Lesser of Two Evils? Double Effect?

David Gibson exegetes the Holy Father's recent comments on the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS, in the light of the Catholic moral theology, specifically the concepts of the "lesser of two evils" and "double effect."

When Pope Benedict XVI said last week that using condoms could be justified in some cases, like preventing AIDS, his remarks caused an uproar because some thought they signaled a turnabout in longstanding church doctrine against artificial birth control.


But in an institution as old and windy as the church, what seems like a significant shift can also simply be reaching back to another long-held tradition. By allowing for exceptions for condom use, for example, the pope was not, as many of his unsettled allies on the Catholic right feared, capitulating to the very moral relativism that he himself has long decried. Instead, he was only espousing a tradition of Catholic moral reasoning based on ethical categories like the lesser evil and the principle of the double-effect, which says that you can undertake a “good” act even if it has a secondary “evil” but unintended effect.

Such formulations are associated with casuistry, or “case-based” moral thinking that Catholic philosophers elaborated in the 17th century to help believers make the best decision when faced with vexing options. This kind of thinking was often linked to highly educated priests of the influential Jesuit order and helped coin “Jesuitical” as a pejorative term for a brainy ethics that critics saw as a way to find loopholes to justify immoral actions.

That dislike remains strong among many Catholic conservatives, and may be sharper than ever because they fear that in a secularized, modern world, granting even a single concession to a church rule will lead to the dreaded “slippery slope.”

Hence the unusual dissent to Benedict’s comments, which were prompted by a question from Peter Seewald, a German journalist, in a new book-length interview, “Light of the World.” He asked the pope about a controversy that arose last year during a trip to Africa when Benedict said the scourge of AIDS on the continent could not be resolved by condoms. “On the contrary, they increase the problem,” the pope said then.

Critics responded loudly. The pope, they said, was placing the church’s teaching against contraception over the lives of Africans, especially sex workers and spouses of the infected.

Speaking to Mr. Seewald, Benedict said the news media had misconstrued his remarks. Condoms are not the sole answer to the AIDS epidemic, he said, but, “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.”

Later, a Vatican spokesman said the pope’s words were meant to apply broadly — beyond gay sex workers. “This is if you’re a man, a woman or a transsexual,” the spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, said. “The point is it’s a first step of taking responsibility, of avoiding passing a grave risk onto another.”

And Vatican officials said that the pope was indeed invoking the principle of the “lesser evil,” though he did not use that exact phrase. Conservative critics were dismayed. “I’m sorry. I love the Holy Father very much; he is a deeply holy man and has done a great deal for the church,” Father Tim Finigan, a British priest, wrote on his blog. “On this particular issue, I disagree with him.” Another conservative Catholic blogger posted the title of the new book above a picture of Pandora opening a box and releasing all the world’s evils.

Read the rest here.

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Jeffrey Miller
8 years 3 months ago
Really a shame for a Catholic magazine to lie.  The Pope never said the condom was justified in some cases.  He only said it can be a "first step" towards moralization which is nowhere the same as something being justified. Exactly what part of “But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection.” and “She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution” do you not understand?

Stop promoting a falsehood. This is sinful behavior that leads people to sin.
8 years 3 months ago
I like Maria's cited article's analogy about using pads on metal pipes in the course of beating a victim in a robbery attempt, leading to headlines such as: "Pope Approves Padded Pipes in Muggings!" 

I can see the Pope's quote being interpreted as:

"Using a condom to prevent HIV can be the first step in recognizing that one should not use a condom to prevent HIV."
Marie Rehbein
8 years 3 months ago
It seems to me that the pope has revived a tradition of using common sense in his comments about condoms.  Apparently, there are people who simply try to make these issues as complicated as possible - for reasons that seem to have no logic and appear to be based on desiring to aggravate others as much as possible.  The condom controversy prior to the pope's simple observation seemed to be part of a Catholic cultural tradition of bickering like sibling rivals whenever possible and calling upon the pope as one would upon Papa to see whom he likes best.  Did anyone honestly believe that making a mistake pertaining to condom use would destine someone to eternal damnation?
Jim McCrea
8 years 3 months ago
Ah, yes, the dreaded Domino Effect.  Today, common sense.  Tomorrow, what?  Truth?  Apologies?  Resumption of Papal Credibility?
Can't have that, don't you know.  Unchanging church and all of that.
8 years 3 months ago
Ahhhh   my fellow blog readers, this is a time to follow the suggestion and link given by Father Jim. '' The rest of the story'' from Gibson focuses on a 2000 article in America magazine that said that there was 'consensus' among Catholic moral theologians that condoms could morally be used to stop or prevent AIDS /HIV infection - very similar to the message from the Pope this week.  Gibson states that this article in 2000 was in part why Father Reese was compelled to resign as Editor in Chief of the magazine by the Pope.
8 years 3 months ago
fr. Fessio SJ provides some clear thinking in an article publised by Reuters: "Did the Pope justify the use of condoms in some cirsumstances" ?
blogs.reuters.com/.../2010/.../23/guestview-did-the-pope-“justify”-condom-use-in-some-circumstances/ -


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