On the Condom and AIDS, the Pope Has Come Down from the Cathedra
The discussion that Benedict XVI has opened on one of the most sensitive points of Catholic morality is getting more and more lively. Two new statements by a theologian and a philosopher, exclusive to http://www.chiesa
by Sandro Magister
ROME, December 11, 2010 – The discussion on AIDS and condoms ignited by Benedict XVI in a passage of his book-interview “Light of the World” is registering important new developments in the Catholic camp.?
Against the more restrictive interpretations of the pope’s words – reported by http://www.chiesa in two previous articles – has come a reply from a moral theologian highly engaged on this issue, Martin Rhonheimer (in the photo) of Switzerland, a professor of ethics and political philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, the Roman university of Opus Dei.
Not only that. Also intervening in the discussion, to defend an even more open and extensive interpretation of the pope’s words, is a leading Italian Catholic theologian.
But first things first.
Professor Rhonheimer is the same one who in 2004, with an article in the London-based “The Tablet,” came out in favor of condom use for non-contraceptive purposes, in cases similar to those now illustrated by Benedict XVI in his book.
That article, its author has now revealed, was submitted for examination by the Vatican congregation for the doctrine of the faith. And the congregation found nothing objectionable in it.
At the same time, however, that article by Rhonheimer was hotly contested by other Catholic scholars, in particular by Luke Gormally, a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
And Gormally is once again one of the most unbending supporters of the “no” to the use of condoms, without any exception, not even for a prostitute who wants to protect herself from a deadly infection.
In addition to him and to others, a highly restrictive interpretation of the pope’s words has been advanced by Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio, publisher of “Light of the World” in the United States and a member of the Schülerkreis, the circle of scholars who had Joseph Ratzinger as their theology professor.
At the Vatican, Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect of the supreme tribunal of the apostolic signatura, has spoken out in rigid terms.
So Professor Rhonheimer has decided to return to the argument, in support of a more open – and in his view, more faithful – interpretation of the pope’s words.
He has done so in an extensive interview with the most widely distributed Catholic weekly in the United States, “Our Sunday Visitor,” the main passages of which are reproduced below.
And above all, he has done so with a new article, written expressly for http://www.chiesa, published in its entirety below.
In it, Rhonheimer explains the reasons why Benedict XVI is perfectly correct when he recognizes, in the use of condoms in certain sinful situations, “a first step in the direction of a moralization” and “a first assumption of responsibility.”
On the classic case – not addressed by the pope – of a married couple in which one of the spouses is infected [with HIV] and uses a condom to avoid transmitting the disease, Rhonheimer expresses himself cautiously, limiting himself to indicating the criteria of judgment.
However, the Catholic philosopher who has written the other important contribution of recent days enters directly into the examination of this case, defending the lawfulness of condom use.
This author uses the pen name Giovanni Onofrio Zagloba, the name of a literary character invented by Henryk Sienkiewicz, a sort of Polish Falstaff, a witty blowhard.
From reading the text it can be gathered that he is proficient in philosophy and theology, is highly active in the life of the Church, and has great respect for both the current pope and his predecessor.
He wanted his text, long and thorough in its argumentation, to be published in the form of a letter.
For two days, the complete text has been posted on “Settimo Cielo,” the supplemental blog to http://www.chiesa for readers of Italian.
There is one passage in this text that will certainly raise discussion, where the author talks about adultery and admits, in this case, the use of condoms for contraceptive purposes as well:
“In adultery, what is wrong is not the (possible) use of a condom. What is wrong is having a sexual relationship with a person who is not one’s spouse. Preventing children from being born from this relationship can be preferable to the event of further aggravating the situation with the procreation of a child outside of marriage.”
Returning to Rhonheimer, here are, in order, his exclusive article for http://www.chiesa and his interview with “Our Sunday Visitor.”
REFLECTIONS ON THE POPE’S REMARKS ON AIDS AND CONDOMS
by Martin Rhonheimer
Why did Pope Benedict decide suddenly to address the issue of AIDS and condoms? And why did he do so in the way that he did?
From what he tells Peter Seewald in “Light of the World”, he was frustrated by the reactions to his remarks on this issue during his trip to Africa in March 2009. The media firestorm which followed showed that three beliefs were widespread in western society: that condoms were the solution to AIDS in Africa; that the Church’s teaching on contraception implied a prohibition of condom use by people engaged in immoral and high-risk life styles; and that when Pope Benedict said that campaigns promoting condoms to combat AIDS in Africa were “ineffective”, it was thought he was referring to claims made in 2004 by Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo, then head of the pontifical council for the family, that condoms were too porous to act as an effective barrier to the transmission of the HIV virus.
Pope Benedict was keen to dispel those myths, and in his book-long interview he does so in a few brief paragraphs. He made clear that campaigns promoting condoms trivialize (“banalize”) sexuality, causing the virus to spread further, and that only by “humanizing” sexuality can the spread of the virus be curbed. But he went on to say that the use of a condom by a prostitute, when used to prevent infection, would be at least “a first assumption of responsibility;” and in saying this he implicitly dismissed the two other myths: for if condoms were ineffective in curbing virus transmission among high-risk groups, it would not be responsible to use them. And if, as some had claimed, the Church taught that condoms were “intrinsically evil”, then the pope could hardly recognize their use as a “first step” on the way to moral development.
Personally, I was much relieved that he made the last point clear, because when, some years ago, I argued as much in an article (“The truth about condoms”, 10 July 2004) in “The Tablet” of London, I was accused by a number of good and faithful catholics of advocating the distribution of condoms to stop the AIDS epidemic and, therefore, of undermining the Church’s efforts to defend the values of marriage, faithfulness and chastity. But while the article drew public criticism, mainly from colleagues in moral theology, I was informed that the congregation of the doctrine of the faith, then headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, had no problem with it or its arguments.
What led me to write that article was that in the preceding “The Tablet”, its then deputy editor, Austen Ivereigh, in an article commenting on a BBC “Panorama” program examining the claims of Cardinal López Trujillo, contrasted two positions in the Church on the question of the use condoms against AIDS.
The first was that of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, at that time archbishop of Brussels, whom he quoted as saying: “If a person infected with HIV has decided not to respect abstinence, then he has to protect his partner and he can do that – in this case by using a condom.” To do otherwise, the cardinal said, would be “to break the fifth commandment”, that you shall not murder.
The second was a quotation from the then education officer of the catholic Linacre Centre in London, Hugh Henry, who, disagreeing with Cardinal Danneels’s statement, told Ivereigh that the use of a condom was a sin against the sixth commandment, which, “in failing to honour the fertile structure that marital acts must have, cannot constitute mutual and complete personal self-giving and thus violates the sixth commandment.”
This suggested that, as Ivereigh wrote, a “migrant worker who goes to a brothel in South Africa should not, of course, have sex; but if he does, Henry appears to suggest, he should not use a condom to prevent giving the woman AIDS because his act fails to honour the fertile structure that marital acts must have.” And he concluded: “Readers must decide whether it is Cardinal Danneels or the Linacre Centre which is offering the stranger advice.”
It was my view, reading this article, that both pieces of advice were essentially flawed, and the choice between them a fallacious one. The problem was that both were expressing their positions in terms of moral norms or obligations – to use or not to use a condom – whereas a normative approach was inadequate for addressing this question.
What the Linacre Centre proposed as the authentic catholic position was that there exists a moral obligation for unchaste people engaging in sinful sexual acts at least to abstain from using condoms – so as to avoid a further sin against the sixth commandment and therefore to render their sinful acts less sinful, even if they thereby will infect other people or themselves with a deadly disease. Such an argument makes people falsely believe that it is the Church’s teaching on contraception which leads to such counterintuitive consequences; but that teaching is concerned essentially with marital love and its expression in sexual intercourse, and does not apply in such circumstances. Conversely, while Cardinal Danneels’s position has some plausibility, it simply reverses Henry’s fallacy by converting now into a moral norm for such people the obligation to at least use a condom, in order not to sin additionally against the fifth commandment. Like Henry, Cardinal Danneels thus establishes a moral norm in view of making intrinsically immoral behavior less immoral.
To turn first to the Linacre Centre statement: the teaching of “Humanae vitae” does not include the statement of a moral norm about how to perform intrinsically evil acts; the Church has never pronounced such a teaching, nor will she ever do so, because such a teaching would be plainly against common sense. The only thing the Church can possibly teach about rape, for example, is the moral obligation to completely refrain from it, not how to carry it out in a less immoral way. There are contexts in which moral orientations completely lose their normative significance because they can at most lessen an evil, not be directed to the good; what has to be overcome, and is normative to surmount, is the intrinsic moral disorder itself. As I wrote in 2004, “it would be simply nonsensical to establish moral norms for intrinsically immoral types of behaviour”.
The Church’s teaching about contraception is not a teaching about “condoms”, but about the true meaning and sense of sexuality and marital love. The question of contraception is different from the question of prophylactic condom use. Contraception as declared to be intrinsically evil is described by “Humanae vitae” n. 14 (restated in the Catechisms of the Catholic Church n. 2370) as an action which “whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes [Latin “intendat”], whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.” Contraception is not simply an action which in fact impedes procreation, but an action impeding procreation which is precisely carried out with a contraceptive intent. (The factual impeding of conception is not sufficient for an act to be, in a moral sense, an act of contraception; this is why using anti-ovulatory pills for regulating a woman’s cycle for medical reasons is not contraception in the moral sense).
But does it follow that one should positively advise to use condoms for merely prophylactic purposes? People who are not willing to change their way of life and who use condoms to prevent infection of themselves or others seem to me to have at least conserved a certain sense of responsibility – as Pope Benedict himself said [in “Light of the World”]. But we cannot say they “should do so” or are “morally obliged” to do so, as Cardinal Danneels seemed to suggest. Pope Benedict underlines this when he makes clear that this is not a “moral solution”. That is why it is also wrong to assert principles in this case such as “lesser evil”, which holds that in order to avoid a greater evil a lesser evil may be chosen if there is a proportionate reason. This moral methodology, known as “proportionalism”, is not a teaching of the Church, and was rejected by Pope John Paul II in his 1993 encyclical “Veritatis splendor” – with which Pope Benedict XVI is in full agreement.
By saying, as he does, that someone acts with “a certain sense of responsibility” in seeking to avoid infection, the Pope does not claim that using condoms to prevent HIV-infection means to act responsibly. Real responsibility, for prostitutes, would mean abstaining completely from risky and immoral sexual contacts and to completely change their life style. If they do not (because they cannot, or will not), they act at least subjectively in a responsible way by seeking to prevent infection, or at least act less irresponsibly than those who do not, which is a rather different proposition.
This is a statement of common sense, expressed in personalistic terms; it is not a positive moral norm permitting a “lesser evil”. The Church must always advise people to do the good, not the lesser evil; and the good thing to do – and therefore to advise – is not to act immorally and simultaneously to reduce this immorality by minimizing the possible damage caused by it, but to abstain from immoral behavior altogether. This is why a justification of the prophylactic use of condoms as “lesser evil” is mistaken – and also dangerous, because it opens the way to justify any kind of “lesser evil” moral choice: doing evil that good may come. It is also misplaced. Condoms “per se,” considered as “things,” are not “evil”; in Church teaching, their use in the contraceptive acts as defined by “Humanae vitae” is evil, but as we have established, this encyclical does not apply to prophylaxis.
What Pope Benedict’s remarks did not deal with was the case of a married couple in which one of the spouses is infected, in which a condom is used to protect the other from infection. In my 2004 article I rather incidentally referred to such cases, talking about “pastoral or simply prudential reasons” which would advise against using condoms in these circumstances. This case is different from the preceding one, and more complex, because here what properly constitutes a marital act is at stake. It is important to emphasize that the question of contraception in marriage and of preventing infection by using condoms are referring to two different moral problems.
The question will no doubt continue to be debated; but whatever the Church eventually declares on this issue, there will always be good reasons for pastors to urge abstinence in this situation, because using a condom exclusively for medical purposes is in reality theoretical. It is likely that – at least for fertile couples – the intention of preventing infection will fuse with the properly contraceptive intent of preventing the conception of an infected baby. Personally I would never encourage a couple to use a condom, but to abstain. If they disagreed, I would not think their intercourse to be what moral theologians call a sin “against nature” equal to masturbation or sodomy, as some moral theologians claim. But complete abstinence would be the morally better choice, not only for prudential reasons (condoms are not completely safe even when used consistently and properly), but because it better corresponds to moral perfection – to a virtuous life – to abstain completely from dangerous acts, than to prevent their danger by using a device that helps to circumvent the need for sacrifice.
Defending the Church’s teaching and her approach to preventing the transmission of HIV should not require invoking self-defeating and nonsensical arguments which distort Church’s teaching. By urging abstinence, fidelity and monogamy as the true solutions to stop the AIDS epidemic, we do not need to deny that the use of condoms by high-risk groups causes infection rates to decrease [Q.E.D., Abyssum], while containing the spread of the epidemic into other parts of the population. But this task is mainly the responsibility of civil authorities.
The Church’s role in the struggle against AIDS is not that of the fireman trying to contain the conflagration, but that of teaching and helping people to build fireproof houses and to avoid doing what may cause a blaze, while of course treating those with burns. She does so, most importantly, to offer reconciliation with God and healing of the souls of those who have been hurt in their human dignity by their own immoral behavior or the terrible choices and circumstances imposed by AIDS.
“THE POPE WANTED TO BRING THIS INTO THE OPEN”
Interview with Martin Rhonheimer
Q. – Some catholic commentators are calling the pope’s remarks a “sea change”; others say absolutely nothing has changed. Which position is right?
A. – Neither. Let me begin with the second one: “Nothing has changed.” This is not true. Pope Benedict, after what I assume careful consideration, has made a public statement that has changed the discourse on these issues, both inside and outside the Church. For the first time it has been said by the pope himself, though not in a formal teaching act of the Church’s magisterium, that the Church does not unconditionally “prohibit” prophylactic use of condoms. On the contrary, the Holy Father has said that in certain cases (in the sex business, for example), their use can be a sign of or first step toward responsibility (at the same time making it clear that this is neither a solution for overcoming the AIDS epidemic nor a moral solution; the only moral solution is abandoning a morally disordered life-style, and living sexuality in a really humanized way). This topic raises many emotions on both sides, which is why I hope Benedict’s step might change the way we discuss these matters, in a less tense and more open way.
But the second claim, that what the pope said is a “sea change,” is equally not accurate.
First, it in no way changes Church doctrine on contraception; what he said rather confirms this doctrine as taught by “Humanae Vitae.”
Second, his statement does not declare condom use to be morally unproblematic or generally permitted, even for prophylactic purposes. Pope Benedict speaks about “begründete Einzelfälle,” which translated literally means “justified single cases” – like the case of a prostitute – in which the use of a condom “can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.”
What is “justified” is not the use of the condom as such – not, at least, in the sense of a “moral justification” from which follows a permissive norm such as “it is morally permitted and good to use condoms in such and such a case.” What is justified, rather, is the judgment that this can be considered to be a “first step” and “a first assumption of responsibility.” Benedict certainly did not want to establish a moral norm justifying exceptions.
Third, what Pope Benedict says does not refer to married people: He spoke only about situations which are in themselves intrinsically disordered.
Fourth, as he makes very clear, the pope does not advocate the distribution of condoms, which he believes leads to the “banalization” of sexuality which is the primary cause of the spread of AIDS. He simply mentions the ABC method, insisting on the importance of A and B (“abstain” and “be faithful”), calling the C (“condoms”) a last resort (in German, “Ausweichpunkt”) in the event that some persons refuse to follow A or B.
And, most importantly, he declares this last resort to belong properly to the secular sphere, that is, to government programs for combating AIDS. What the pope said, therefore, does not address how Church-run health institutions should handle condoms. He gave an assessment of what to think about a prostitute who habitually uses condoms, not about those who systematically distribute them in order to contain the epidemic, which is the responsibility of state authorities. For its part, the Church will continue to present the truth about the truly human exercise of sexuality.
Q. – In his remarks, Pope Benedict does not call the use of condoms by HIV-infected people a “lesser evil,” but that is how some catholic theologians and leaders are explaining what he said. Are condoms in some cases a “lesser evil”?
A. – Describing the use of condoms to prevent infection as a lesser evil is very ambiguous and may lead to confusion. Of course, we could say that when a prostitute uses a condom, this lessens the evil of prostitution or sex tourism, given that it lessens the risk of transmitting the HIV virus into wider sectors of the population. But this does not mean that it is good to choose evil acts to achieve a good end.
Granted that immoral sexual behavior should be avoided altogether, in my view the point rightly made by the Holy Father is that when someone who is already performing immoral acts uses a condom, he or she does not properly choose a lesser evil, but simply tries to prevent an evil ? the evil of infection. From the sinner’s point of view this obviously means to choose some good: health.
Q. – If the pope says condom use in some cases can be a sign of moral awakening, isn’t he saying that the use of contraception is sometimes acceptable? Or that the use of contraception is preferable to the transmission of HIV?
A. – A condom is designed to be a means for impeding male fluids from penetrating into the woman’s womb. Its normal use is for contraception. In the case the pope speaks of, however, the reason for their use is not the impeding of conception, but preventing infection. We should not confuse human acts, which may be intrinsically good or intrinsically evil, with “things.” It’s not the condom as such, but its use, which presents the moral problem. Therefore, what the pope says does not even refer to the question of contraception.
Admittedly, some moral theologians contend that since – except in the case of sterile sexual partners – the effect of condoms is always physically contraceptive and for this very reason intrinsically evil, those who use them necessarily commit the sin of contraception, even if they don’t use them for that purpose. This is why they argue that their use will make an already immoral act even worse. What Pope Benedict now has said – and provided he did not want it to be restricted to only male homosexual prostitution in which the question of contraception obviously is not an issue – decisively weakens this argument.
I think the only way to escape from the bizarre impasse which such arguments lead to – the claim, for example, that also from a moral point of view it would be better for a prostitute to be infected than use a condom – is to be clear that condoms, considered as such, are not “intrinsically contraceptive” in the sense of a moral judgment. It’s their use, and the intent involved in this use, which determines whether using a condom amounts to an act of contraception.
Q. – One can presume that the pope was aware of the confusion how words would occasion among Catholics. Without asking you to speculate unduly about his intentions, what good can come out of this?
A. – It is obvious that the Holy Father wanted to bring this into the open. He certainly foresaw the uproar, misunderstandings, confusion and even scandal which it could cause. And I believe he considered it to be necessary, despite all these reactions, to talk about this, in the same spirit of openness and transparency with which, from his time as head of the congregation for the doctrine of faith, he dealt with clerical sex abuse cases. I think that Benedict trusts in the force of reason, that things will become clearer over time. He has changed the public discourse on these issues and has prepared the ground for a more vigorous and appropriate understanding and defense of the Church’s teaching about contraception, as part of a doctrine of marital love and the true meaning of human sexuality.
The Catholic weekly based in the United States that published the interview with Professor Rhonheimer, conducted by the editor of the publication, John Norton:
And this is the complete text – three times as long – of the same interview, available on the website of “Our Sunday Visitor”:
Professor Rhonheimer has written these two books on the subject:
Cardinal Raymond Burke has expressed himself in restrictive terms in commenting on the pope’s words on condoms, in this November 23 interview for the blog of Ignatius Press, the publishing house directed by Fr. Joseph Fessio that published “Light of the World” in the United States:
The previous articles from http://www.chiesa on the discussion ignited by the words of Benedict XVI on AIDS and condoms, in the book-interview “Light of the World”:
> Church and Condoms. The “No” of the Diehards (4.12.2010)
> “Light of the World.” A Papal First (25.11.2010)
> The Pope on the Pope. A Preview (22.11.2010)
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.
The latest three articles from http://www.chiesa:
> The New Polytheism and its Tempter Idols
Benedict XVI sounds the alarm. Forgetfulness of the one God clears the way for a world dominated by a plurality of new gods with seductive faces. A voyage among the devotees of modern paganism
> In Baghdad, an Encore of “Murder in the Cathedral”
The truth about the massacre in the Syriac Catholic church. Elimination of Christians as the prime objective of Islamist ideology. The pope meets with the survivors. And issues an appeal to the world
> Church and Condoms. The “No” of the Diehards
A note from the bishops of Kenya and three authoritative “Ratzingerians” maintain that the pope is also for a condemnation with no exceptions. And those who say the contrary are betraying his thoughthoritative members of the Pontifical Academy for Life. Here are their criticisms