The Pope, Condoms, HIV

Calm down, dears, it’s only an interview.  And, to my knowledge, popes do not modify the consistent teaching of the Church or issue Magisterial pronouncements settling complex moral questions in meetings with journalists, even ones as friendly to them as Peter Seewald is to Pope Benedict.  So, where can we start in understanding what is going on?

1. The Church’s teaching has not changed.  That is fundamental.  The question as to whether it could be permissable for someone, already in moral opprobrium, or indeed for spouses in legitimate marriages, to use a condom in some effort to avoid passing on HIV, was (and remains) an open one.  Ethicists and theologians have been discussing it for years.  Many “conservatives” have argued positively that use of condoms in these circumstances was not immoral and not (in a moral sense) contraceptive (although it may of course prevent conception, that is not its purpose).  We are not strictly talking about double effect, though, which is in part why it is so complex a question.

2. There is no question that the Pope has “approved” condom use in the “fight against HIV”.  This would indicate a generalised view that condoms make a positive contribution to solving the problem of HIV at a population level (this question must always be looked at at the “macro” and the “micro” levels, that of whole populations and that of individuals).  Not only does the Pope not support this (cf. his comments on the way to the Cameroon last year), and is correct in his opposition, but it is not what he is talking about in this interview.  He quite clearly states “individual cases”.  That means what it says.  Each case, when making moral judgements, must be taken on its merits.

3.  The Pope is probably backing one side of the argument over another.  He is clearly hinting at that he may be beginning to take the view, expressed famously by Rohnheimer, that condomistic sex may not be a case of contraception, but equally that that fact does not make condom use good, licit or even advisable.  He gives quite a specific, but in a way unhelpful, example (prostitution); unhelpful because those already living without regard for Christian moral teaching can hardly worsen their state by using a condom to protect others from HIV – that seems to me to be basic, nothing new, and a bit of red herring.  Whereas in reality the argument really lies with, and  may be even stronger when applied to, the married where the intentionality to contracept is absent.  Unfortunately the Pope’s comments do not seem to speak to this situation, except obliquely.  However, I can hardly believe that the Pope intends to say it is justifiable for a prostitute to use a condom to prevent the spread of HIV, but that such a possibility cannot be imagined for spouses under certain circumstances.

4. This is not a question of contraception, nor of other STIs.  There is the possibility, indeed, I would say the probability that some in the Western media will read this as  a loosening of Church teaching on contraception generally or the use of condoms to prevent other sexual diseases from be transmitted.  It isn’t.  The Pope is talking about very specific circumstances relating to the crisis of HIV/AIDS mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.  He has not been taking advice from the Blairs.  Condom use remains “not a real and moral solution”.  And there is no question that the act of sex, involving a condom for a contraceptive purpose remains “intrinsically evil”.

5. The view that condoms may be used in certain circumstances does not equate to an approval of other “unnatural” sexual acts.  This is another important point: some may argue that condomistic sex equates to sodomy, masturbation or fellatio.  However, the counter-argument to that is simple: the physical nature of those acts is intrinsically closed to life, whereas normal sexual intercourse is not, even when a condom is used.  There is no traction, it seems to me, in trying to justify say, homosexual acts, from the idea that condoms use may be justifiable.

So, what in general might we take from this?  Firstly: the Church’s teaching remains unaltered: sexual acts belong between spouses and should be intentionally open to life.  Secondly: in the Pope’s view, the use of condoms in certain individual cases where the contraceptive intentionality is absent and the intention to prevent the spread of HIV present, may be justifiable, but is never morally good.  Thirdly: the proper way to deal with the spread of HIV is to explain and call everyone Christian teaching about the virtue of chastity.  Fourthly: that we have no idea of the full answer given by the Pope and what the context of the quotes lifted from it is.  Fifthly: that the press is completely obsessed with sex (that the Pope loves Jesus Christ and his heavenly friends include (no surprises) S. Augustine and S. Bonaventure does not a good front page story make, apparently).

Maybe more once I have the book and can see the whole context of the Holy Father’s answer.  I’m sure you are looking forward to that…!!

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Filed under Benedict XVI, Books, Catholic Church, Evangelium Vitae, Pope Benedict

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