Monday, November 22, 2010

Condoms and Moral Truth

Never underestimate the ability and capacity for people to make the simple so complex as to confound, to bring confusion where clarity is obvious. All too often, especially in the area of morality, people get bogged down in minutiae, overthink the problem, and/or get sidetracked on some tangential point. Recently, we have witnessed that very phenomenon unfold with the controversy over Pope Benedict's remarks in Light of the World on condom usage.

With respect to the usage of condoms, even in cases to prevent the spread of HIV-AIDS or other disease, people are making this much more complex and confusing than it needs to be. The Pope doesn't think it is overly complex, the African bishops do not think that. It is all rather straight-forward, at least it is if you are not purposely looking for loopholes and wink-and-nod exceptions (including, sadly, some within the Church, including not a few "progressive" theologians and priests). And, make no mistake, some people are, in fact, using the relatively rare case of infected spouses as a "gotcha" argument in order to justify condom usage in the other 99.99 percent of cases where it is not used in marriage to prevent the spread of disease.

Moreover, many people are being overly narrow in their analysis, saying that the morality of condom usage has to do with contraceptive intent, or that it is about "double effect," or whether a male prostitute is involved, etc. Sadly, this overly narrow focus prevails throughout much of people's understanding of the Church's teachings on human sexuality, such that too often they end up missing the forest for the trees. Or, to use another metaphor, too many people seem to think that the Church reinvents the wheel with every new moral question, that with each moral situation, in this case, human sexuality, the Church applies a unique set of rules and principles. Not only do moral relativists seem to believe this, so too do some who sincerely seek to be faithful to Church teaching. As such, they misread and misunderstand Church teaching on, for example, sexuality, and end up scratching their heads when some supposedly new moral question presents itself, for example, embryonic stem cell research.

Likewise, they end up thinking -- and telling other people -- that teachings like the Theology of the Body is all about sexuality or that the foundational teaching in Humanae Vitae is about contraception. In neither case is that so. Rather, John Paul II merely applied Theology of the Body to the context of human sexuality. Similarly, Pope Paul VI merely applied the primary teaching of Humanae Vitae to human sexuality in general and contraception in particular.

In fact, all of the Church's teachings on human sexuality are the same. There is not a different teaching for contraception, a different teaching for abortion, a different teaching for extra-marital sex, a different teaching for homosexuality, a different teaching for those with an illness or infectious disease, a different teaching for young people and older people, a different teaching for embryonic/fetal research. No, the teaching in each case is the same.

What is that teaching? What is the primary teaching of Humanae Vitae if not contraception? And more specifically to this inquiry, what is the teaching regarding the usage of condoms?

Love and Truth.

Love and Truth are the two pillars upon which the entirety of the faith can be understood. We are a faith that seeks understanding, both for ourselves and to better explain it to non-believers. It is crucial for understanding to see that Love and Truth really are the answer to every question. And it is not surprising that Love and Truth should be the answer to every question because God is Love and God is Truth. (CCC 214-221)

All of Catholic moral teaching, including the teachings on human sexuality, is reducible to the supremely positive commandments which were discussed between the Jesus and the Pharisee – “You shall love the Lord thy God will all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Or, as Jesus said to the Apostles, "love one another. As I have loved you, so too should you love one another." And who and what is God, that we should love Him? God being the "I am" and Logos, is reality itself, is reason itself - He is Truth itself. So to love God means, among other things, to love Truth. And to go against reason and truth, to think or act contrary to genuine love for God and neighbor, is what is called "sin" (CCC 1849); and where there is a distortion or corruption or privation of truth and love (that is, "good"), that is what is called "evil."

All Catholic moral teaching is grounded in and must comply with these two pillars of Love and Truth. When Pope Paul VI published Humanae Vitae, or Pope John Paul II taught the Theology of the Body, they were not teaching anything new -- they were teaching love and truth, caritas et veritas. The teachings on contraception, the unitive/fruitful components, the spousal meaning of the body -- all of these are mid-point teachings that are grounded in love and truth. Human beings are made to love and be loved in truth. (CCC 355-84) And, as Pope Benedict has stated repeatedly, it is only in love and truth that there can be a "humanization of sexuality," a sexuality that is authentically human, rather than mechanistic or utilitarian.

As stated above, with respect to condoms, many people are being overly narrow in their analysis, saying that the morality of condom usage has to do with contraceptive intent, etc.

However, the question is not whether a condom is contraceptive, etc., but like EVERY moral question, whether is it consistent or inconsistent with love and/or truth.

Let's walk through it. What are the possible cases of condom usage?

Nonsexual uses -- This might include usage as a water balloon, or as a tourniquet if one is bleeding, or by a soldier to keep the muzzle of his rifle dry if going through water. None of these are morally wrong.

Sexual uses --
(1) By married people to prevent pregnancy.
(2) By unmarried people, straight or gay, to prevent pregnancy or disease or some other reason.
(3) By married people to prevent disease -- and note that this is relevant in probably only 0.01 percent of the cases -- and this could be broken down further into cases where (a) the healthy spouse knows of the other's disease, (b) the healthy spouse does not know of the other's disease, (c) both spouses know and want to use a condom, (d) the infected spouse wants to use a condom, but the healthy one does not want to risk sex at all, (e) the healthy spouse wants to use one, but the infected one does not want to risk sex at all.

(1) By married people as a contraceptive. The use of a condom to prevent having babies in marriage gravely sinful because such use is contrary to love and/or contrary to the truth of the human person and sexuality. That is, it is contrary to the unitive and fruitful aspects of sex within marriage. See Humanae Vitae. (The teaching here has been extensively covered elsewhere and this aspect of the question of condom use really is not the point of this posting, so further discussion is unnecessary.)

However, condom usage is not always so limited to contraceptive purpose and effect. The moral error of using condoms does not always and everywhere have to do with contraception. Rather, it is wrong for other reasons.

(2) By unmarried people. Even outside of sex within marriage, condom usage can be and usually is, if not always is, contrary to love and contrary to truth and, therefore, by definition, a sin. The use of a condom, even by unmarried persons, straight or gay, prostitute or non-prostitute, facilitates certain sinful acts, e.g. fornication and/or sodomy.

And in addition to aiding and abetting other sins, it also promotes the lie that this is somehow "safe sex." (See Card. Alfonso López Trujillo, Family Values Versus Safe Sex (2003)) First, as a medical matter, there is a high failure rate with condoms and, second, as a moral matter, there is no such this as "safe mortal sin." Usage promotes the lie that it is somehow an act in mitigation of sin, that it is somehow "better," i.e. morally good, to use them when engaging in some other sin. It also promotes and facilitates the treatment of another human person as an object of use. Condom usage, by its very nature, is utilitarian -- sex no longer is a purely human act, but is mechanistic and nonhuman.

The wrongfulness with respect to condoms is that usage is contary to love and/or truth, period. However they are used, whenever they are used, they are contary to the truth of the human person and human sexuality.

(3) By married people to prevent disease. Even in the marital context for non-contraceptive purposes, e.g. the relatively rare case of one spouse having a communicable disease -- where the "pro condom argument" is that there is not a sinful contraceptive intent, but a morally good intent of protecting health -- condom usage is likely to promote a sexuality of use, rather than a sexuality of love.

Moreover, the contraceptive effect is still present, it is still a rupture of the unitive and fruitful components.

And beyond being contrary to love, beyond being an act that objectifies the other person into a sex object, it promotes the lie that is so prevelant in our hypersexualized society, that sex is the be all and end all of human existence, that sexual pleasure is a person's absolute fundamental right and the denial of that is the worst kind of hell imaginable. It is part of this falsehood that we must give into our passions, let our appetites control us. Which again encourages one to look at his or her spouse as an object of sexual use, rather than a person we should love.

Consider just how this would play out in real life --
"Honey, I have a communicable disease. A deadly disease in fact. Let's have sex."
"I have this disease that could kill you if you get it, and it is transmitted by sexual contact. And to show you just how much I love you, I want to have sex with you."
"Come baby, so what if it is a risk of getting a deadly disease? If you loved me, you would."

Just exactly how is use of a condom between one infected spouse and a healthy one supposed to be an expression of love? Love, by its very nature, includes a sacrifice of self, a renunciation of one's selfish desires, and a desire for the good of the other, to not put the other person at risk of harm.

Perhaps in the case of one spouse having a disease, the couple is being called to marital chastity?

There are plenty of other cases where one spouse does not have a communicable disease, but nevertheless is unable to have sex -- does that mean that the other can morally go to a prostitute? that he can go get sexual satisfaction looking at Internet porn and pleasuring himself? No, in these cases, the couple is called to marital chastity. And if it was good enough for Mary and Joseph, it is good enough for the rest of us.

In any event, even if one could posit a moral case for condom usage within marriage solely for disease prevention, still that would be a matter for such couples and those couples alone. It would not be a justification for other sexual uses, it is not and cannot be used as the "camel's nose under the tent" that disingenuous condom partisans would like it to be.

Sex is a good thing, being made by God, it is a very good thing, but it is not the only thing, it is not the supreme thing. And it is good only insofar as it is consistent with love and consistent with truth.

Contraception in marriage is NOT the only reason that condoms are morally wrong. It is ONE reason they are wrong. And to focus solely on that in the analysis is to twist one's self up in knots. Even when used within marriage with non-contraceptive intent (the contraceptive effect still remaining), condoms are likely to promote some other wrongful intent, namely a utilitarian sexuality of use, of seeing the "big O" as the most important thing in life.

It would probably be going to far to say that there can NEVER be a case where sexual condom usage would be morally right -- there might be one case in 500 zillion where it might be OK, but such a good reason has yet to be submitted. In every usage, it is either contrary to love and/or contrary to truth. Thus, by definition, it is morally wrong, it is a sin, it is a journey down the wrong path. To use Pope Benedict's words, it is contrary to a "humanization of sexuality."
The Church wants to keep man human. . . . we cannot resolve great moral problems simply with techniques, with chemistry, but must solve them morally, with a life-style. It is, I think — independently now of contraception — one of our great perils that we want to master even the human condition with technology, that we have forgotten that there are primordial human problems that are not susceptible of technological solutions but that demand a certain life-style and certain life decisions.
--Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Salt of the Earth (1997)


For more on Church teaching on love, truth, and human sexuality see these prior posts --
The Positive Good News of Humanae Vitae and the Church's Other Teachings on Human Sexuality and Life Issues
Respect for Human Life and Contraception: An Application of Theology of the Body
The Teaching Fruits of Humanae Vitae
Pope Paul Explains that Humanae Vitae is a Positive Teaching of Love and Truth
other posts on human sexuality and chastity

Light of the World - The Controversy

What follows is a description of the controversy that has arisen following the release of certain remarks about condom usage by Pope Benedict. We will confine this posting to explaining that controversy. In a succeeding post, we will examine the underlying question regarding the morality of condom usage.

Light of the World is the title of the soon-to-be released book-length interview of Pope Benedict XVI. It is also what we, as Catholics, are each called to be, a light of love and truth to a dark world. It is truth and only truth which will set one free, and few people have been so skillful in demonstrating how simple and clear truth is than has Pope Benedict.

But there has not been much truth regarding this book, specifically, with certain excerpts of the Pope's remarks concerning condoms. Now, to set the background, certain segments of society have long advocated and actively pushed condom usage for a variety of reasons. And they have not only been promoted for married persons, but even for children, including distribution in schools. And, of course, this advocacy has been accompanied by malicious attacks on the Church, which is said to be harsh and uncaring in her teachings.

As a supposed example of when usage should be morally permissible, if not obligatory, the condom pushers raise the issue of spouses who are infected with HIV-AIDS, insisting that condom usage is necessary to prevent the spread of the disease, as in Africa. The vast majority of African bishops have opposed the distribution of condoms as an answer in cases of HIV-AIDS infection. It is with that background that Pope Benedict was asked about condom usage in Light of the World.

And this is how Pope Benedict's answer was distorted and twisted by the mainstream media in its reporting --

"Pope says condoms acceptable 'in certain cases': book"

Pope Benedict XVI says that condom use is acceptable "in certain cases", notably to reduce the risk of HIV infection, in a book due out Tuesday, apparently softening his once hardline stance. In a series of interviews published in his native German, the 83-year-old Benedict is asked whether "the Catholic Church is not fundamentally against the use of condoms." . . . "In certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, it can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality," said the head of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics. The new volume, entitled "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times," is based on 20 hours of interviews conducted by German journalist Peter Seewald. Until now, the Vatican had prohibited the use of any form of contraception -- other than abstinence -- even as a guard against sexually transmitted disease. . . .

This report provoked an outcry in various Catholic circles, including those people who should know better than to trust anything that the mainstream media reports about Pope Benedict and the Catholic Church.

Here is what Pope Benedict actually said in Light of the World in response to this particular question --

Seewald: On the occasion of your trip to Africa in March 2009, the Vatican’s policy on AIDs once again became the target of media criticism. Twenty-five percent of all AIDs victims around the world today are treated in Catholic facilities. In some countries, such as Lesotho, for example, the statistic is 40 percent. In Africa you stated that the Church’s traditional teaching has proven to be the only sure way to stop the spread of HIV. Critics, including critics from the Church’s own ranks, object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms.

Pope Benedict: The media coverage completely ignored the rest of the trip to Africa on account of a single statement. Someone had asked me why the Catholic Church adopts an unrealistic and ineffective position on AIDs. At that point, I really felt that I was being provoked, because the Church does more than anyone else. And I stand by that claim. Because she is the only institution that assists people up close and concretely, with prevention, education, help, counsel, and accompaniment. And because she is second to none in treating so many AIDs victims, especially children with AIDs.

I had the chance to visit one of these wards and to speak with the patients. That was the real answer: The Church does more than anyone else, because she does not speak from the tribunal of the newspapers, but helps her brothers and sisters where they are actually suffering. In my remarks 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.

As a matter of fact, you know, people can get condoms when they want them anyway. But this just goes to show that condoms alone do not resolve the question itself. More needs to happen. Meanwhile, the secular realm itself has developed the so-called ABC Theory: Abstinence-Be Faithful-Condom, where the condom is understood only as a last resort, when the other two points fail to work. This means that the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.

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, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.

Seewald: Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?

Pope Benedict: She 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.

Now, in reading Pope Benedict, it is important to understand that he often thinks out-loud, so to speak, that he goes step by step, first stating the problem, then considering various objections to Church teaching, then explaining why Church teaching must necessarily be true and correct. The Pope is ever the Professor, and we plainly see that this is yet another case of Pope Benedict looking at a given problem from every angle, not merely rejecting out of hand the pro-condom argument, but giving thoughtful consideration to it. Far from being the mean and harsh ogre that his detractors say he is, he displays a great deal of sympathy and understanding of the problem, he recognizes that people might at least have enough moral awareness to be concerned with another's physical health, before then coming to the ultimate conclusion — “But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.” (emphasis added)

Also, in seeking to understand what Pope Benedict means whenever he speaks, we should also, not merely consider the immediate context of his remarks, but read them in the entirety of the Pope's teachings, as well as the teachings of the entire Church as a whole.

Thus, we should note that these remarks follow those made by Pope Benedict at a press interview during his apostolic journey to Africa --

Philippe Visseyrias of France 2: Among the many ills that afflict Africa there is, in particular, the widespread prevalence of AIDS. The Church's position on how to fight the disease is often considered unrealistic and ineffectual. Will you confront this issue during this trip?

Pope Benedict: I would say the contrary. I think that the most efficient reality, the most present at the front of the struggle against AIDS, is precisely the Catholic Church, with her movements, with her various organizations. I am thinking of the Sant'Egidio Community that does so much, visibly and also invisibly, for the struggle against AIDS, of the Camilliani, of all the sisters who are at the disposition of the sick.

I would say that this problem of AIDS can't be overcome only with publicity slogans. If there is not the soul, if the Africans are not helped. The scourge can't be resolved with the distribution of condoms: on the contrary, there is a risk of increasing the problem. The solution can only be found in a double commitment: first, a humanization of sexuality, that is, a spiritual and human renewal that brings with it a new way of behaving with one another; and second, a true friendship, also and above all for those who suffer, the willingness -- even with sacrifice and self-denial -- to be with the suffering. And these are the factors that help and that lead to visible progress.

Because of this, I would say that this, our double effort to renew man interiorly, to give spiritual and human strength for correct behavior with regard to one's body and that of another, and this capacity to suffer with those who suffer, to remain present in situations of trial. It seems to me that this is the correct answer, and the Church does this and thus offers a very great and important contribution. We thank all those who do this. (emphasis added)

If we consider Pope Benedict's Light of the World remarks in full context, it is very clear what he said and what he meant. And if we consider those remarks together with his prior remarks on the subject, including the prior press interview, and homilies and other magisterial teachings, as well as what he said and wrote as Cardinal Ratzinger, including authoritative documents from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and also including the teachings of the Church as a whole, including the magisterial documents of past popes, then we see that what he has said here is entirely consistent with the lost-standing teaching of the Church on moral questions, including the usage of condoms.

Next: What is the morality of condom usage?