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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