Sunday, November 21, 2010

Catholics, Condoms and Confusion

So Pope Benedict XVI has said - finally - that he could see some cases where condom use to prevent the spread of HIV as being morally permissible. A small step, but in the minds of many folks (including many Catholics) definitely a step in the right direction.

Here's where the confusion comes in: The Vatican is insisting that this does not represent a change in Catholic teaching on condom use.

Uno momento. For decades now, popes have been saying "no" to condoms. Even if you're married and preventing the spread of HIV. Absolute rule, no exceptions. Then the current pope says he can see where, in certain cases, it's a good thing. That's not a change?

Well, according to the Associated Press report...

The Holy See's chief spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, stressed that Benedict was not "morally justifying" the unbridled exercise of sexuality and the church's main advice in the fight against AIDS remains the same: promoting sexual abstinence and fidelity among married couples.

The logic, apparently, is that since the Vatican is still stressing abstinence and monogamy, then its fundamental teaching hasn't changed. Except for one thing: An even more fundamental aspect of the church's moral philosophy has changed.

Originally, the leadership of the Catholic church adhered to absolutism - there is only one morally correct answer, and no deviation is allowed. And that's been the Vatican's problem in terms of being able to adapt to new facts and realities: absolutism allows no exceptions. As soon as you allow an exception, for whatever reason, you're no longer absolutist.

As soon as the Pope said that condoms can be used in certain circumstances, even very narrow ones, then he crossed the line from absolutism to contextualism. So, in a sense, this is representing a shift in Catholic teaching. Maybe Benedict and the other Cardinals are just too stubborn to admit it.

Well, it should be obvious to anyone who reads this blog that I consider it a welcome change. If the Catholic church is indeed going to stand for life, then they need to take the realities of life into account. And if this small step helps them to do that, we should applaud and support it.


  1. Condoms are a good idea to prevent spreading things like AIDS, but how will the Pope/ Catholic Church be able to decide in which other circumstances it's allowable. That would be interesting to see their reasoning about condom use from here on out.

  2. When you read the Pope's actual words, I think there is much less room for hope than you are crediting. "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," Benedict said.

    Asked if that meant that the church wasn't opposed in principle to condoms, the pope replied: The church "of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but in this or that case, there can be nonetheless in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality," according to an English translation of the book obtained by The Associated Press.

    In other words, the use of condoms in any circumstance where they might prevent conception is still absolutely forbidden. (And it was always and only the contraceptive factor that was verboten; for example, the use of a condom by early astronauts to prevent any leakage from shorting out the spacesuit was perfectly fine. It wasn't the condom per se that was forbidden; there are no Biblical injunctions against latex balloons.) There is no change in church policy or theory, only a recognition by the Pope of the homosexual's "first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility,". In other words, if homosexuals develop a moral sense, it might be "a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality," by which he means they might become heterosexual.

    The Pope remains an absolutist, and is unlikely to find a more human way of living.

  3. Joel: Strange way for Benedict to prescribe (or allow) condom usage as a way of bringing someone closer to a moral ideal.

    Let's see if I understand ... Homosexuality is wrong, according to the church. Using condoms is wrong, according to the church. But homosexuals using condoms is "less wrong" because it shows some measure of responsibility, while heterosexuals using them for similar reasons is still condemned?

    Sorry, but it sounds more like the Pope and others in the Vatican are using contextualism to justify a form of casuistry, while still refusing to accept that doing so still runs counter to their foundation of absolutism.

  4. Not quite right. Using condoms FOR CONTRACEPTION, even incidental contraception, is forbidden. Using condoms for any purpose not involving contraception is and always was perfectly ok. Using condoms as party balloons is ok; using party balloons as contraceptives is not. Using Saran Wrap FOR CONTRACEPTION is forbidden, but that does not mean that Saran Wrap itself is forbidden. As homosexuals cannot conceive with or without the condom, it is not, in their case, a contraceptive- and so is not forbidden, although the sex act, with or without the condom, is. The condom is not inherently evil, any more than the balloon or the Saran Wrap is; it is the use for contraception that is evil.

    The reason homosexual sex with condoms is less wrong is because without, there are two sins involved: the sex act, and the reckless endangerment of your partner in the pursuit of your gratification. With the condom, there is only one sin- the sex itself. Hence the "first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility,"

    The reason heterosexual couples cannot use condoms even for the prevention of disease is the possibility of accidentally preventing conception in the process. The Pope is still an absolutist on that point.

  5. Well, whether he is an absolutist, apparently there are many Catholics who report being absolutely befuddled.