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.


John Kearney said...

What confused me was the statement that it applied to male and female prostitutes. The Pope as I thought was defending the abuse of women in Africa. Again it has alwasy been a catholic principle that you cannot commit a sinful act for an end that is good. This was the argument when a baby in the womb was threatening a mother`s life. Since Aids is an STD`s we cannot ignore the right to exemption of other STD`s. You have to look at the 3whole picture. Then of course there is the assumption that condoms are scientifically proven to stop Aids because in laboratory conditions the manufacturers only saw a little seepage. Going on that science I should always buy Persil for my washing machine since scientific tests have proved it works whiter. John Kearney

Sharon said...

What about the Vademecum for Confessors no.13? spouse

This would seem to give permission for one spouse to use contraception and for the other spouse to agree to sexual intercourse.

What about the wife who does not have the choice to refuse sexual intercourse with her HIV positive husband? Would Vademecum for Confessors no.13 be applied here?

Is it true that some African religious sisters were given permission to go on the pill when it looked like they could be raped?

Graham Moorhouse said...

| would have hoped that the Holy Father faced with two men annally copulating would isue a ringing call to repentance not issue safe-sex advice!

I can only assume that the Holy Father's job discription changed sometime after Vat II and I missed it.

Graham Moorhouse

Joseph Shaw said...

The old discussions of 'coitus interuptus' allowed the wife to consent to sex even if her husband was regularly practicing it. No one suggested that coitus interuptus was ok. It is hard to see what else you could say to the wife. It is even harder to see the application here.

Unknown said...

From my own perspective, I think that when you get married they should put something on your driver's license indicating you are married, and at the store they could card you for the condoms. Not married, no condoms for you. And any store violating that should be fined a massive fine.

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