The pope said that condom use to prevent the transmission of HIV is “a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more humane sexuality.” This admission is the Catholic hierarchy’s own first step in addressing the realities about sex and sexuality.
—Catholics for Choice press release, November 21, 2010
Pope Benedict’s latest statement on condoms has provoked a storm of different reactions. Orthodox Catholics have rushed to say that the media has gratuitously misrepresented the Pope’s words, and that what he has said is simply true and commendable and changes nothing. The Pope has done no wrong: it is all the fault of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano for premature and selective quoting from a mistranslated text. An orthodox ethics centre described the Pope’s comments as “significant and thoughtful” adding that “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.” The Pope was not, however, justifying use of condoms.
In the1960s many Catholics expected that the Church would change her mind on the question of contraception. Sexual liberation and population control were two growth areas at the time, and a great deal of US elite Foundation money was pumped into promoting both worldwide and covertly inside the papal commission which urged the Church to change.
In 1968, Pope Paul VI definitively reiterated the Church’s traditional teaching by issuing the encyclical Humanae Vitae.
Why is the teaching of Humanae Vitae, whatever we might think of it, so important? Elizabeth Anscombe, the philosopher, bluntly pointed out that “If contraceptive intercourse is permissible, then what objection could there be, after all, to mutual masturbation, or copulation in vase indebito, sodomy, buggery…But, if such things are all right, it becomes perfectly impossible to see anything wrong with homosexual intercourse for example…you will have no solid reason against these things.”
In 1930, at the 7th Lambeth Conference of the Church of England, approval was given to married couples for the use of birth control in hard cases. The current Archbishop of Canterbury recently admitted that this move did indeed open the way to acceptance of the very things Anscombe mentioned - something he, unlike her, appears to welcome.
Using a condom to prevent the transmission of disease is not contraception, if there is no intent to prevent conception. However, there is reason to see the Church’s teaching as applying to all condomistic sexual acts, regardless of whether there is any intent to contracept. For, on the Church’s view, the only morally good sexual acts are those of a married couple who are truly united, in a way that refers to conception even in the infertile. Sexual love is about a physical uniting: in the process of loving, procreation can occur and in the openness to procreation, love is expressed. By extension, a condom used for disease-prevention, even by a married couple, makes an act incapable of being a truly unifying act. The act, like an act of buggery, is no longer capable of expressing the unity that only an act open to procreation can achieve.
Condoms are not, the Pope says, “a real or moral solution” to the problem of AIDS. Nonetheless, there may be a “basis” (or persons may be ‘justified’ (begründete)) in the case of some individuals (male prostitutes, say), where using a condom “can be a first step in the direction of a moralisation” (though surely not sexual moralisation) even if “not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection”.
Since “basis” or “justification” cannot mean objective moral justification of something (condom use) which the Pope appears here to condemn, it must mean some kind of grounding from the person’s own perspective and/or a factual basis for some process of ‘moral awakening’, due to the good motivations involved. Well, that wouldn’t directly contradict the prohibition of condoms. But why on earth say this?
The Pope seems to be recognising an element of concern for others which (necessarily wrongful) preparation for wrongful acts - e.g the homosexual prostitute donning a condom for sex, or the pilot dropping the less-than-effective radiation suits to the inhabitants of a city as a preparatory act for nuking it - may nonetheless involve. Such people may indeed be moving in the direction of greater humanity in the midst of very serious moral evil (but mightn’t that make them more morally culpable too?).
The Papal spokesman, Fr Lombardi, later claimed that Pope Benedict had said his comments also applied to female prostitutes. A man using a condom who has sex with a prostitute is showing some concern for her and his own health; he is also, on at least one view of Catholic teaching, engaged in perverse (as opposed to natural) sex – as is always the case with homosexual prostitutes. So while the heterosexual client’s choice to use a condom is better from one perspective, in that it shows a glimmering of concern for others, it is worse from another perspective.
Millions have, mistakenly but understandably, concluded that the Pope is recommending condoms – at least for male and female prostitutes. But in any case, Christian life is all about living a life of the theological and natural virtues, and virtue is all about the formation of good moral habits. Is the beginning of the virtue of chastity, in particular, to be found in preparing to engage in sex with a condom? To appear to suggest this seems a betrayal of prostitutes who need to be helped out of their bondage.
Why does all of this matter, especially to those who think the Church is not a little crazy on the subject of sex? Well, if we care about our civilization and about the institution of marriage, we need to be aware of those forces which seek to tear down the one institution that still propounds an exalted view of human sexuality, and for that reason says a firm ‘No’ to the many things that degrade our culture. However fallible we may be when it comes to sexual matters, we should not have to accept the agenda of those neo-Malthusians who like to flood countries with condoms under the guise of healthcare while refusing to give real aid to those in need. That they are hugging themselves with glee over the Pope’s remarks and subsequent silence is a reason to be worried. That they are praising him should make him sleep a little less easy at night.
Anthony McCarthy, an ethicist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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