A Moral “Condomdrum”?

The initial wave of misinformation regarding Pope Benedict XVI and the issue of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS has already passed, and now people are actually examining the Pope”s statements and realizing that there has been no change in the Church”s teaching on contraception.

I think this is the key sentence in the book interview that has produced such controversy:

“[The Church] of course does not regard [the use of condoms] 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.”

First, note that Pope Benedict says flat out that the use of condoms is not a real (i.e., practical, effective) or moral solution to the HIV/AIDS crisis. It”s not a moral solution. And btw, it doesn”t work.

But what about the second part of the sentence? Let”s consider a homosexual male prostitute (in which case there would be no issue of contraception), who is on the journey to conversion. He should not be in that profession, and he should find a ”more human way” of living his sexuality that respects the good of the human person. As possibly a step in that direction, he may begin to use condoms so as to prevent possible harm to his clients. That does not make his conduct morally good. In fact, statistics show that this doesn”t even make his conduct particularly “safe.” However, it could signal that he’2012-04-24 18:33:12′s becoming more open to the good of others, which could eventually lead him to Christ and liberate him from his bondage to sexual sin.  

Janet Smith compared it to bank robbers who started to use blanks in their guns out of concern for others” safety. It doesn”t make the bank robbery morally good, but it does represent a little more concern for all the innocent bystanders, tellers, etc., which in itself is a positive step that could lead to conversion and restitution. In affirming that element of goodness in the decision not to use bullets, one would certainly not be encouraging criminals to practice “safe robbery.” Yet it is possible that the impulse of responsibility that led to not using bullets may be part of a much greater transformation leading the criminals to repent and to be open to God”s mercy.

The message–echoing the Ten Commandments–remains the same: Do not kill. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal.

I guess when you throw together (a) widespread societal rejection of the Church”s teaching on moral issues, (b) journalists covering the Church who really have no understanding of the Church”s teaching on contraception, (c) quotes from the Holy Father that are incomplete and taken out of context, and (d) Pope Benedict using a popular forum to provide a very nuanced theological opinion on a delicate subject–and one on which our own society is completely out to lunch–then you have the recipe for, well, what we”ve seen the past few days.  

Here are some additional links on the subject that shed more light on the subject:

What Pope Benedict actually said

Jimmy Akin

Janet Smith  


9 Responses to “A Moral “Condomdrum”?”

  1. John McCoy says:

    While I can appreciate the fact that this statement was not at all a condoning of condom use, the apparent moral reasoning is still very problematic.

    In the case of a prostitute, (male or female) the suggestion by the Holy Father that using a condom can be considered a movement towards a "more human way…, of living sexuality" opens a moral "can of worms" so to speak. It creates a moral slippery slope where one”s intentions can diminish the moral reprehension of certain acts.

    In this case specifically, we are discussing the illicit engagement in the marital act in the context of homosexuality and/or prostitution. Both of these are of grave moral matter. I have a hard time understanding how the introduction of a condom can be viewed as a mitigating factor or even a step in the right direction. Given the grave nature and context of the other acts, the introduction of a condom may be considered morally neutral at best. If the subject here has a sincere desire to curb the spread of infection, reducing the number of new people they come in sexual contact with might be considered in this way.

    What this all boils down to is that because the subject is already engaged in homosexual prostitution (heterosexual in the Italian reports), there”s a negligible moral consequence of adding a condom to the mix (as conception was not possible anyway). Further, it states that this adding of the condom can be a "first step".

    What disturbs me most about this statement is more the moral reasoning that is required to reach this conclusion and the resulting slippery moral slope. We know unequivocally as faithful Catholics, that one can never do evil so that good may come of it. This statement will be perceived by many as undermining that rule, though it does not actually do so.

    St. Paul explains how he would not ever eat meat sacrificed to idols if it would cause his brothers to sin, though we know there is no god but God and the offerings mean nothing in reality. Likewise, on rather deep moral and technical grounds, this statement does not amount to much, but its scandalous effects on those without deep moral understanding will likely be a big problem for a long time to come.

    The fact is, an enormous portion of the world”s population already believes that the use of a condom is in fact a first step in curbing the spread of infection. This statement, however unintentionally, undermines The Church”s almost unilateral opposition to that idea.

    In closing, the real problem here is not the actual technical detail of this statement. The real problem is the implied meanings and the resulting scandals that will arise. The use of "The Church does not…, BUT, in this or that case…nonetheless…" inadvertently places the Holy Father”s personal moral ideas in clear contrast to The Church”s position.

    If so in "this" case, what about "that" case? This is a very slippery slope.

  2. leon says:

    John, did you read the entirety of the Pope”s text? He clearly and unequivocally condemned homosexual activity and unequivocally rejected the use of condoms as a moral or real solution to the spread of AIDS. I think accusing the Pope of causing scandal (i.e., leading others to sin–CCC 2284) by his discussion could itself be considered scandalous, and at least such a serious charge demands more foundation. I think Archbishop Chaput”s comments at First Things http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2010/11/open-disarming-and-inevitably-misunderstood reflects my thoughts on this.

    Actions that are intrinsically evil or disordered (such as homosexual acts, sexual intercourse outside of marriage, contraception, abortion) are always and everywhere evil. The actor”s intentions can”t make such evil acts good. There is no slippery slope on that point. He did not say that using the condom made the act good or even less bad in itself.

    The Pope does go further. His theological speculations are not dogmatic teaching, but they seem sound. I guess one could wonder why he addressed a subject requiring such nuance in this forum. One could wonder why the Vatican”s pr people didn”t run better interference on this. And one shouldn”t wonder at how what the Pope said has been misunderstood, twisted, and attacked in the media. Any scandal is not found in what the Pope had to say, but with how some people have handled his words.

  3. Zach says:

    Good write up, Leon. Although I have come to understand the point that the Holy Father was trying to make, I”m with John on this one. I think the fact that we”re all having to jump through hoops to understand and explain this little passage is an indication that it was poorly said.

    The definition of "scandal" in the CCC seems to imply intent on the part of the scandalizer, and I certainly don”t think anyone thinks the Pope meant to cause any harm. Nevertheless, I think his words have and will cause harm to many.

    As an experiment, I read the "money quote" to my wife and followed it up with the orthodox Catholic explanation of what the Pope was [i]trying[/i] to say. She didn”t get it at all. She said, "Ewww. Why is the Pope even talking about that kind of thing? There”s nothing [i]good[/i] about that activity at all." She”s a smart, faithful Catholic woman, but she”s admittedly no philosopher or theologian. In other words, she”s like alot of people who will hear the Pope”s words and be totally perplexed.

    I love the Holy Father. I love it that he”s a brilliant theologian. But this discussion is more fit for an obscure German professor than for the Vicar of Christ. The Pope needs to be clear and unequivocal on these matters–even in an informal interview.

  4. leon says:

    While I fundamentally disagree with both of you, there is this about Pope Benedict: While he has a gentle pastor”s heart, he is also a top-flight theologian and he expresses his ideas in such a straightforward way free of human respect (what we might call free of pr concerns) that he opens himself up to this sort of thing (cf. Regensburg address).

    Clearly in this interview (summarized in a 200-page book) Pope Benedict felt at liberty to give his views on a range of subjects, which I think is a very good thing. Yet while all this may be clear to him, some topics are better left to graduate theology or seminary classrooms than online news sources. And I think the nature of his comment was that the listener already knew B16”s fundamental position on the non-negotiable moral aspects of the problem, so he assumed sympathy with and a good-faith understanding of his thought, which unfortunately assumed too much on the part of western man.

    As many commentators have noted, L”Osservatore Romano, instead of helping actually helped to fuel the confusion. And let”s face it. "conservative" Catholics who defend the Church”s teaching on contraception were hit with a bunch of negative, inaccurate press reports coupled with a quote given without the full context. We didn”t read the Pope (if we read it at all) in an open, neutral manner, but with a critical eye looking for a gaffe. We resent having to be in defense mode and there”s a natural tendency to be critical of the Holy Father for opening this apparent can of worms.

    Yet, B16 was speaking the truth in love, and God will make good come this–including the resounding affirmations of the moral law, an enhanced understanding of the Church”s singular efforts in ministering to AIDS victims, sound teaching on human sexuality and the good of the human person that would "pastor" those engaged in homosexual behavior or prostitution by showing them the way of self-emptying love, etc.

  5. leon says:

    Another friend pointed out to me Phil Lawler”s excellent piece at Catholic Culture on this subject. I think he makes a good, detailed presentation regarding the mishandling of the issue by the L”Osservatore Romano and the Vatican Press Office. Hopefully all this won”t subvert what should be the very positive effect of the book, which should have an effect similar to JPII”s Crossing the Threshold of Hope.

    I think one reason things went awry is the assumption that when the Pope was speaking of intention, he was speaking of the moral law. In the context, the Pope was not teaching about the moral law (he had already done that), but about the first movements of grace within a very broken, sinful person. The intention to prevent another”s harm may be reflective of an openness to grace; however, we hear "intention" and we think about fundamental moral teaching and the maxim that the ends don”t justify the means.

    Certainly the Pope”s more esoteric point here may have been better left on the cutting room and not certainly not pulled out prematurely and out of context by the L”Osservatore Romano. But even in this disposable statement, for ears that ear, there is exquisite beauty and wisdom reminiscent of his saintly predecessor.

  6. leon says:

    Okay, one more comment, this time from Cardinal Burke, as reported in the Register:

    I don’t see any change in the Church’s teaching. What he’s commenting on — in fact, he makes the statement very clearly that the Church does not regard the use of condoms as a real or a moral solution — but what he’s talking about in the point he makes about the male prostitute is about a certain conversion process taking place in an individual’s life. He’s simply making the comment that if a person who is given to prostitution at least considers using a condom to prevent giving the disease to another person — even though the effectiveness of this is very questionable — this could be a sign of someone who is having a certain moral awakening. But in no way does it mean that prostitution is morally acceptable, nor does it mean that the use of condoms is morally acceptable. The point the Pope is making is about a certain growth in freedom, an overcoming of an enslavement to a sexual activity that is morally repugnant [unacceptable] so that this concern to use a condom in order not to infect a sexual partner could at least be a sign of some moral awakening in the individual, which one hopes would lead the individual to understand that his activity is a trivialization of human sexuality and needs to be changed.

  7. M. Forrest says:

    I completely agree with Cardinal Burke. I can see how the Pope”s words have been misunderstood by those unfamiliar with Catholic teaching (or by those who would like to change it). But I don”t see anything particularly controversial about what he said.

    First, it should be noted that condoms are different from the Pill, IUD”s etc. in that they are not also abortifacient. If condoms were also abortifacient, then the Pope would not have made such a statement. Condoms are immoral because they make a lie of the marital act. The marital act is an act of complete openness and giving to the other that physically reconfirms the marital covenant – the bond. In the case of a male prostitute (as the Pope mentioned in particular), we’re already dealing with a fundamentally immoral act. There is no covenant to reconfirm through the marital act in this context. It’s already a perversion of sexuality.

    Therefore, in this completely different context, the use of a condom could at least suggest that such an individual was considering something beyond momentary sexual satisfaction. And in that sense, it could be considered as a step forward for someone like a male prostitute or those who have sex with them.

  8. M. Forrest says:

    I just found this article, which is also useful:


Leave a reply