Saturday, November 20, 2010


My most controversial post (clarified further in this one) isn't looking so controversial anymore. Some people might owe me some apologizes (for accusations like "heretic"):
Pope Benedict XVI has said that in special cases, such as that of prostitutes trying to prevent HIV infection, condoms could be justified under Catholic ethical thinking, especially if their use leads to an awareness that engaging in such a "banalization of sexuality" is morally harmful.

Some news reports portrayed the pope's statements as a "stunning turnaround" for the church, although Benedict was actually articulating longstanding Catholic tradition on the issue. But his remarks were important for the extent of their explanation of this complex matter -- and because they come from the pope, which makes them more authoritative than other church proclamations.

"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," the pontiff told German journalist Peter Seewald in a book-length interview, "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times," which is being released Tuesday.

The Vatican newspaper ran excerpts on Saturday.

Benedict's comments were prompted by Seewald's question to the pope about the uproar he provoked in 2009 when he told reporters, while on his way to Africa, that the scourge of AIDS on the continent could not be resolved by condoms.

"On the contrary, they increase the problem," he said then.

The pope's remarks touched off furious commentary, much of which blasted the pontiff for -- the critics assumed -- putting the church's teaching against contraception over the lives of Africans, especially sex workers and spouses of infected husbands or wives.

Benedict's response to the furor was murky, and did not quell the disquiet his remarks had caused. Also, the Vatican did not help his cause when it was learned that church officials in Rome had massaged the official translation in a way that tended to make the pontiff's comments sound less stark. Moreover, many critics failed to read the pope's entire answer for context, and did not appear to take into account studies showing that indiscriminate reliance on condom distribution may not actually help reduce rates of infection.

But Catholic teaching has never totally barred the use of condoms to protect people from contracting the HIV virus that causes AIDS. And the Vatican has never issued a formal pronouncement on the matter other than to stress that abstinence is always the best means of prevention, even if it that is often impractical. Earlier this year the Vatican said it had shelved a study to determine whether, or what, Rome should say on the matter, deciding that it was preferable to leave the question open-ended, depending on the circumstances rather than making a blanket judgment.

In the interview with Peter Seewald, the pontiff voiced his exasperation with how the media covered -- or exaggerated -- the episode, and he said that while the church does not view condoms "as a real or moral solution... 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." That said, the pope was in no way condoning the activity of sex workers.

Regarding the Africa uproar, Benedict says that, "I was not making a general statement about the condom issue, but merely said -- and this is what caused such great offense -- that we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms. Much more needs to be done. We must stand close to the people, we must guide and help them; and we must do this both before and after they contract the disease."
The hypothetical he uses is interesting, and potentially makes the whole thing meaningless, that of a male prostitute (for men, assumably). The Church definitely never cared one or the other about condoms in already unnatural sex. The fact that some in media would portray the Church as being "against condoms" (as if a closed latex tube is in-itself immoral just as an item), as opposed to against contraception (which definitely can't be said to occur in the case of non-vaginal sex anyway)...shows the media's ignorance on this.

UPDATE: Further vindication! The Vatican has clarified that, indeed, the Pope was talking about any immoral sex acts, not just those already structurally contraceptive. The male prostitute example was not meant to limit it to non-vaginal acts. Condoms are still to be considered the lesser evil in all such cases, regardless of the fact that without them the act could be "technically" natural/valid in its externals. The risk simply outweighs all that; condoms are a step in the right direction at that point, not a further step in the wrong.

Still, there is some confusion on this matter.
Apparently "male prostitute" appears specified in the English translation of the original German, but "female prostitute" is used in the official Italian, and the Pope's statement in context implies that this is not just about already non-vaginal acts, but in general about cases where people are already refusing to abstain from immoral and risky sex in general:

Pope Benedict XVI has opened the door on the previously taboo subject of condoms as a way to fight HIV, saying male prostitutes who use condoms may be beginning to act responsibly. It's a stunning comment for a pontiff who has blamed condoms for making the AIDS crisis worse.

The pope made the comments in an interview with a German journalist published as a book entitled "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times," which is being released Tuesday. The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano ran excerpts on Saturday.

Church teaching has long opposed condoms because they are a form of artificial contraception, although the Vatican has never released an explicit policy about condoms and HIV. The Vatican has been harshly criticized for its position.

Benedict said that condoms are not a moral solution to stopping AIDS. But he said in some cases, such as for male prostitutes, their use could represent a first step in assuming moral responsibility "in the intention of reducing the risk of infection."

Benedict made the comment in response to a general question about Africa, where heterosexual HIV spread is rampant.

He used as a specific example male prostitutes, for whom contraception is not usually an issue, but did not mention married couples where one spouse is infected. The Vatican has come under pressure from even church officials to condone condom use for such monogamous married couples to protect the uninfected spouse from transmission.

Benedict drew the wrath of the United Nations, European governments and AIDS activists when, en route to Africa in 2009, he told reporters that the AIDS problem on the continent couldn't be resolved by distributing condoms. "On the contrary, it increases the problem," he said then.

Journalist Peter Seewald, who interviewed Benedict over the course of six days this summer, raised the Africa condom comments, asking him if it wasn't "madness" for the Vatican to forbid a high-risk population from using condoms.

"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.

Elsewhere in the book he reaffirmed church teaching opposing artificial contraception.

"How many children are killed who might one day have been geniuses, who could have given humanity something new, who could have given us a new Mozart or some new technical discovery?" he asked rhetorically.

He reiterated the church's position that abstinence and marital fidelity is the only sure way to prevent HIV.

The English publisher of the book, Rev. Joseph Fessio, said the pope was not justifying condom use as a lesser of two evils.

"This is not a justification," he said. Rather, "The intention of protecting the other from disease, of using a condom, may be a sign of an awakening moral responsibility."

However, the Rev. Jim Martin, a Catholic writer, said the comments were certainly a departure, an exception where there had never been an exception before.

"While some bishops and archbishops have spoken in this way, the pope has never affirmed this," Martin said. "And it's interesting that he uses as an example someone who is trying to act morally to someone else by not passing on an infection, which was always the stance of those people who favored condoms in cases of HIV and AIDS. So it does mark a departure."

The English translation of the original German specified "male prostitute." The Italian translation in L'Osservatore Romano, however, used the feminine "prostitute." The discrepancy wasn't immediately clear.

Cardinal Elio Sgreccia, the Vatican's longtime top official on bioethics and sexuality, elaborated on the pontiff's comments, stressing that it was imperative to "make certain that this is the only way to save a life." Sgreccia told the Italian news agency ANSA that that is why the pope on the condom issue "dealt with it in the realm of the exceptional."

The condom question was one that "needed an answer for a long time," Sgreccia said. "If Benedict XVI raised the question of exceptions, this exception must be accepted ... and it must be verified that this is the only way to save life. This must be demonstrated," Sgreccia said.

In the 1960s, the Vatican itself condoned giving contraceptive pills to nuns at risk of rape by fighters in the Congo to prevent pregnancy, arguing that the contraception was a lesser evil than pregnancy.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans said clearly the pope wasn't encouraging condom use.

"I think the pope has been very strong in saying condoms do not solve the problem of morality and do not solve the problem of good sex education. But if a person chooses not to follow the teaching of Christ in the church, they are at least obliged to prevent another person from contracting a disease that is deadly," he said.

In Africa, Benedict's comments drew praise among gays and AIDS activists.

"If he's talking about condoms, it's a step in the right direction," said David Kamau, who heads the nonprofit Kenya Treatment Access Movement. "It's accepting the reality on the ground ... If the Church has failed to get people to follow its moral values and practice abstinence, they should take the next best step and encourage condom use."

John Kitte, a gay Ugandan, said the pope was acting as a good parent.

"He minds about all the people living on earth. What he has suggested is very good and I encourage gays to take his advice seriously."

But an evangelist pastor in the Uganda capital of Kampala, Solomon Male, argued the pope shouldn't be granting any recognition of or encouragement to gays.

"If the Pope is saying so, then he has not read the Bible," he said. "Gay acts are bad. It is abominable and should not take place."

Christian Weisner, of the pro-reform group We Are Church in the pope's native Germany, said the pope's comments were "surprising, and if that's the case one can be happy about the pope's ability to learn."

Notice that, regardless of misleading headlines, the Pope (nor I) has not "approved" condoms or said they are "okay." It's clear that the moral obligation is to abstain from immoral or dangerous activities, period. Even if it's a married couples, contraception cannot be approved as a way to let people have sex without consequences. What he has said (assuming his hypothetical was not meant to limit this to only already non-vaginal sex), which some legalistic conservative Catholics were denying for a long time, is that condom use can definitely be the lesser of two evils (though we should never choose any evil), can definitely make the situation morally better, compared to the irresponsibility of unprotected sex in cases where the people are already refusing to abstain totally.

I do not think (like the obviously panicking Cardinal Sgreccia) that it needs to be proven that they are the verified "only way" to save a life in such a situation. Rather, I think the point is that when people already are refusing to abstain totally, at that point they might as well (in fact, should) protect themselves and their partners from risk. This is not stunning, it is common sense, and conservative Catholics need to turn-off their robot brains and abstract theories and realize it. The risk does not need to be death, nor even absolutely certain to occur if condoms aren't used...such a requirement would be just silly. Perhaps the Pope would even agree with me that if the intent is already contraceptive, actual contraception adds no additional sin to the situation (already the case in non-vaginal sex, certainly) even as a lesser evil. (The second Ugandan comment is also funny; the person obviously has no idea about was had really been said.)

Anyway, it's all nothing new to the Catholic moral tradition. In fact, it has been a possible casuistic interpretation (and, as I argued, the best casuistic interpretation) forever, and even endorsed by some bishops and cardinals. I'm glad to see the Pope is getting around to this sort of realism (without compromising the actual principles) and pragmatism. Not approving of contraception is one thing (and I agree). But saying that condoms are actually the greater evil compared to the risks of unprotected sex when people are already refusing to abstain...was absurd and harmful. This is much more sane.


Mr. N said...

These are just some comments I thought may interest you:

I once asked a bioethicist what justification there was for the "contraceptives after rape" issue. He claimed that the natural response of the body after rape was to not ovulate and that the use of contraceptives in such circumstances was seen as reinforcing a natural response. It was for this reason that such things were permitted.

On the flipside, I know Traddish Catholics who encourage their non-Catholic friends to use NFP if they're in a committed relationship rather than any sort of artificial contraception because doing so strengthens the relationship itself, and opens the way for other things.

Andrew said...

It seems that ultimately, it doesn't really matter (morally) if one uses a condom or not for illicit sexual liaisons because the very act itself it wrong. At most, it could "better" it in the sense that you do not spread the ill gotten "gains" of past encounters to your present debauchery partner and thus, could in fact lead to an epiphany of sorts in that the act itself if need of "protection" probably shouldn't be done at all in the first place.

To me, it seems that it would be better if fornicators and those who shack up, etc. use a condom or other non-abortifacient contraceptives because at least it is not as bad as it could be. That, of course, is not the same as advocating handing out condoms and "birth control" like candy at a parade. One would not like to encourage immoral behavior by making it appear (especially to under educated people) as making their immoral behavior somehow socially acceptable or at least "doable" because the risks aren't there as explicitly.

Personally, and I confess my "elitism" and whatnot (mea culpa...) I think its overall better to have the rank and file consider all contraceptive practices immoral along with all sexual activity outside marriage because it keeps them somewhat in line. Even if they are doing wrong, if they've had it ingrained in them that contraception is wrong and sex outside of marriage is wrong etc. they hopefully will at least be somewhat guilty about it and come back to the fold.