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The present Pope Benedict XVI has made headlines by changing his moral position on the use of condoms. Where he before said such use was always ‘an intrinsic evil,’ he last week said that use of a condom by a male prostitute might be the beginning of moral responsibility if it were used to prevent the spread of AIDS. Health workers rejoiced; strict Catholics charged him with error and accommodation to moral relativism.
The comment was defended by papal spokespersons and enlarged to include condom use by women and transsexual persons. The controversy might seem odd to outsiders, but it locates a critical issue of sexual morality for Catholic Church believers.
The Church defines the sexual act between men and women as organized for procreation. Nothing should impede the possibility of the act producing children. So forty-two years ago when Pope Paul VI decided the contraceptive pill was immoral, any medicinal or mechanical barrier to conception was denied to the Catholic faithful. Abstinence or the rhythm method of calculated abstinence during times of fertility was the sole method of morally acceptable birth control. Abortion was defined as radically sinful, grounds for excommunication. Sterilization for contraception was also proscribed.
Studies indicate that huge numbers of sexually active Catholics, married and unmarried, ignore the teaching and practice contraception by all the available methods.
The Church’s absoluteness on this issue has been framed as reverence for life. The doctrine is that human life is sacred, a seamless garment controlled by God and not open to human interference in beginning or ending it. This also led the Church to oppose the death penalty in the latter half of the twentieth century, though opposition to abortion far outweighed opposition to state execution and war.
Catholic opposition to abortion and contraception has marked commitment to a radical sexual morality. The Pope commented that condom use by a male prostitute might signal the beginning of his moral development by his taking responsibility for stopping disease and by realizing he cannot exercise unlimited, selfish pleasure-seeking. But the Pope skirted the contraceptive dilemma because he seemed to address a homosexual rather than heterosexual context. There’s no possibility of life being blocked in his example as women are the site of fertilization. No doubt the Vatican spokesperson, Fr. Federico Lombardi, who said the Pope’s words were meant to apply broadly, beyond gay sex workers, realized this problem. He said “This is if you’re a man, a woman or a transsexual. The point is it’s a first step of taking responsibility, of avoiding passing a grave risk onto another.” That reasoning has not previously been allowed to women, to protect them from rape, pregnancy or disease.
The Church idea that the sexual act is primarily for procreation is usually traced to Aristotle via Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas argues that the end of the sexual act is procreation and that anything obstructing the end of the act is unnatural and thus immoral. It’s not unrelated to Aristotle on usury. Aristotle said money wasn’t living and couldn’t reproduce naturally so the making of money on money was unnatural. It was forbidden and a mortal sin in medieval practice.
This prohibition against the ‘unnatural’ is usually extended in Catholic morality to homosexual practice and to all sexual acts outside of marriage which are not open to fertilization. So the Pope’s exception of the male prostitute’s use of a condom was quickly affirmed not as an endorsement but as an allowed secondary evil, utilizing the principle of double effect: an action with bad moral element—condom use— is acceptable because of a more primary action which has a good end, as in stopping the transmission of AIDS.
Allowing this condom morality jars the resolute imposition of completely controlled heterosexual sex because it takes the sexual act out of the procreation business. The Pope says it may lead to better sexual control because it limits pleasure and thinks of another; the Pope morphs the evil into an imagined ascesis. (Paul VI made the same move in his encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968. He said the sexual control imposed by Catholic strict conscience would help men not forget the reverence due to women and not let them turn women into instruments of pleasure.)
To outsiders this celibate analysis may look addled and outrageous. Medical workers want to end the sexual plague of AIDS. Social workers want to teach birth control as a human necessity. Sexual liberationists want to challenge religious control of sex. All people want to figure out how to be sexually responsible people.
Pope Benedict XVI, who repents the terrible predation of clerical sexual abuse of children and the Church coverup thereof, says here he hopes to open a dialogue. It’s about time.