New Developments on the Pope and Condoms

Each new day seems to bring several new twists to the pope/condom story, so let’s look at what’s happening now. (PART I OF THIS SERIES, PART TWO.)

First, here are some web resources to check out:

* Ed Peters’ trenchant remarks on L’Osservatore Romano’s PR debacle

* Papal spokesman Federico Lombardi’s initial clarification of the Pope’s remarks

* Reportage on Lombardi’s second clarification

* An interview with Archbishop Burke for his take on what the pope was saying

* Damian Thompson’s latest posts (first post, second post, third post)

I don’t want to unduly pick on Thompson, but blood-crazed ferret that he is, his latest posts continue with a rather snarky, triumphalistic tone toward those he terms “conservative” (meaning theologically orthodox) bloggers, who he perceives as disagreeing with the opinion Pope Benedict expressed in his new interview book, The Light of the World ( YOU CAN ORDER IT HERE).

He continues to insist that

he did say that the use of condoms was justified in certain circumstances [emphasis in oridinal].

Not so fast, Damian. Let’s try to keep from putting words in the Pontiff’s mouth. As you yourself have noted on a prior occasion, the Pope did not use the word “justified” or “permissible” or anything along those lines.

One is tempted to ask, a little cheekily, “What part of the Pope’s statement that the Church ‘does not regard it as a real or moral solution’ don’t you understand?”

The issue requires some care, not for the least of reasons because what the Pope said is (a) not as clear as it could be, (b) there are known translation issues here (e.g., L’Osservatore Romano mistranslating “male prostitute” as “female prostitute,” prompting Lombardi’s second clarification), and (c) other differences in the different language editions of his remarks.

So let’s start with what the Pope said (English version):

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.

If you’ve been following the development of the story carefully, you’ll notice that the same phrases keep coming up in this regard. In Lombardi’s first clarification he stated that

” the Pope considers an exceptional circumstance in which the exercise of sexuality represents a real threat to another person’s life. In such a case, the Pope does not morally justify the disordered practice of sexuality but maintains that the use of a condom to reduce the danger of infection can be ‘a first act of responsibility’, ‘a first step on the road toward a more human sexuality’, rather than not using it and exposing the other person to a mortal risk.

And in his second clarification Lombardi states:

“I asked the pope personally if there was a serious distinction in the choice of male instead of female and he said ‘no’,” Lombardi said.

“That is, the point is it (the use of a condom) should be a first step toward responsibility in being aware of the risk of the life of the other person one has relations with,” Lombardi said.

“If it is a man, a woman or a transsexual who does it, we are always at the same point, which is the first step in responsibly avoiding passing on a grave risk to the other.

The fact that the same phrases keep being used—without paraphrases like “justified” or “permitted” or even “lesser evil”—suggest that this use is studied. It is intentional. They are deliberately not using terms like “justified,” “permitted,” and the like.

So if the Pope has chosen not to use such words, let’s not put them in his mouth, shall we?

From what I can tell the “first step” language can be taken in one of two ways, which are as follows:

1) The decision to use a condom represents a first step toward a moral exercise of human sexuality in that it shows the person is inwardly aware that not everything in the sexual sphere is permissible (e.g., risking the life of the other).

2) The decision to use a condom represents a first step toward a moral exercise of human sexuality in that a person is concretely limiting the danger to another.

These two senses are not mutually exclusive. One can view condom use as a first step toward morality in both senses.

The first understanding speaks to the inner attitude and awareness of the person using the condom. On this view one might say, “It’s a good thing that the condom user has at least some awareness of the limits of what is moral. It’s still not justified for him to use a condom—even in the context of an act of homosexual prostitution—but at least he has some kind of moral awareness that may grow with time.”

One also could hold sense (1) and simply not address the issue of whether the use of a condom is justified in such a context. One might simply be noting that the awareness of some moral limits is a good sign and not address the question of whether the condom use is justified.

Or one could say that the moral awareness is good and that using a condom limits the evil of the sex act in question: It may still be an act of homosexual prostitution that poses some risk of HIV to the other, but at least the risk is limited. It’s thus “less evil” than it would be without the condom. This converges with sense (2), above.

Even then, though, it is still misleading to say that the use of condoms is “justified.”

Consider a parallel moral judgment: “If you are going to shoot bullets into someone’s body for no good reason, it is less evil to aim randomly than to aim directly for a vital organ.” This judgment is quite true, but it puts the accent on the wrong moral sylLAble to pass this off with headlines like “Pope: shooting bullets randomly okay in some cases.”

The fundamental moral structure of the overall act is gravely morally disordered, just as is shooting bullets into a person’s body for no good reason. Acts of homosexual prostitution (and heterosexual prostitution!) are always gravely immoral. The most that could be said is that using a condom in such acts in an HIV-positive situation might be “less evil” than not using one.

The Pope, the Church, and for that matter theologically orthodox bloggers, are right to resist misleading characterizations that try to isolate consideration of the condom apart from the larger framework of the moral act, which is gravely evil.

To focus on the condom itself and trumpet it “justified” is to miss the moral forest for a single tree. The overall moral structure of human sexuality is what needs to be the focus of attention, and thus the Pope and his assistants have been assiduously pointing to the forest, though the press (as usual) seem to have myopia.

And it’s not even certain at this point that the Pope is endorsing the “less evil” view just articulated. Many competent readers have looked at his remarks and seemed to think he was endorsing some version of interpretation (1), above (the “moral awareness is good” view rather than the “condom use is less evil” view).

When I initially encountered his remarks, this was one of the first thoughts that suggested itself.

I try to give a careful reading to texts like this, and the Pope’s initial statement, “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals” suggested that the Pope meant more than just the “moral awareness is good” view. The word “basis” seemed in this context to suggest a basis for some kind of action, like the act of using a condom, which would get us to the “condom use is less evil” view.

But I don’t consider this to be decisive since there can be translation issues affecting this, as well as the fact the Pope was speaking rather than writing and he simply may have been a bit tongue-tied or awkward in trying to get across his point.

I thus see there as still being a significant amount of ambiguity here, and I would expect further clarification with time. As things progress, we should get more evidence about whether the Pope intended the moral awareness view or the less evil view.

I also don’t view the fact that the same thing was said about females as males as being any kind of surprise. In philosophy and theology, it is common to select an extreme case for purposes of making the principles clear and then seeing how those principles apply to other cases. It makes sense to start with a male (and thus presumably homosexual) prostitute since there is no procreative potential in his sexual acts and use that to identify principles that may also apply to other situations.

It’s important to note, though, that the Church tends to proceed in a stepwise manner, starting with limited, particular cases, and then filling in the picture by considering others.

At this point we don’t even have a Magisterial action on this question (it was an interview asking the Pope’s personal opinions, after all), but Pope Benedicts remarks—and the subsequent clarifications via Lombardi—represent indicators of what the Magisterium may say in the future.

What do you think?