In a soon to be released book entitled, “Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times,” Pope Benedict has apparently said, “the Catholic church is not fundamentally against the use of condoms” especially when they are used to prevent the spread of HIV.  In what seems to a complete reversal of his previous opinion, Benedict says that while condoms are not “the real and moral solution” to HIV/AIDS, it is nonetheless the case that “where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, it can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality.”

What great news!

P.S. This new position would seem to have far-reaching implications for the entirety of Catholic sexual ethics, as, since Humane Vitae, the magisterium has insisted that the procreative and unitive functions of sexual intercourse (this latter aspect was identified for the first time at Vatican II) can never intentionally separated for any purpose. The Pope’s recent statement would seem to suggest that there are exceptions to this rule.

Also, I have heard some commentors describe this move (if it is in fact true) as a recognition of the applicability of the principle of double effect to the case of condoms and HIV prevention.  However, I think this statement is in fact a more radical development of church teaching than that.  The principle of double effect rests upon the three following conditions:

  • the nature of the act is itself good, or at least morally neutral;
  • the agent intends the good effect and not the bad either as a means to the good or as an end itself;
  • the good effect outweighs the bad effect in circumstances sufficiently grave to justify causing the bad effect and the agent exercises due diligence to minimize the harm.

However, previously, contraception of any kind, or any act that sought to separate sex from procreation (like coitus interruptus) was considered to be intrinsically evil; in other words, it was always wrong no matter what the circumstances, effects, or intentions.  For this reason, the principle of double effect did not apply precisely because “the nature of the act itself” in this case the use of condoms, was not “itself good, or at least morally neutral.”  In fact, it was considered to be intrinsically evil.

Logically, then, it would seem that this latest statement by the pope implies that condoms are no longer intrinsically evil, but instead circumstantially so.  If my thinking is right here, this is a HUGE change/development in magisterial sexual ethics.

P.P.S. Many of you have also rightly pointed out the unfortunate nature of Benedict’s decision to illustrate his point with the example of a male prostitute as opposed to a married woman seeking to protect herself from the consequences of her husband’s infidelity.  However, even this suggests provocative possibilities for Catholic sexual ethics as even if Benedict means only to endorse condoms in the case of homosexual sex (which I do not think he does), this would seem to suggest that the criterion for evaluating the morality of actions pertaining to homosexual sex are not identical to those for evaluating the morality of actions pertaining to heterosexual sex.  Even if Benedict’s revision were interpreted in a more limited manner as applying only to homosexual sex, it nonetheless implies that something that is not permissible in the case of heterosexual sex (the severing of the sexual act from procreation via condoms) is permitted in the case of homosexual sex.  In other words, this would seem to suggest that at least in one area, people engaged in “homosexual sex” are permitted to separate the sex act from procreation.

28 thoughts

  1. Well, many if not most moral theologians have long pointed out that the use of condoms specifically to prevent infection would be permissible under the principle of double effect. So the argument Benedict is making in this book is not technically new. What’s so shocking, though, is that Benedict, who never once endorsed that position, now seems amenable to it.

  2. Ok, hold on, you just updated the post so now my comment is redundant.

    Regarding condoms being intrinsically evil: that’s not my understanding of magisterial teaching, but I could be wrong. I’m pretty sure the teaching was that the practice of contraception was intrinsically evil. It’s the *use* of condoms as contraceptive devices, therefore, that is intrinsically evil. For instance, it would not be intrinsically evil to walk around wearing a condom just because you find it aesthetically pleasing.

    But regarding double effect, isn’t the reasoning with the condoms similar to the classic example of the fallopian pregnancy or the cancerous uterus? Excision of those organs, resulting of course in the death of the embryo/fetus, is permissible because the act can be *described* as something other than direct abortion. In the case of condoms, the act of using them during sex can be *described* as something other than contraception. That alternate definition of condom use, and not because contraception is ever permissible, is why moral theologians have been able to argue for double effect.

    1. Yes, that is indeed why moral theologians argued for it thusly. but notice that they maintained it could be “described” as a non-contraceptive only because they relied upon a different criteria of description–intention. this contrasted to the magisterial criteria of description which centered on the “objective” nature of the act–no matter what one intends, you are still severing sex from procreation–in simpler terms, you are still preventing the sperm from reaching the egg.

      in my understanding, this is huge because Benedict is now siding with the moral theologians in arguing that the act should be described not solely by its objective status but by the intentions and circumstances behind it.

      for example, and actually Nichole could speak more to this because I think she wrote a paper on it, previously the magisterium (i think) disallowed the use of condoms even by married couples in which only one spouse was HIV positive.

  3. For those who can read Italian, the original article from “L’Osservatore Romano” which has these quotes is here:

    The article’s quotes say tantalizingly little, though if someone could translate the section on Humanae Vitae which Babelfish makes unintelligible, that might give us a better idea of what might be said.

    If this is Benedict’s way of causing a media blitz around his latest set of interviews, well, it sure worked for me.

  4. I am fairly sure that contraception, as it is discussed in HV, refers to ends, not means. Contraception is an end willed, not a means to the end. That’s how double-effect works for this case, because it’s not the means to the end (condoms) which is intrinsically evil, it’s the end willed which is intrinsically evil (contraception). Thankfully for us, since condoms can be used as means to accomplishing ends other than contraception (preventing disease, regulating menstrual cycles), contraception can be indirectly willed inasmuch as it is a foreseen consequence of condom use and inasmuch as another, legitimate (non-intrinsically evil) end is directly willed. HV itself affirms this reasoning in section 15. Therefore the principle of double effect is legitimately applied.

    Aside from this point, the principle of double effect is not without its problems. Arguably, one is still morally responsible for a consequence foreseen. The principle is easily abused. John Ford alone spoke out among moral theologians when it was invoked to justify the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    All this being said, I am glad that the pope is moving away from double effect to virtue discourse in talking about condoms as part of a path of authentic sexual development in some cases. What he misses is that condom use in the case of HIV prevention really has very little, ethically speaking, to do with sexual development. It’s about preventing disease and death. The male prostitute example is ill-chosen because most of the people at risk for HIV infection are married women who cannot control their husbands’ infidelities or even in most cases negotiate condom use.

    1. Stupid question: if contraception is the end (not the means), how does that relate to natural methods of birth regulation?

      1. Michael, that’s a question people often point to to show how incoherent the condemnation of contraception is.

        My understanding is that “natural” methods of birth control are permitted because there is a difference in the definition of the act: You are not interfering with conception “by artifice,” which is how HV phrases it. If a couple abstains from having sex on days when the woman is fertile, they can’t very well be blamed for that (since nobody is going to blame someone for being abstinent, period). And if they have sex on a day when the woman happens to be infertile, they can’t be blamed for that because it’s assumed that they contributed nothing to rendering that act unfit for conception.

        Now people have (rightly) protested that, yes, they did contribute something towards rendering that act unfit for conception insofar as they deliberately performed (what pastorally sensitive language!) the act under circumstances which would render it unfit for conception.

        All of this reasoning depends on what you define as “interference,” which in turn depends on how you set the limits for defining what counts as “the sexual act.” Or, in other words, it depends on what you count as “acting” and as “refraining from acting”–which of those two can be said to be “actively” carried out? The natural methods defense doesn’t incorporate timing into its definition of the sexual act, and so timed sexual acts count as “natural.”

        The late Gareth Moore, O.P., pointed out the problems with defining acts this way. If you were in a room, simply sitting in a chair, and you were asked, “What are you doing?”, you might rightly answer, “Nothing.” In fact, you might say that you are refraining from doing something. But if a king walks into the room and you remain as you are, you *are* actively doing something: You are actively sitting, since the natural posture would be for you to be standing. The point is that the definition of an act sometimes depends entirely on the circumstances in which it occurs, and this is the problem with the absolute prohibition on “artificial” birth control which apparently doesn’t apply to “natural” birth control.

        Herbert McCabe, O.P., likewise recognized that it all depends on how you define an act. If you are trying to win a soccer game, you might have to kick the ball away from the goal at certain times.

    2. also, after thinking about this some more, I think that the pope’s latest statement on condoms is not necessarily a departure from HV, but it is definitely a departure from the way the papacy has heretofore interpreted HV.

      I still think this statement will have (positive) unintended consequences

  5. Also, many moral theologians have noted the internal inconsistencies of HV. Even though section 15 invokes (in not so many words) double-effect to justify “therapeutic means” which might result in contraception (indirectly willed), section 16 does the opposite. Here the pope outlines the moral justification for NFP, the practicing of which arguably requires a contraceptive intent. The rest of the encyclical seems to presume that contraception is an intrinsically evil end, so requiring couples to intend it for the execution of the pope’s consolation-prize-solution (NFP) would seem to be ethically incoherent. My understanding is that it is precisely this inconsistency that has led to many to accuse this encyclical of endorsing “physicalism,” which I understand to refer to an ideology of not placing anything in the way of what would seem to be the physical process of reproduction. Thus HV operates at two levels: the level of professed moral justifications and the level of operative moral justifications.

  6. Hi Michael!

    Yes, it did, and that interpretation of the document makes a lot of sense, especially since there are many apparent gaps in its logic.

    I do have one question about that interpretation, though, especially because it requires an assumption of discontinuity to read the document. Though I haven’t studied the document and its interpretations as deeply as most on this blog, I wonder if Paul VI saw that line of moral reasoning differently: that artificial contraception was wrong precisely because it was an unnatural “means of regulating the number of children” (HV 14). The regulation of births seems to be an acceptable end, so long as the means given to accomplish that end are “natural” (given Paul VI’s definition of natural).

    I think you make a valid point of bringing up a contraceptive end that goes along with using contraceptive means, something which promotes a kind of “contraceptive mentality,” accomplishing the end of separating procreative from unitive ends (HV 17). However, for Paul, I think that comes about by seeing artificial contraception as an unlawful means promoting an unlawful end, not vice versa.

    I might be misinterpreting what you mean by “contraception as an end,” though! I’m sorry if I’m misrepresenting what you mean.

  7. Thanks, Sonja: I think that’s a cogent summary of why many think the document is internally incoherent.

    Sorry to belabor a stupid point! I just wanted to highlight how Paul and the Magisterium interpret HV, since I think Benedict’s comments are going to have to be interpreted as understanding HV in that same light. Benedict would probably understand his comments as somehow coming from a hermeneutic of continuity with HV and its moral reasoning; it also seems like his comments can be interpreted differently if he sees contraception as a means to an end vs. if he sees contraception as an end.

    Thanks again for your follow-ups!

    1. just to echo what both michael R and sonja have pointed out in some inconsistency both in HV and in the church’s allowing NFP…there is a speech JPII gave in which he suggested that NFP should only be used to aid in conception not to avoid it, which makes church teaching even more incoherent and suggests that their might not actually be that big of a difference between using NFP to avoid pregnancy and using birth control.

      the quotation, issued on Dec 14, 1990:
      “it is not possible to practice natural methods as a ‘licit’ variation on the decision to be closed to life, which would be substantially the same as that which inspires the decision to use contraceptives.”

      this is not just very different from the way in which most catholic couples use NFP (who use it to avoid pregnancy for a certain period of time) but also seems to suggest some indecision on the part of JPII as to whether or not people can intend to avoid pregnancy while still having sex even through the use of so-called “natural” means…

  8. Eh, the more I think about it, the less optimistic I am. It’s a shock, to be sure, that homosexual sex has actually made it onto any kind of spectrum of morality in Benedict’s eyes (though Christoph Schoenborn said something to this effect in his recent comment that committed gay relationships were better than promiscuity), but it’s also true that the choice of the example of a male (presumably gay) prostitute is effectively severed from the discussion of contraception. Condom use in homosexual sex is by definition non-contraceptive, so this announcement could conceivably (no pun, ha) lead to no progress on the question of contraception. Sigh.

  9. Indeed. I thought about that the minute after I let out my sigh, and I didn’t mean to belittle that at all. Liberation for anybody is cause to rejoice.

  10. Eh, I’m not doing any better with my tone, am I. I am genuinely glad that an entire group of people is FINALLY, maybe, going to be recognized as human. Thank God, really, for that. I was just hoping that this latest headline would take on contraception head-on, which, it seems to me, would destabilize the entire anthropology that makes misogyny, condemnation of gays, and immaturity about sexuality in general possible to begin with.

    1. it’s all good, sonja! no need to apologize.

      I in fact do think, that progress on homosexuality or progress on contraception, however incremental, does in fact destabilize the entire anthropology that makes misogyny, condemnation of gays, and immaturity about sexuality in general possible to begin with!

      But regardless, there is no need to apologize for being impatient with untruth and injustice!

  11. Thanks for breaking this story, Katie! (I received your info while I was at a football game and I started clapping and no one knew why, hehe) I wrote a paper on this topic last year for Lisa & Jim B, trying to point out aspects of recent magisterial teaching that suggested a possibility for transition in the approach, the casuistic corrective (which Benedict XVI seems to be employing now) and an communal-based approach to conscience and natural law modeled especially well in some African Christian communities committed to protecting people from the spread of HIV & AIDS while recognizing the cultural, social, political, and economic realities that made the “condoms are intrinsically evil approach” completely untenable. As many have pointed out, this break is a step in the right direction, but I am also curious to see how this changed was reached and what criteria (if any) are suggested for determining the acceptability of condom usage in a particular situation. I hope someone sent the Holy Father the memo that this disease is spreading between married couples all over the world…

  12. On second thought, Katie, my pessimism might have been unwarranted. Lombardi clarified Benedict’s remarks today:

    **In the light of this ample and profound vision of human sexuality and its modern challenges, the pope reaffirms that the church “of course does not regard (condoms) as a real or moral solution” to the problem of AIDS.

    In saying this, the pope is not reforming or changing the teaching of the church, but reaffirming it by putting it in the context of the value and dignity of human sexuality as an expression of love and responsibility.

    At the same time, the pope takes into consideration an exceptional situation in which the exercise of sexuality may represent a real risk to the life of another person. In such a case, the pope does not morally justify the disordered exercise of sexuality, but maintains that the use of the condom to diminish the danger of infection may be “a first assumption of responsibility”, “a first step in a movement toward a … more human sexuality”, as opposed to not using the condom and exposing the other person to a fatal risk.

    In this statement, the pope’s reasoning certainly cannot be defined as a revolutionary shift.**

    The large paragraph is key. I don’t know what the Italian said or what Lombardi intended, but this transcription makes it sound like the “exceptional situation” is exceptional not because it involves a male [homosexual?] prostitute but because it is one “in which the exercise of sexuality may represent a real risk to the life of another person.” That would seem to open it up to the situation we all hoped was being addressed, namely that of a married couple, one of whom is HIV positive.

    To be sure, Lombardi still calls the example a “disordered exercise of sexuality,” and perhaps that suggests that Lombardi really does have in mind only the male prostitute. OTOH, maybe he thinks that any sex had by anyone who carries a contagious fatal virus is a disordered exercise of sexuality. It’s not clear. (Too bad, btw, that he doesn’t address marriages in which one spouse does have a sexually communicable but non-fatal disease.)

    1. Just remember that the Vatican’s saying the X is not a change in church teaching is not proof that X is in fact not a change in church teaching. I’m not sure if the church has ever admitted that any new teaching is in fact a new teaching. This is especially evident in social encyclicals which often say “continuing with the wisdom of my venerable predecessor Pope X,” and then go on to say something completely different from and sometimes even contradictory to what “venerable Pope X” in fact said.

  13. Oh indeed. That’s what I remember most from our social encyclicals crash course with Margie Pfeil when I was at ND (probably one of the top three courses I’ve ever taken). I’m just wondering what the intention of the male prostitute example was.

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