could be positive, at least in a subjective and partial way. But the Pope has said this in the hope of redirecting people away from fixation on condoms. This is why he calls it “a first step” a step that calls for further steps, towards faithfulness and the humanization of sexuality, that is towards the ‘A’ and the ‘B’ of ‘A-B-C’.

Pope Benedict starts by calling attention to the need for solidarity and accompaniment with victims and to the tremendous work the Church is doing in this regard. People may not hear this point, but it is perhaps more likely to be heard in the context of this passage because of the tone of the passage as a whole. As the Pope made an impression in his visit to Britain as much by his tone as by his words, so the tone of these words will also give an impression.

Dr David Albert Jones
Anscombe Bioethics Centre, 21 November 2010

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