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Austen IvereighDecember 22, 2010

Yesterday's clarification by the CDF about Pope Benedict's remarks on the use of condoms by Aids-infected prostitutes made in Light of the World seems, on the surface, to add very little. But to those who have been following the discussions among the moral theologians it is, in fact, highly significant; indeed, it settles the main question -- a question that has dogged discussion of this issue for years.

But first, a summary. The CDF's note, published today in Osservatore Romano (released last night), makes five negative comments, and five positive ones.

The Pope, says the CDF, was not (a) altering or departing from either the moral teaching or the pastoral practice of the Church; (b) referring to a case relevant to the Church's teaching on conjugal love in Humanae vitae; (c) claiming that condoms are in any sense the right or moral response to Aids; (d) endorsing the principle of lesser evil, which is vulnerable to the error of proportionalism; (e) claiming that the use of a condom by an HIV-infected prostitute diminishes the evil of prostitution.

So what, according to the CDF, was the Pope saying?

1. He was referring to a case of disordered moral sexual behaviour, that of prostitution (NB: he was not referring only to a male prostitute; and he did not enter into the much-discussed case of the serodiscordant married couple) in the context of Aids.

2. Those who engage in promiscuous behaviour knowing themselves to be HIV-infected risk sinning against the fifth commandment (Thou Shalt Not Kill) as well as against the sixth (Thou Shall Not Commit Adultery).

3. In this context, "anyone who uses a condom in order to diminish the risk posed to another person is intending to reduce the evil connected with his or her immoral activity".

4. Therefore, "those involved in prostitution who are HIV positive and who seek to diminish the risk of contagion by the use of a condom may be taking the first step in respecting the life of another – even if the evil of prostitution remains in all its gravity."

5. What the Pope says here is "in full conformity with the moral theological tradition of the Church."

There are three highly significant statements here which will have clear consequences for the discussion.

  • The fact that the case considered by the Pope -- prostitution in the context of Aids -- falls outside the scope of Humanae vitae (which is a teaching about the need to maintain the link between the unitive and the procreative in the marital sexual act) makes clear that, put simply, this is not about contraception. And that's true even if the sex is between a man and a woman. (The English translator of Light of the World, commissioned by Ignatius Press, sought to soften the Pope's remarks by referring to a "male prostitute", but the German original referred to both male and female, and Fr Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, subsequently pointed out that this was the Pope's intention.) The CDF clarification double-underlines this, when, immediately after a paragraph defending Humanae vitae, it says that the Pope in his interview "refers to the completely different case of prostitution".
  • The HIV-infected prostitute (or her client) who fails to use a condom is adding to the sin of fornication by the (even more serious) sin of murder. This directly contradicts the idea that the use of condom adds to the sin of fornication, as those who claim that condoms are "intrinsically evil" maintain. 
  • While the use of a condom by that prostitute does not make what is wrong right ("the evil of prostitution remains in all its gravity"), he or she "is intending to reduce the evil connected with his or her immoral activity".

To grasp the significance of these statements requires looking back on the debate between, on the one hand, consultors in Rome close to the CDF led by Fr Martin Rhonheimer of Santa Croce University and Fr Maurizio Faggioni at the Alphonsianum  -- there are others, but these have been the most vocal --  and, on the other, pro-life ultras in the English-speaking world led by two figures in or close to the Pontifical Academy of Life: Luke Gormally (former head of the UK's Linacre Centre) and Dr Janet Smith (who teaches at a seminary in Detroit). See, for example, the debate between Rhonheimer and Smith at Our Sunday Visitorhere, here, here, here and here; and between Rhonheimer and Gormally (and other "diehards", including Steven Long) at Chiesa here, here, here and here. Rhonheimer's most recent Chiesa piece, written before the CDF clarification, shows that the views he published in The Tablet in 2004 were regarded as scandalous by Gormally but unexceptional by the CDF.

To simplify, the ultras have maintained that the teaching of Humanae Vitae is relevant to the case mentioned by the Pope, because contraception is intrinsically evil whether inside or outside marriage and that therefore, as Janet Smith puts it, "contracepting fornicators 'are] guilty of two sins". Gormally believes that "condomistic sex" is a sin against nature, and therefore a more grevious sin than fornication. Their thinking leads always to the same conclusion: condoms cannot ever be considered, even if in a situation far outside marital sex. Hence their fury at Pope Benedict's remarks, which Gormally described as "irresponsible". Smith argued that "if using contraception makes some fornicators “less irresponsible,” how do we argue against making contraceptives easily accessible to fornicators, especially teenagers?". Like many other critics who have fallen short of actually deploring the Pope's remarks, she claims that this is a discussion that should be held in private, among consenting theologians.

The CDF's clarification, of course, makes these positions now unsustainable. It is hard to disagree with Sandro Magister and David Gibson that the CDF has come down firmly on the side of Rhonheimer, who has long argued that Humanae vitae is concerned with marital love, and especially the virtue of chastity within it. Condoms, he argued back in 2004, are things; they cannot be evil in themselves. What is crucial is what is intended by their use. Contraception, he said, was essentially about intention. The CDF, by choosing to quote paragraph 14 of Humanae Vitae to define contraception -- "any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation" -- is essentially declaring the Rhonheimer view to be the one that is in conformity with the Catholic moral tradition.

What, then, is being rejected here? What the CDF has rejected, it seems to me, is a serious mispresentation of church teaching promoted by some organisations and pro-life theologians.

The misrepresentation is this: that condoms in themselves are intrinsically evil, and aggravate the evil of fornication, and as such can never be used to "reduce" an evil such as Aids. It follows that church teaching against contraception (or in favour of conjugal love) demands that Catholics can only say to those with Aids that they must abandon their immorality; and that, unless they embark on a moral path, the Church has (at best) nothing to say to them.

This pharasaism is what the wider world perceives in the Catholic Church's response to Aids in Africa -- and why so many people reject that response as inhuman. And it prevents the Church's prophetic message on Aids -- that it will never be solved by anything except changing sexual behaviour - -getting out.

But the Church does not hold this and has never held it -- despite what some strident Catholics (usually the loudest voices) have tried to insist. That's why Pope Benedict's remarks in Light of the World are, as Fr Jim Martin says, a "gamechanger" (a term for which he was excoriated)  -- because the game no longer belongs to the pharisees.

There is an important line in the CDF's clarification which is likely to pass unnoticed but which is, I believe, central to the Vatican strategy -- and I am sure it is a strategy -- for breaking the ice over this issue. It is that Pope Benedict's words do not signify any change "in the pastoral practice of the Church".

In other words, urging a promiscuous infected person to at least use a condom -- assuming that they are not ready or willing or able (and remember, many prostitutes in Africa sell their bodies to feed their children) -- is Catholic pastoral practice. That pastoral counsel is the beginning of a journey, as the Pope says -- the start of choosing life over death, morality over immorality.

So now Catholic agencies reaching out to Aids sufferers in all parts of Africa are free to continue to do what they have been doing -- without fear of campaigns, boycotts (especially from US pro-life groups) or prohibitions by bishops.

There are still questions left unsettled -- not least that of the serodiscordant married couple. The debates, no doubt, will continue. But the central question of whether the Church's position is that of Jesus or the Pharisees has been settled -- first by the Pope in an interview, now by an authoritative declaration of the Magisterium.

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Jim McCrea
13 years 2 months ago
The tighty righties can't get it through their skulls that a condom is a THING, not an ACT.

Once a fixed idea gets inside a narrow mind, it can never get out.

"This is worse than a crime, it's a blunder."    Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord

"People reach conclusions when they are tired of thinking."  Mark Twain.
13 years 2 months ago
Forgive me if this sounds ignorant, but this argument appears to be a stretch, a contorted effort to achieve a desired outcome unintended by the words spoken. 

It's one thing to acknowledge a postive first step in moral thinking on the part of someone who makes a wrong choice (using a condom) over the right choice (abstinence), but quite another to interpret this to mean that a second-party can and should suggest the wrong choice.  In the first instance, the individual makes the decision to use the condom: an independent decision based in his own positive moral thinking.  In the latter instance the individual need not make any such moral choice; that choice is made for him by the party who suggests the use of a condom as an option.  No matter how much fire and brimstone is presented with "at least use a condom," what's heard is that "condoms are a-ok."  Catholics handing out condoms is as good as saying, "Here, the Pope asked me to give this to you."

How will the individual ever get to abstinence if he assumes that condoms are condoned? 

It's the difference between taking the first step that the Pope spoke postively of and someone carrying you.  How will the individual learn to walk if others carry him?

Dan McGuire
13 years 2 months ago
The error here begins with his analysis of the CDF statement. #2 refers to"Those who engage in promiscuous behaviour [prostitution] knowing themselves to be HIV-infected risk  sinning against the fifth commandment (Thou Shalt Not Kill [murder]) as well as against the sixth (Thou Shall Not Commit Adultery) no, they don't "risk" this one; they do it.  

Further along, he states that murder is more serious than adultery - according to whom? They are equally deadly sins.

He goes off the rails after this - by redefining the argument of Humanae Vitae, he is able to offer a refutation (itself flawed) of a question not even asked.
William Murphy
13 years 2 months ago
A helpful piece, but I would clarify as follows: 
1. The well-meaning ultras don't like the intentional description of contraception in HV 14 because they understand that which is physically contraceptive to be morally contraceptive and refuse to distinguish the two. They are basically physicalists, as to moral theory, and they see the essential rationale governing sexual ethics in semination being un-hindered . 
2. I think it is going beyond the statement to say Catholic pastoral practice should include the recommendation to use condoms if one insists on high risk behavior. Infected persons know about condoms already, they don't need Catholic pastors to recommend them. A better conclusion from the statement that pastoral practice remains unchanged would be the following. First that those doing immoral and dangerous acts shoudl refrain. Second, if they (say prostitutes) choose to perform high risk acts, there is no basis to tell them that, based on catholic teaching, they may not use condoms to limit risk.
It is very true that the well-intentioned ultras will need to rethink their approach, and will have absolutely no basis to claim that efforts toward a more adequate sexual ethic, such as that of Fr R are unorthodox. This is a very significant development.
Bernie Thomas
13 years 2 months ago

Your claim that the CDF is approving of use of condoms by HIV infected individuals because otherwise they would be adding the otherwise even more serious sin of murder is very suspect.  Do recall that condoms do not provide sure protection against transmission of the HIV.  Without a condom an HIV infected individual has an X degree possibility of transmitting the HIV; with a condom a somewhat diminished possibility. In both cases the individual is willing to risk killing another.  The person with 1 bullet in a gun risks killing another even though less so than the person with 6 bullets.  The only reasonable interpretaton of the CDF statement is that prostitutes should shun prostitution.  If they are using a condom they should think about why they are using a condom. The answer is because they don't want to transmit a lethal disease. That first step in recognition of what they are doing should lead them not to do what they are doing since even with a condom they are still risking transmitting a lethal disease. Condoms are not the solution; ceasing engaging in sex that risks transmitting the HIV is the solution.

Michael Barberi
13 years 2 months ago
While Benedict XVI did not mention anything about the morality of condom use in the case of the male prostitute, its underlining moral significance cannot be dismissed. The use of the condom is a choice, an act of the will in service to an end. Aquinas said that the moral character or species of an external action is determined by its end. In this case, the choice to use the condom was to lessen the probability of transmitting to the male prostitute's neighbor the dreadful disease AIDS.

All voluntary external actions are either morally right or wrong; sometimes neutral. The external action of using a condom is not morally wrong because the CDF said the male prostitute is “taking a first step in respecting the life of another and is a more human way of living sexually”. Therefore, it is a small step to conclude that if it is not morally wrong for a male prostitute to use a condom for the greater good of his neighbor, then it would not be morally wrong for a spouse, who is infected with HIV, to use a condom for the greater good of the other spouse (as Rhonheimer has previously asserted).

This is common sense to most Catholics and the Church is not be sufficiently clear when it says this statement does not change Church teachings.  The fact that the CDF also determined that Rhonheimer's 2004 Tablet article was not scandalous, has sent shock waves to Magisterium theologians. The CDF has also allowed Rhonheimer to publish a book where he argued that condom use by serodiscordant spouses are not contraceptive but prophylactic.
You can read into the statements of Benedict XVI and Martin Rhonheimer in two ways: 

1. They are positive statements that point to a change in the Church's teachings, or

2. They are statements that add further ambiguity to the morality of contraception, condom use and other sexual ethical issues.

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