A correction: it seems as though my previous description of the pope’s statement on condoms as “good news” was inaccurate–primarily because it turns out it is not “news” at all. While the pope himself has led us to believe that the church considers condom-use to be “intrinsically evil” even to halt the spread of a devastating and fatal disease like HIV, it turns out that there has never been any official teaching on condoms. In other words, Benedict has not said anything newsworthy because, contrary to what we have been led to believe, the church never “officially” classified condom-use to prevent the spread of disease to be intrinsically evil.
Contrary to my earlier speculation that condom-use does not meet the criterion of “double-effect,” it seems that this is precisely how condom-use is justified. I must admit that I am more than a bit confused either on what exactly the principle of double effect specifies or what exactly condoms do! While it is certainly to possible to intend only to prevent the spread of HIV, and while it is not technically true that the contraceptive side-effect of condom-use is the means to the good end of disease prevention, I am still somewhat dissatisfied by this logic.
Perhaps you all can help me out: I am not sure if it is really accurate to speak of contraception as being a mere side-effect of condom-use. I accept that contraception may not be what is primarily intended. However, in the case of sexually transmitted HIV, it seems as though the mechanisms of transmission and the mechanisms of conception, though not identical in theory, are nonetheless inextricably bound up with one another in such a way that it seems inaccurate to speak of contraception as the mere “side-effect” of the condom’s disease-preventing abilities. In other words, we can separate disease prevention from contraception only in the abstract realm of theory–in reality, there is no way to prevent HIV without also preventing conception, especially in light of the fact that sperm itself can transmit HIV.
Perhaps I am uncomfortable with the principle of double effect itself. If we go back to Aquinas’ articulation of the principle, which he uses to justify killing in self-defense, we see that he speaks of the possibility of an act having two effects, one intended and one unintended. Since, for Aquinas, “it is natural to everything to keep itself in being, as much as possible,” the intention of self-preservation is therefore lawful, as long as a person uses only as much violence as necessary in order to keep herself alive. Interestingly, Aquinas does not think biblical commands to “turn the other cheek” override the natural desire and right to keep on living–how to understand self-defense with respect to such commands is something we are still wrestling with and I suspect there is no easy answer to this question…
So perhaps we should examine the church’s application of the principle of double effect to the case of condoms in light of Aquinas’ use of this principle to justify killing in self-defense. Can we justify self-defense without resort to the principle of self-defense?
My second dissatisfaction lies in the question of how we describe a given act. For Aquinas, it was not sufficient to merely look at the act of killing itself. To just look at the act of killing (the blow to the head, the thrusting of a sword, etc) would not provide enough data to know what was really going on. Killing someone by striking them on the head with a sharp object could be murder, it could be manslaughter, it could be self-defense. It is important to adequately describe an act because, if we lack an adequate sense of what a given act is, we cannot provide a moral description of this act. In Aquinas’ thinking, it is possible to apply the principle of double effect to killing only because “killing” is something that has already been determined to be a morally indeterminate type of act–it could be evil; it could be just. Even this determination (that killing is not always evil) is something that is the product of a given ethos and rationality–it is not self-evident, but is itself the product of moral judgement. The fact that this seems self-evident or obvious does not of course mean that it actually is so, of course. In fact, as I alluded to earlier, this is a contested claim within Christianity itself, as some groups claim that killing is never justified, even in the case of self-defense.
To return to the case of condoms, it seems as though we are allowed to look beyond “the act itself” to the circumstances and intention of the act in order to determine “what is really going on.” In other areas of the church’s sexual teaching, however, it seems as though intention, circumstance, and outcome are deemed irrelevant to moral description. So my question is, is there a discernible and coherent moral logic operating behind the magisterium’s determination that condom-use and killing are acts that cannot be fully described without reference to intention, circumstance, and effect while acts like homosexual sex and artificial contraception can in fact be adequately described in themselves?
I am asking here not for the content of church teaching (that both acts are forms of sex in which “sex” has been made intentionally non-procreative) but about the underlying logic of this criteria?