An open letter to Fr. Martin Rhonheimer by Luke Gormally
Dear Fr Martin,
I hope you may agree that the time has passed when it would be appropriate to resume the private and friendly email exchanges we had in 2004/2005. Your recent interventions, published by Sandro Magister and 'Our Sunday Visitor', following the observations of Pope Benedict about the use of condoms as a prophylactic measure, amount in effect to renewed public advocacy of your point of view. That point of view originally found public expression in an article in 'The Tablet' (10 July 2004) about which you say: 'I was informed that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, had no problem with it or its arguments'.
It is unclear what is strictly implied by this statement. Are we to assume that the Congregation formally considered your article in the light of advice from its consultors and agreed there was no problem with it? Many will think that that is what your statement implies. And if they do, then a viewpoint which I continue to think profoundly subversive of the Church's teaching on sexual ethics will appear to have acquired authoritative endorsement. There is clearly an urgent need now for the Congregation publicly to clarify its position.
A significant body of moral theologians and moral philosophers submitted some time ago a detailed critique of your position to the Holy See. It is a pity that that critique is not in the public domain and that I am the person identified as a principal critic of your position. Though I lack the distinction of many of your critics, the public prominence I have been given inclines me in face of the renewed advocacy of your position to reiterate the principal points of the critique which I advanced in 2005.
As you know, my critique did not rest on any claim that the use of a condom is necessarily contraceptive. Acknowledging that, however, does not mean that the teaching of 'Humanae vitae' is irrelevant to this debate, for section 12 of that encyclical states a quite basic principle of the Church's sexual ethic. It is that there is 'an inseparable connection - established by God and not to be broken by human choice - between the unitive meaning and the procreative meaning which are both inherent in the conjugal act'. If the exercise of sexual capacity is to be chaste it should be marital, and to count as marital it must be reproductive type behaviour, ''per se' apt for the generation of offspring' (Canon 1061). Any type of behaviour which 'qua' behavioural performance is of its nature inapt for the generation of offspring cannot be the bearer of 'procreative meaning'. It cannot therefore unite a couple in the way proper to marriage. Intercourse with a condom is of its nature inapt for the generation of offspring. It is a minimal condition of intercourse being of the reproductive kind that a man ejaculates into his wife's reproductive tract. It does not make sense to say that a couple engaging in intercourse with a condom intend marital intercourse. One can intend only what is in principle realisable, and marital intercourse is not realisable through behaviour of a non-reproductive kind.
What seemed to me radically subversive about your position in 2004 (with which the CDF 'had no problem') is the claim that provided a couple have a prophylactic rather than contraceptive intent in engaging in condomistic intercourse their intercourse is marital. That amounted to saying that essentially non-reproductive type behaviour can be marital, a thesis that is inconsistent with the basic norm of chaste sexual behaviour. Though in your OSV interview you say that you did not at the time 'sufficiently take into account' the kind of objection I have stated to your position, you also say you remain unsure whether this objection is compelling. And it is significant that your reason today for not encouraging a couple to use a condom is because of what you take to be required by the virtue of justice (that 'one abstain completely from dangerous acts') and not at all because of what is required by the virtue of chastity ('I would not think their intercourse to be what moral theologians call a sin 'against nature' equal to masturbation or sodomy').
Condomistic intercourse as essentially non-reproductive sexual behaviour is precisely what moral theologians call a sin 'against nature'. And sins 'against nature' are more deeply contrary to the virtue of chastity than simple fornication. It seems to me that you misinterpret the motives of those who object to the idea that it would be better for an adulterer, a fornicator or a prostitute to wear a condom in having intercourse, as you propose. What is at issue is not a concern to tell people how to perform intrinsically evil acts. It is rather a concern not to endorse the 'common sense', worldly wisdom, which you seem to endorse in circumstances in which people cannot be persuaded to embrace chaste behaviour. For your admirable desire to persuade people 'to abstain from immoral behaviour altogether' will hardly be advanced by representing as preferable 'sins against nature' which are more deeply corrupting of a person's sexual dispositions.
A concern for justice is indeed important in sexual relationships but the claims of justice ought never to be secured at the expense of subverting other moral dispositions. That is the very least that is implied in the ancient thesis of the unity of the virtues.
We should be clear what is meant by that rather vague phrase 'humanising sexuality'. It cannot be taken to mean, if it is to be consistent with the Church's teaching, persuading people to make their sexual activity the expression of just any kind of 'loving concern' for others. It means converting them to a chaste way of life, which surely requires that one is unambiguous about the need to abstain from sexual activity outside marriage and within marriage to engage only in such sexual intercourse as is 'inseparably unitive and procreative in its significance'.
I have addressed this open letter to you in the hope that a brief presentation of a counter-position to yours will serve to bring home the need for an authoritative clarification of the issues. For the CDF's apparent endorsement of your 2004 article is troubling.
With kind regards and all good wishes,
London, December 15, 2010