The biggest story this past weekend was what people are claiming Pope Benedict said about condoms. The media has badly perverted his comments, so let me post what he actually said, before taking a look it means that the “Pope reverses thousands of years of Church teachings,” as the Daily Mail originally reported.
I. The Comments
Taken from the BBC’s excerpt of the forthcoming book “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Sign of the Times,” here’s the interview in relevant part:
Peter Seewald: On the occasion of your trip to Africa in March 2009, the Vatican’s policy on Aids once again became the target of media criticism. Twenty-five percent of all Aids victims around the world today are treated in Catholic facilities. In some countries, such as Lesotho, for example, the statistic is 40 percent. In Africa you stated that the Church’s traditional teaching has proven to be the only sure way to stop the spread of HIV. Critics, including critics from the Church’s own ranks, object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms.
Pope Benedict: The media coverage completely ignored the rest of the trip to Africa on account of a single statement. Someone had asked me why the Catholic Church adopts an unrealistic and ineffective position on Aids. At that point, I really felt that I was being provoked, because the Church does more than anyone else. And I stand by that claim.
Because she is the only institution that assists people up close and concretely, with prevention, education, help, counsel, and accompaniment. And because she is second to none in treating so many Aids victims, especially children with Aids.
I had the chance to visit one of these wards and to speak with the patients. That was the real answer: The Church does more than anyone else, because she does not speak from the tribunal of the newspapers, but helps her brothers and sisters where they are actually suffering.
In my remarks I was not making a general statement about the condom issue, but merely said, and this is what caused such great offense, that we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms. Much more needs to be done. We must stand close to the people, we must guide and help them; and we must do this both before and after they contract the disease.
As a matter of fact, you know, people can get condoms when they want them anyway. But this just goes to show that condoms alone do not resolve the question itself. More needs to happen. Meanwhile, the secular realm itself has developed the so-called ABC Theory: Abstinence-Be Faithful-Condom, where the condom is understood only as a last resort, when the other two points fail to work.
This means that the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.
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. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection.
That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.
Peter Seewald: Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?
Pope Benedict: She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.
Personally, I think that the best part of the answer is how he begins. The media has played armchair quarterback, with liberal columnists claiming (repeatedly and without a shred of empirical data) that the Church’s position on AIDS has lead to millions of deaths in Africa. In reality, the Church has saved millions of lives in Africa through all th means Benedict discussed, while the Church’s critics do little to nothing to raise a finger to help, while assaulting the Church’s assistance in the vilest of terms. Still, it’s these underlined portions which are getting all the attention, so let’s take a look at what’s going on there, instead.
II. My Reaction
First, why does Benedict choose the seemingly-bizarre example of a gay prostitute? He’s isolating the variable, so to speak. Condoms have two uses – (1) as a contraceptive, to prevent conception; and (2) to prevent disease. The first use is absolutely forbidden, while the second use is commendable. In other words, if there was a way to design a device that prevented the spread of AIDS and STDs, without preventing conception, the Church would be absolutely in favor of it.
Now, normally, the public discourse about condoms completely muddles these two, as if a child (a blessing from God in all cases) and AIDS (a deadly disease) are morally equivalent. In choosing the example of a homosexual prostitute, Benedict separated the two. When gays use condoms, they’re not using contraception, since (obviously) they aren’t “at risk” of conceiving.
Second, look at Benedict’s focus. It’s not on whether condom use is morally licit or not in the case he’s described (he actually doesn’t answer that question, despite all the media coverage to the contrary), but simply on the fact that this desire to use a condom is a positive sign for the rehumanization of sexuality. In other words, at the point that the individual in question goes from having animalistic sex to saying, “I will forgo some amount of physical pleasure in order to protect the physical well-being of myself and others,” he or she is on the right track. Because the Church’s stance is that there is all sorts of physical pleasure you might want to engage in that’s terrible for your spiritual well-being – unlike AIDS, which imperils the body, these sins imperil your soul.
This Catholic message is foreign to someone who’s idea of sex is simply “I do what feels good.” Someone who’s already prefigured to making prudential judgments, even in the heat of the moment (“Do I risk my life for momentary physical pleasure?”) is in a better position to make moral judgments (“Do I risk damning my soul for momentary physical pleasure?”).
Third, note that Benedict doesn’t back away from his position on condoms not being the solution for Africa. The armchair quarterbacks will criticize him for this, but he’s backed up by the hard data: in Africa, the spread of condoms has lead to an increase, not a decrease, in AIDS cases. This is counter-intuitive, so let me explain. Condom use decreases (but does not eliminate) the risk of AIDS infection in individual cases. But where NGOs have thrown condoms to combat the AIDS problem, it’s given a false sense of security, so there’s much more sex – meaning more total cases, more sexual partners, and more new AIDS infections cases than before condoms were introduced.
There are two helpful sports analogies here. First, prior to the advent of boxing gloves, there were no reported cases of professional boxing deaths. Now, we see about eleven boxing deaths per year, compared to basically none in mixed-martial arts (which uses really thin gloves). Each blow from a boxing-gloved hand is less dangerous than an ungloved punch, but when your opponent has a boxing glove, you’re likely to sustain a whole lot more hits, and the cumulative effect is long-term brain injury and a higher risk of death. Second, the same is true of football helmets. Wearing a helmet makes you more likely to use your head as a weapon, meaning we’ve seen a lot of brain-damage from football after players rattled their brain. If helmets weren’t used, the vast majority of players wouldn’t be stupid or crazy enough to use their head as a weapon, and they wouldn’t get brain damage. But since boxing gloves and football helmets make us feel safer (which is what makes them so dangerous, of course), we’re unlikely to see either of them go away anytime soon. Same thing for condoms: we’re drawn in by their false sense of security, which is why they are, in many cases, incredibly deadly.
But this is a question of prudence, not morality. Condoms aren’t, as a matter of fact, very effective in curbing the AIDS epidemic in Africa, and the countries which have most successfully battled AIDS have done it by ignoring the armchair quarterbacks. On the other hand, condoms are pretty effective in decreasing the AIDS epidemic in Southeast Asia — the reason apparently being that AIDS is often transmitted via forced prostitution, meaning the sex will happen whether a condom is used or not.
Fourth, let’s take head-on the question that Benedict didn’t address, but which everybody seems to think he did: can condoms be used, not as a contraceptive, but as a disease-prevention tool, in certain cases? There is one glaring case in which this arises: marriages in which one spouse is infected and the other isn’t. The prudential question from #3 still exists (really, if the couple is worried about infection, don’t have sex), but marital sex is obviously not intrinsically immoral in the same way something like gay prostitution is.
My inclination is to suggest that it wouldn’t be immoral in this situation for the non-infected spouse to insist upon condoms, so long as neither spouse was doing so to avoid procreation. Now, the press claims that Benedict has said this (he hasn’t), and that it contradicts or “overturns” Humanae Vitae (it doesn’t contradict it, and he can’t overturn it). Ironically, it’s Humanae Vitae itself which says that items which are sometimes contraception may be used, so long as they’re not used as a contraceptive. Birth control, for example, is sometimes used for health purposes, and the Church has explicitly said that’s okay. After reaffirming the Church’s opposition to sterilization and artificial birth control, paragraph 15 of Humanae Vitae says:
On the other hand, the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever. (19)
Here, replace “cure bodily diseases” with “prevent bodily diseases” and you have the exact situation facing many Catholic couples in Africa.
However, there’s a major counterargument to my own inclination. If a couple is having sex while using a condom, is it possible for them to be open to new life? Could a couple in which one spouse has AIDS welcome procreation? This is particularly true since it might mean that in the process of procreation, both the mother and child become infected and die. Certainly, their actions don’t suggest that they’re trying to have kids (they’re not required to try to, of course), but does the condom suggest that they’re trying not to?