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The pope’s remarks about condoms:
the intention and the context

Posted 12-23-2010

The note from the Generalate of the Society of St. Pius X, On the remarks of Benedict XVI concerning condom use, recalls that “condom use is an intrinsically immoral action, and matter for mortal sin”, inasmuch as it diverts the sexual act from its natural end, procreation, and thus is contrary to nature. Yet, as several readers have pointed out to us, the particular case envisaged by the pope is that of a male prostitute who commits an act that is already contrary to nature: the use of a condom therefore cannot divert such an act from a natural end that it does not have.

This objection takes the case that is mentioned literally, without considering the author’s overall (and complex) intention or the context in which these remarks were made. By thus isolating the case, there is a serious risk of rendering unintelligible the disturbance that this statement has inevitably caused in the minds of believers who adhere to Catholic morality.

The intention of the pope’s remarks

The pope’s remarks on condom use manifest a double intention, not only moral but also prophylactic [preventive]. In his view, the prophylactic concern can harbor the beginning of a moral development.

On the moral level, Benedict XVI says that the Church naturally 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” (English edition, Ignatius Press, p. 119). The exception introduced by the pope (“in this or that case… nonetheless”) is made in the name of a prophylactic concern (“in the intention of reducing the risk of infection”) in which he sees “a first step” along the way toward a more human sexuality, an initial attempt at “moralization”. In his previous answer to Peter Seewald, he mentioned the particular case of a male prostitute who uses condoms and thus, according to him, takes “a first step in the direction of a moralization”, as “a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants” (Ignatius Press edition, p. 119).

Questioned by his spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi, as to whether this was the case of a female prostitute (as in the Italian edition of Light of the World) or a male prostitute (as in the German, English and French editions), the pope answered that the distinction between a man and a woman was not that serious (Reuters article dated November 23, 2010). And Fr. Lombardi explained this preventive concern: “The point is, it (the use of a condom) should be a first step toward responsibility in being aware of the risk of the life of the other person one has relations with. If it is a man, a woman or a transsexual who does it, we are always at the same point, which is the first step in responsibly avoiding passing on a grave risk to the other.”

Here it is appropriate to refer to the Note from the Generalate, which recalls the teaching of St. Paul, who “condemned the opinion that evil may be done so that good may come of it (see Romans 3:8).” Fundamentally the intrinsic moral disorder in such relations is not at all canceled or diminished by the intention of not infecting the partner. And one cannot speak objectively about a “moralization”.

The real context of today’s society

This subjective moral intention, which is preliminary and hypothetical, attributed to an HIV-positive person (whether male, female or transsexual) who uses a condom for prophylactic purposes: does it correspond to the specific context in which the remarks of Benedict XVI were made? Although the secret of the individual conscience eludes investigation, it is nevertheless quite possible to know the stated intention of the militant movements that favor the use of condoms.

Can anyone, in a book intended for the general public, discuss hypothetical interior dispositions in “this or that case” [i.e. in certain particular cases] along the way of a subjective “moralization”, without inevitably opening up a breach in the defenses against all those who demand that the Church should change her morality because they do not intend to change their conduct?

Indeed, the associations that promote condom use are hardly interested in this prophylactic concern in which the pope sees something like the first step in a moral development. They see in these subtle remarks nothing but an authorization to use condoms. Is this an unfair oversimplification? It corresponds to an excessive subtlety in a book published in four languages with hundreds of thousands of copies. The very day after its release (November 23), the persons who head those associations announced their satisfaction: Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, a group in the United States which advocates contraception and abortion among Catholics, declared, “The Vatican’s acknowledgement that Pope Benedict’s acceptance of condom use to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections relates to everybody shows how significant the pope’s comments are.” For Dr. Paul Zeitz, director of the Washington-based Global AIDS Alliance, “The pope’s statement … is a startling and welcome shift by the Vatican that has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives.” (Reuters, November 23, 2010). The connection with the start of a “moralization” is so personal and hypothetical that these militants remember nothing but the prophylactic concern which, for them, must be universal and compelling.

By opening this breach, did the pope really take into account the actual preoccupations of condom users? Except for the rather speculative case of that HIV-positive man embarking on a personal “moralization”, condom advocates in today’s dechristianized society specifically desire to be able to enjoy “risk-free sex”, whether it be the “risk” of giving life to a child or that of contracting a venereal disease.

In this specific population, condom use is not the expression of a “moralization” but of its exact opposite, perpetuating the illusion of misconduct with complete immunity. Only a clear reminder of the natural law inscribed by God in human nature can help today’s society become once again anchored in reality and stop drifting like a capsized boat. (DICI no. 227 dated December 18, 2010)t

 
 
 

 

 

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