Pope Benedict Doubles Down on Condoms
I have to admit it. I thought Benedict was hedging his bets when he chose the example of a male prostitute to make his point that, if someone is engaging in dangerous sexual activity (which is and remains contrary to Church teaching), they are better to use a condom to prevent the spread of infections than not. Much has been made of translation issues and the consensus seemed to be that Benedict meant to indicate homosexual prostitution in particular because contraception is not an issue when the sexual act in question is naturally infertile.
Today we learned that the Pope sees his point as applying not just to naturally infertile acts, but to any dangerous sexual acts. Some pundits definitely put their money on the wrong horse.
Now, I was surprised that Benedict came out this clearly and this soon on the issue but, upon reflection, I am less and less shocked. It is starting to look to me like the basic logic for this move was implicit as soon as then-Cardinal Ratzinger appointed a commission to determine whether the Church could allow HIV-discordant married couples to use condoms.
Such a move makes it clear that Benedict has always been much more willing than those Catholics whom this latest move has thrown into a tizzy to consider the use of condoms under the rubric of double effect. Of course, the example of homosexual prostitution does not need double effect. The only effect of a condom in homosexual sex is disease prevention. But my sense is that the most recent clarification tells us that the Pope sees double effect at work here.
How? Allow me some more-or-less wild speculation.
Any commission studying whether or not HIV-discordant married couples could use a condom was certainly working with the idea of double effect. The basic issue looks like this: can a couple use a condom to prevent infection (a good) even if contraception (an evil) is foreseen but not intended? Recall, such a couple would be engaging in an inherently good act, so that is not at issue here. What remains to be determined is whether or not the good to be had (preserving the health of the uninfected partner) is proportionate to the unintended evil (rendering the act infertile). Those who suggest that it is not proportionate seem to me to confuse contraception with murder. (Not that this is uncommon given what many Catholics understand by the Church’s teaching about openness to life. As far as I can tell, such readings of Church teaching make incoherent the fact that the Church has no problem with all kinds of infertile sex: post-menopausal, during pregnancy, post-hysterectomy and about 3 weeks of every month. But I digress.)
I suspect that the majority of the commission found the same; i.e., that, under the principle of double effect, spouses could use condoms to prevent infecting one another with HIV. There is, of course, a wrench in the works here. Condoms are not 100% effective. The question is not simply “Does condom use by HIV-discordant married couples satisfy the logic of double effect?” but “Is it ever okay to engage in an act that has the possibility, however slight, of infecting your spouse with a fatal disease?” Even if the answer to the first question is “yes,” it seems clear to me that abstinence for such couples remains the only morally available option.
We were told that the commission completed its work but that the Vatican decided not to make the findings public due to concerns that its findings would be misrepresented and misinterpreted. It seems that the commission’s report has now come out sideways.
What we have learned (and I’m thinking Benedict read the reports) from the question of the HIV-discordant married couple who should, ideally, remain celibate, is that condoms can be justified under the principle of double effect. What are we to do with this conclusion?
Well, it seems to me that our first job is to advocate that anyone (married or otherwise) who does or could have HIV remains celibate. I don’t think there is any doubt that this is still the position of the Catholic Church. The Pope was crystal clear on that. But the Church is also aware that not everyone is going to take this advice. There is a broad range here, from rapists to prostitutes and “adult entertainers” to promiscuous individuals to monogamous couples. HIV could be passed on in any of these relationships.
The thorny question that comes up for the Church here is, “What advice do you give to people who won’t follow your advice?”
By allowing Catholic hospitals to use (non-abortifacient) emergency birth control in cases of rape, I think the Church has already implicitly answered the question for wives who are raped by HIV-positive husbands. Double effect says they can use a condom. Of course, the first thing to do is to get men to stop raping their wives. No one denies that. But if a woman is about to be raped, must the Catholic Church’s condemnation of artificial contraception prevent her from trying to get the rapist to use a condom?
What if your son or daughter was engaging in prostitution? Of course you’d try to stop them. But, knowing you failed at that, knowing that right now he or she is engaging in an incredibly dangerous act with an HIV-positive partner, does your adherence to Catholic teaching mean that you hope he or she is doing so without a condom?
What if your daughter (or son) was being raped? Of course you wish that she (or he) wasn’t. Of course you’d do anything in your power to stop it from happening. But if you couldn’t stop it, would you, because of your understanding of Catholic teaching, hope that the rapist didn’t use a condom?
Look. I’m as pro-Church teaching on artificial contraception as you’re likely to find. My wife and I have endured serious marital difficulty because of our struggles with NFP, but I still write books and give “sex talks” endorsing Church teaching on this question. I am not saying I support artificial contraception. But the Church’s credibility on this question suffers when the teaching is endorsed in such an unnuanced way that some Catholics might feel they have to answer yes to the above questions.
There is room for some nuance here and every Catholic who answered the above questions honestly knows it. Thanks to Benedict, the rest of the world now knows that we know it. Call me a heretic, but I’m backing the Pope on this one.
[Update: Thanks to the many commenters who have already joined the conversation. It is distinctly possible that double effect has not, as WJ put it, "done the heavy lifting" here. Father Fessio's object-intent distinction looks like a good candidate in this regard. I was, in any case, admittedly engaging in "more-or-less wild speculation."
For the record, I think that the Church is going to have to spend some time hashing this out and I see this as my little contribution to that endeavor. I think that even if I am wrong about double effect, some of my other points still stand up. It seems Father Fessio's point would also serve to explain my conclusion; i.e., that Catholics need not panic if they do not wish that those being raped, sold for sex etc. are doing so with no protection from infection. I remain happy to amend my conclusions following further clarification from Benedict, or even particularly insightful blog commenters.]
Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.