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

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