The error of attempting to apply the principle of “double effect” to the use of the condom

There appears to be a considerable amount of anguish for some of us Faithful as we consider Pope Benedict’s remarks on condoms in the (not yet published) book, Light of the World.  I am hesitant to comment on something I haven’t read yet (despite that we have seen the two specific paragraphs which mention condoms, we still do not seem to have the full context of this discussion), but I would like to offer something on one issue which, from my casual reading of blog comments and posts such as this one, is causing even more confusion: whether the use of the condom to decrease the possibility of the transmission of disease, or to protect against it as we might say, can be said to come under “double effect”.

“Double effect” means, of course, that an action which is of itself morally good or neutral, can be carried out for its good or neutral purpose, even if it results in a second, undesired outcome which may be, if performed intentionally and for its own sake, immoral.  In “double effect” the moral object of an act must already be specified; i.e. we must know already whether actions are moral or immoral, or we cannot use the principle of “double effect”.

It should be clear from this description of “double effect” that it cannot apply to the use of the condom to in sexual intercourse, since in the first place “using a condom” is morally unspecific.  Its specificity can only be determined by including the basic intentionality of the act i.e. whether by “sexual intercourse by using a condom” one intends to prevent conception or to prevent infection.

If, then, we go back to Aquinas we can discover that he does not elaborate “double effect” in such detail as his later followers.  Indeed, he would not at all have “known” this principle as set out in seventeenth century by the Jesuits and others, or in the manuals.  Instead, he draws his understanding of the moral species of an act from what is intended, not what is accidental.  An act in this case which may have one “natural species”, may have many “moral species”, so long of course as the act itself is not of its own nature immoral.  The question for us then is whether “sex with a condom” is intrinsically immoral?  Here an analogy may help.  Humanae vitae specifies instances in which, for therapeutic reasons, anovulents may be taken; now this clearly impedes conception (is “contraceptive” in its natural species, if you like).  But at the same time, in its moral species, it isn’t.  There is a “modification” of the sexual act by human intervention, which results in the elimination of the procreative element.  Something is caused which lies outside the intention and does not influence the moral quality of the thing done.  Does sex with a condom of itself prevent the sexual act from being “apt” and “marital”, uniative and open?  I suggest not, since the Church already defines this in terms of intention (for example, she does not forbid infertile couples from marriage, or say that a woman who has been therapeutically sterilised must refrain from sex) and not just in the form of the act itself.  Some argue that the use of the condom changes this essential form, makes it like other unnatural sexual acts.  But the physical nature of the act remains natural, it is only modified.

That may be the beginning of an argument in favour of, in some limited, individual circumstances, justifying or permitting the use of condoms to prevent the spread of disease even within marriage.  There is a considerably longer and more complex argument at the back of this which, being full of the ‘flu (man flu as my female colleagues will insist), I have not the energy here to go into.  I just wanted to add my tuppence in that an argument which backs up in some way the Pope’s (apparent) statements cannot be made from strict double effect, but can be made (or begin to be made) by going behind the principle to its origins.


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Filed under Catholic Church, Pope Benedict

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