Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How to Swallow a Camel

The sideshow in the Press goes on unabated as the usual suspects (the "Catholic experts" whom the liberal media keeps on speed dial and who are conversant in Newspeak) get trotted on to the scene to clear things up for us. Thus, Fr. James Martin, SJ - a "prominent Jesuit," mind you! - proclaims Benedict's declaration on condoms to be a "game changer." (What exactly does "prominent Jesuit" mean? Prominent within the Jesuits? Within the Church? Or, having a few book deals and a familiar face with a collar beneath it?) FoxNews, at least, in an odd instance of really being fair and balanced acknowledges that not all theologians see it that way: Fr. Fessio - not called here a "prominent Jesuit" but I for one would like to see him and Martin arm-wrestle - says "nothing new has happened." John Haas and Germain Grisez (whose prominence is actually substantive and pertinent to the matter we're discussing, which is moral doctrine), both lament the confusion engendered by this unfolding of events.

And then there's I, who am neither prominent (alas!) nor a Jesuit (hooray!), but presume to try to add to this discussion within the small sphere of influence that I do (inscrutably) inhabit.

I wanted to urge a couple more points of consideration which - regardless of what the Pope actually intended to say - must shape our perception of this entire debate.

So, first, I want to make a point about language. Our impoverished capacity for nuance is contributing in an important way to this entire discussion. For one thing, there is the conflation of the notion of contraception with the tools which are often used to that end, but which are not bound inextricably to it. What I mean to say is that contraception is a moral object and not a (or several) material object(s). Thus, condoms are sometimes put to contraceptive use, and when this is the case, they may be spoken of as "contraceptives". However, they are not always "contraceptives", as in a situation when used between two men in an act of sodomy, an act to which the contraceptive end does not - and cannot ever - attain to the act. As such, I would propose another term which encompasses a broader meaning, namely prophylactic. If a condom is used in a situation to which the contraceptive end does not attain, for purposes of sanitation, then the condom is not a contraceptive at that point - it is, however, still a prophylactic. When, on the other hand, the contraceptive end attains - regardless of the intention of the individual - then, the prophylactic functions as a "contraceptive", whether a condom or an IUD or what have you. We need to be clear on this point, and I think it needlessly confusing to use the term "contraceptive" to describe the use of an object in an act to which the contraceptive purpose is irrelevant. This is regardless of whether the Pope's remarks actually do extent to cases when that end is relevant (as some have suggested they do, such as Father Lombardi, although I am skeptical whether the Pope meant to include such circumstances).

Once that bit of language is understand, we can begin to articulate meaningful distinctions on this issue. One could say that when a condom is used as a prophylactic but not as a contraceptive, it may be allowable per se.

Let's move on, then, to consider hypothetically whether the Pope's remarks can be taken in a broader way, to include scenarios of dual use for the prophylactic.

Now, as I mentioned in my early post on this matter, if the Pope is making such an argument, this is not "same old" theology and does represent a new turn in the discussion - at least, for the Pope, considering that this very issue was the subject of a commission at the Vatican a few years back which (significantly) never issued a concluding report. Nevertheless, there is a theological strain of argument that could make sense of the Pope's remarks even if they were taken to extend to heterosexual acts outside of marriage where a condom would be used to prevent the spread of HIV but also result in the prevention of conception.

Now, let us first note that this isn't a "double effect" argument per se, since contraceptive activity is inherently evil and certainly flows directly from the act with as much immediacy as the prophylactic function (it should also be always kept in mind that condoms are inefficient in achieving either end). But the argument would be that Humanae Vitae condemnation of contraception applies only to the bond of marriage; that is, since sex belongs in marriage, along with its two functions - the unitive and the procreative - then, outside of marriage we're already dealing with a disordered situation and the only effect that contracepting would have would be to perhaps increase the gravity of the situation.

An analogy could be drawn to the Church's Just War Doctrine, and its component of "proportional means." An aggressor in battle is bound to observe the rule of proportionality in order to maintain justice in its cause. Now, this only applies properly to situations in which the agent is capable of just action in the first place: only a legitimate State has the authority to wage war. Suppose an instance where an illegitimate agent undertakes to wage war. Here, the action undertaken already is illegitimate and disordered; in this case, whether the agent chooses to demonstrate proportional restraint is less consequential and somewhat a moot point. In such a case, demonstration of proportional use of force would be similar to what the Pope said about a male prostitute using a prophylactic to protect his partner: a step in the right direction, but a step taking place in a process which is already problematized by a higher level moral concern.

The gist of this would be in line with Fr. Lombardi's approach to this discussion: that the Pope is objecting the trivialization of sex that this whole line of discernment implies: that, in the context of sex being abused outside of its naturally ordered context (within a loving marriage that is open to new life), the use of condoms - and perhaps even the contraceptive use - is a matter of straining gnats while swallowing a camel. And if there's anything the media is good at doing for the sheeple of America, it's getting them to swallow a camel.

Again, I'm not entirely sure of the cogency of this approach. For example, I would argue that in the context outside of marriage, the rejection of contraception - remaining open to life, and abhoring the contraceptive function of prophylactics - would represent the same positive sort of step in the right direction as the use of a condom by a male prostitute infected with HIV. Note that the Pope said that part of this moral value was in the "acceptance of responsibility", which moral value is lost when the contraceptive end attains.

I won't go further on about this matter in this post, but I offer these considerations as another means of understanding what's at stake in this media circus. Let's bear these kinds of things in mind as the matter unfolds.

1 comment:

  1. There's a bizarre literal-mindedness to this whole conversation that reflects a similar literal-mindedness in America politics. It's as if, collectively, our corpus callossum is shrinking.


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