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.