The National Catholic Review

Yesterday's Vatican clarification -- one that, quite exceptionally, was made by its spokesman Fr Lombardi by reporting the Pope's answer to his question, leaving no room for doubt  -- is, as Fr Jim says, a gamechanger; in Fr Tom Reese's words, it "blasts out of the water" the notion that condoms are intrinsically evil. The point double-underlined by the Pope in yesterday's clarification is that protecting life is the crucial thing.

So the self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy who have hounded bishops, theologians and Catholic health workers on the frontline using precisely that argument are in a bind this week. It is amazing to see, for example, John Smeaton of SPUC -- a UK pro-life lobby which constantly attacks the bishops of England and Wales with spurious appeals to Rome -- try to claim in today's Guardian (p. 18; I can't see it online) that that there has been no change to church teaching. That, as a matter of technical fact, is true -- as I'll explain in a minute.

But consider his attack of just a few weeks ago on my Catholic Voices colleague Jack Valero, who said in a radio interview that the Church was not against condoms per se but against contraception. No, said Smeaton, "the Catholic Church is against condoms because condoms' use, by closing the marital act to the transmission of life, separates the procreative and unitive dimensions of sexual intercourse, contrary to the crystal-clear teaching of Humanae Vitae that:"[E]ach and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life." (Humanae Vitae, 11)

If church teaching hasn't changed, as Smeaton claims, then there can only be one logical conclusion: he was mispresenting church teaching -- or at least wrongly accusing of Valero of doing so.

The 2004 Rhonheimer article discussed by Kevin Clarke (here) was a brilliantly clear summation of authentic Catholic doctrine on this point which earned him heavy criticism -- Fr Rhonheimer is not in the martyr business, and would be embarrassed by my saying this, but I know how much he suffered in the fallout of the piece -- because of the prevalence of the distortions of magisterial teaching which the backwoodsmen had spent years promoting.

Some indication from some of them that they have after all got this wrong would be welcome. But I'm not holding my breath.

Why have the Pope's remarks not changed or innovated moral doctrine? The principles which theologians, bishops and cardinals have over the years used to justify condoms to prevent infection -- lesser evil, double-effect, self-defence, toleration, cooperation (there's no better book on this, by the way, that Fuller & Keenan's Catholic Ethicists on HIV/AIDS Prevention) -- have not been invoked by the Pope, and nor were they yesterday in Fr Lombardi's press conference clarification (which the press agencies have wrongly described as an endorsement of the lesser-evil principle). I think that's significant.

In preparing an article for this week's Tablet I spoke to various people in Rome (among them Rhonheimer, Fr Michael Czerny at Justice and Peace, and Mgr Bob Vitillo at Caritas) who have followed this process in the past years, to try to figure out why these principles have not been invoked. None of them knew for sure -- or were not going to tell me, if they did -- but were happy to speculate. It was clear that the CDF did not want to go down that route for fear that these ethical principles would be misapplied without proper formation -- and used to justify use of condoms for contraceptive purposes. In other words, there is nothing wrong per se with these principles being applied to the use of prophlactics to prevent infection, but exactly how and in what circumstances requires brains the size of Fr Jim Keenan's. As Fr Joe Fessio points out to Reuters, for example, "the concept of the “lesser evil” is inapplicable here. One may tolerate a lesser evil; one cannot do something which is a lesser evil."

But the main point - made well by Fr Fessio -- is that there is no need for a "justification" of condoms against Aids. There is no need to invoke principles of justification because this is an area which falls outside church teaching on human sexuality. A sero-discordant couple seeking to avoid infection cannot possibly be concerned with living out the vision of marital sexual love in Humanae vitae, just as a prostitute cannot be. It would be like lecturing a nation at war on the importance of subsidiarity in Catholic social teaching.

This does not detract from, or undermine, or depart from, or put a new gloss on, the truth of church teaching about contraception. When peace returns, the nation must set about building a society of justice and peace. When the prostitute is able to escape her situation of desperation, she is called to monogamy and chastity. Aids will only be defeated by the kinds of choices which the Church needs to encourage people to make -- when they are able and willing to make them.

This has been an extraordinary week, and we're all still absorbing it. But I've become convinced, through my conversations with people who really understand the different pressures on the Church, that what the Pope was doing was twofold - -although it comes to the same thing. On the one hand, he wanted to defend the pastoral approach taken by the Church in Africa from the attacks of backwoodsmen. On the other, he wanted to reject the phrasaical legalism which those backwoodsmen have used to hound people putting the Gospel into practice. In just a few paragraphs - bolstered by a further conversation with Fr Lombardi -- he has achieved it, clearing the river of a logjam of many years, and allowing the Church's healing power to flow in Africa, unhindered now by confusion and double-think.

Last night I dug out from a large computer folder marked "condoms-Aids" a Tablet interview I did years ago with Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg in South Africa, head of the Church's Aids program there, and another of those courageous prophets who can be relieved this week. "The body of Christ has Aids," he memorably told me. "The Church has Aids. Our people are living, suffering and dying because of this disease".

When we got onto the vexed subject of condoms, he told me about the programs he was in charge of in South Africa which worked to promote behaviour change. "It's tempting," he said, "to take what appears to be the pharasaical approach of saying, 'if you want to avoid Aids, keep God's law'. But that kind of approach is blind to the realities of poor people. It's blind to the situation of so many women, for example, who have lost their partners or been ditched by their partners after being tested HIV-positive. Unless one meets people living in poverty, really listens to them and tries to understand their situation, one is going to have a skewed theology and a skewed morality as well. In this terrible pandemic," he added, "should we focus all our efforts on proclaiming an ethic of sexuality, or should we not also focus on an ethic of preserving and saving life?"

I was meditating on those words in the park today, and on Pope Benedict's magnificent, courageous gesture. And the image came to me of Jesus, one arm round a blind beggar, the other stroking the hair of a fallen woman, clamly but fiercely rebuking the pharisees gathered round with their textbooks and stones.

The beggar and the woman were African. And for some reason, Jesus spoke in German.

Comments

David Nickol | 11/25/2010 - 11:17am
John,

I believe the reason Pope Benedict did not say that using a condom has ceased being intrinsically evil is that the Church has never taught that using a condom is intrinsically evil.  If you insist that the Church has indeed taught this, could you please produce some evidence?
John Flaherty | 11/25/2010 - 4:25am
It's amazes me how people so willingly misconstrue what Pope Benedict said and insist that he's changed doctrine somehow.  It's also sad to see a bishop failing at his job of teaching the whole of the faith to his flock.
Pope Benedict did not say that using a condom had ceased being intrinsically evil.  He  DID say that if a male prostitute were to use a condom, it might be the faintest glimmerings of conscience peeking through.  It's vaguely possible that the man might repent from being a male prostitute ultimately.

That's it.

As far as Bishop Dowling's comments go, I'd be happier if he'd spend less time finding excuses to justify "safe" sex programs.  If he'd spend more energy on teaching his flock the Church's actual teachings, abstinence especially, he'd likely have more success.
david power | 11/24/2010 - 3:58pm
I dont think that it is true to say that the Popes comments "blasts out of the water" the idea that condoms are intrinsically evil.I am not a moral theologian ,or a theologian of any stripe but would this not go under the category "lesser evil"?This is a genuine question to any knowledgeable person in this area.Can something which is a lesser evil still pass muster as intrinsically evil?
Jack Barry | 11/24/2010 - 12:59pm
Lurking in the background of Austen Ivereigh's illuminating post above and his other recent ones in America is a more fundamental issue.   A fairly well known fact is that the marital act, usually available to healthy humans, is usually closed to the procreation of human life.  Human nature, where the natural law is written, makes it absolutely impossible for a healthy, fertile woman to initiate procreation or remain open to the transmission of life roughly 80% or more of the time in any month, year, and decade.   Conjugal acts then cannot possibly ''remain'' open to the transmission of life since they are not open to it in the first place.  Unitive ends can be pursued nearly any time but not the procreative end.  
If the argument that puts primacy or necessity on the procreative end were valid, the conclusion would have to be drawn that marital acts should be avoided except during the short period when conception is humanly possible.  Perhaps discussions clarifying the Pope's initially vague and ambiguous words on condoms can lead to a more important clarification of the fundamentals of the Church position on the nature of sexual activity.
we vnornm | 11/24/2010 - 10:24am
Many thanks Father Jim and Austen! bill