Understanding the Pope's Dilemma on Condoms

In yesterday’s post on Pope Benedict’s remarks concerning the use of condoms in AIDS prevention, I promised there would be more to follow, so here ‘tis.

For those who may not be aware, there is a new, book-length interview with Pope Benedict in which he made remarks that were sure to—and were—widely misunderstood and misrepresented in the press. “Press gets religion story wrong” is about as common a narrative as “Dog bites man” or “Sun rises in east.” Go figure.

Anyway, it’s a fascinating book. YOU CAN ORDER IT HERE.

It was inevitable that the press would parse the Pontiff’s comments along the lines of the Pope “modifying the Catholic Church’s absolute ban on the use of condoms,” as Damian Thompson of the Telegraph put it.

I want to give kudos to Thompson, though, for correcting himself very promptly. May his journalistic tribe increase!

The idea that the Catholic Church has an “absolute ban on the use of condoms” is widespread, though, so let’s take a moment to look at it.

Just how absolute is the ban?

Well, as I’ve noted before, on more than one occasion, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states (quoting Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae):

“[E]very action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil [CCC 2370].

I’ve boldfaced the phrase “conjugal act” because it’s the key to understand what is being said. Many gloss over this phrase and assume it means “sexual act.” It doesn’t. “Conjugal”—like its Latin equivalent, coniugale—doesn’t mean “sexual”; it means “marital.”

If you are having sex with someone you are (heterosexually) married to then you are engaging in the marital act. Otherwise, not. If you are engaging in sexual behavior but not with someone you’re married to then it is a different kind of act (masturbation, adultery, fornication, etc.).

What the Church—in Humanae Vitae and the Catechism—has done is say that one cannot deliberately frustrate the procreative aspect of sexual intercourse between man and wife.

That’s actually a fairly narrow statement. It doesn’t even address all situations that may arise in marriages, because there may be situations in which the law of double effect would allow the toleration of a contraceptive effect as long as this is a side effect of the action rather than being intended as a means or an end.

It thus would rule out the use of a condom to prevent a husband and wife from conceiving a child, but that doesn’t address condom use in other situations. Thus far the Church has not explored the question of condom use—or other, typically contraceptive acts—in cases outside of marriage.

Why not?

The Church holds that all sexual acts outside of marriage are gravely sinful. To start exploring the question of contraceptive use outside of marriage would put the Church in a really weird position that could lead to the subversion of the very moral values it is trying to promote.

We all know how in the public schools sex-ed teachers often pay lip service to the idea that people shouldn’t have sex before marriage and then spend enormous amounts of time spelling out just how to do it and what contraceptive and “safe sex” alternatives there are. The frequent result is thus a message of, “Don’t, but allow me to give you an extended discourse on just what to do in case you decide otherwise.”

School kids recognize the phoniness and pretense of this and that it amounts to a tacit permission for them to go off and sexually misbehave.

The Church, understandably, does not want to be put in the same position. It’s about calling people to authentic moral and ethical values, not giving them advice on how to sin.

And so it’s left the field largely to moral theologians to discuss and not really treated it on the Magisterial level.

That’s something that may change, though. It’s easy to see how changing social factors—including the AIDS crisis—could cause pressure for this question to be treated on the Magisterial level. That’s one reason I’ve addressed this subject in the past, to help people understand what the Magisterium has and has not said thus far, so that if it says something in the future, they will have the context to process and assimilate it.

That this kind of work is needed was evidenced yesterday when many people online were saying how their hearts or stomachs lurched when they encountered the first press reports of the Pope’s remarks.

Now, the Holy See could in the future say that the principles articulated in Humanae Vitae regarding contraception also apply to all sexual acts outside of marriage, or some of them, or none of them. At least it could, hypothetically.

What is it likely to do in practice?

It’s hard to say, but Pope Benedict’s recent interview is suggestive. In the interview he considered the case of a male prostitute. Male prostitutes aren’t all that common from what I’m given to understand. Certainly they aren’t as common as the female variety is supposed to be. Which raises the question of why the Pontiff would zero in on this example.

Presumably, it is because male prostitutes most commonly service male clients, in which case the act is homosexual in nature and thus has no procreative aspect to begin with. The question of contraception thus doesn’t arise because there is no openness to new life in the act in the first place. He also might have chosen this example because males, whether behaving homosexually or heterosexually, have a greater chance of infecting others with HIV, but my guess is that he’s thinking of homosexual prostitution in particular.

It’s easy to see how one could look at that situation and say, “Male homosexual prostitutes are at high risk of both contracting and transmitting HIV; it would be better if they gave up prostitution altogether, but if they are engaging in this activity then the use of a condom would reduce the risk of HIV transmission, and it wouldn’t make the acts they are performing any less open to life than they already are.”

The trouble would be how to present this judgment in a way that does not cause more problems than it solves.

Pope Benedict’s remarks in the interview seem to be an attempt to do just this. He could have phrased himself more clearly, but (a) this was an interview, and in interviews one does not have the kind of leisure to carefully craft one’s remarks that writing allows and (b) he’s straining to find words that communicate the basic moral insight without leading to headlines like “Pope approves condoms!” and “Pope changes Church teaching on sex!”

All in all, his “first step on the road to a more human sexuality” approach is not that bad. Also, addressing the matter in an interview—rather than in a Church document—is a not-that-bad way of getting the subject on the table while blunting some of the problems that could result.

Or not.

One can certainly judge that it would have been better for the Pope to leave the subject unaddressed or to have addressed it in a different way or in a different venue. He himself stated repeatedly in the interview that there have been problems communicating through the press in his reign (even describing the Vatican’s PR efforts as a “failure” on one recent subject), and in hindsight he may (or may not) judge that this was the case here as well.

We’ll have to see.

I have to say that I admire Benedict’s courage.

Oh, and as I predicted, the Holy See swiftly came out with a new statement clarifying the pope’s remarks.

I couldn’t help observing (with some satisfaction) how many of the exact same notes were hit in the clarification that were hit in yesterday’s post, including the fact that the pope was speaking “in a informal and not magisterial form,” to quote papal spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi.

One last thing: Over at The Telegraph, Damian Thompson does a bit of speculating that I’d like to address.

After quoting from the post I did yesterday, Thompson ponders the case of theologically orthodox bloggers

who claim that the Pope didn’t say what he obviously did say… and then emphasise that he was only speaking in an interview AND how dare L’Osservatore Romano release these quotes out of context. Hmm. There is a strong whiff of cognitive dissonance in the air. I hate to pick a fight with bloggers I admire, and I won’t mention any names, but I get the strong impression that certain conservatives are tying themselves in knots trying not to say what they really think.

Which is that they disagree with the Pope.

I don’t know if I am a blogger who Thompson admires (though if I am, let me say that I also admire Thompson and, in fact, am envious of The Church Times having once called him a “blood-crazed ferret”). However, one might suppose that I am among those he is talking about here since I am one of two bloggers mentioned by name (the other is Eric Giunta) and I did emphasize the interview nature of the Pope’s remarks and the fact that the increasingly-erratic L’Osservatore Romano did a disservice to the public in releasing the comments the way it did.

So let me clear up any potential misunderstanding: I don’t disagree with the Pope on this issue.

There are issues I do disagree with him on (e.g., I tend to be more skeptical of claims regarding global warming than he appears to be), but this isn’t one of them.

I agree that if you’re going to engage in homosexual prostitution that it is better to do so in a way that lessens the chance of getting or giving someone a fatal disease.

I also believe that if you are going to have extramarital sex that it is better to do so with a person who is a willing accomplice rather than raping someone. However, I wouldn’t want to see false and misleading headlines like:

Akin says adultery sometimes permissible to stop rape

Akin: adultery can be justified in some cases

Akin says adultery can be used in the fight against rape

Certainly there is a disanalogy here. Adultery is intrinsically wrong and can never be done, regardless of the circumstances. On the other hand, if Pope Benedict is right that it is better for a person engaging in homosexual prostitution to limit the danger of HIV by using a condom (as I think he is) then this use does not add a new sin to the ones already being committed.

But there is a danger of sending a highly misleading message here. Headlines stating things like “condoms sometimes permissible” and “condoms can be justified in some cases” or “condoms can be used in fight against AIDS” will not be understood by the general public in the limited sense that the Pope is addressing. They will be understood way more broadly than that, and that makes them fundamentally misleading.

I do acknowledge that there is cognitive dissonance here, but it’s not dissonance caused by disagreement with the Pope. It’s caused by the same communications dilemma the Pope faces: How to communicate a moral truth about limiting the harm caused by sin without appearing to give tacit permission to the sin itself or to other, related sins.