Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Pope and Condoms

UPDATE - (11/20/10 at 1545 EST): Professor Janet Smith, a moral theologian of some repute, seems to be taking basically the same tact on this as I have done below.

This is going to get ugly - you've been warned!

I originally titled this post The Object of an Objectionable Act - which I'll come back to. But I've changed the title since this is sort of a breaking story, and I figured I could enhance my web-footprint a bit (and also disrupt the misinformation campaign rapidly ensuing) with this more straight-forward title.

It seems like we've been through all this before. You remember the score. The Pope, on a plane flight, observes to some journalists that condoms are not the right approach to stopping the spread of AIDS. A Harvard don backs him up. Chagrined, mass media lets slip its mask and becomes pandemonium seething.

Well... here we go again.

Now, for anybody who has taken any time in studying moral theology, this whole situation wants a stiff whiskey and a staunch wall against which to bang one's head. But I'm going to try to pre-emptively wade into this matter and make some distinctions which are necessary for understanding what the Pope is - and is not - saying.

First things first: the story. A new book coming out recounts an interview between Papal pundit Peter Seewald and Papa Benedict. This is not the first time this pair have met; Seewald interviewed then Cardinal Ratzinger for his book God and the World. This book will likely sell a bit better, though, for two reasons: one, Ratzinger is now Pope and it is the first book of its kind; two, a comment from the book with which the media is having a field day.

Here's the quotation from a representative news story:

Journalist Peter Seewald, who interviewed Benedict over the course of six days this ummer [sic], revisited those comments [i.e., the ones from the plane] and asked Benedict if it wasn't "madness" for the Vatican to forbid a high risk population to use condoms.

"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," Benedict said.

But he stressed that it wasn't the way to deal with the evil of HIV, noting the church's position that abstinence and marital fidelity is the only sure way.
Now, let's tuck in, shall we?

First, note that the quotation itself is the only direct wording from the interview that is selected for the news story. The paraphrase which follows the longer quotation is likely to be passed over in most of the media's treatment of this matter - and the content of that paraphrase is a very important caveat for fully appreciating the moral issues at hand in this discussion. It must be noted that this is not a reversal of the Pope's earlier comments on the use of condoms in preventing the spread of HIV. The Pope understands the scientific evidence, that condom distribution has not been correlated to reduced frequency of infection, and in fact that their distribution can cause a spike in high-risk behavior. The Pope's quotation from this latest interview does not address the issue of social organization and the treatment of epidemics: he is speaking about individual moral choice and responsibility. This is a crucial point.

Nor is this latest remark a reversal of the Church's long-standing teaching on contraception and condoms in general, which are seen to be intrinsically evil. But here we need to make some distinctions. The confusion caused by the press in coming days will be largely due to the fact that people don't understand in the first place what the Church means by Her condemnation of contraceptives. So, let's look to the Catethicism of the Catholic Church.

CCC 2370 - quoting the encyclical Humanae Vitae - succinctly states that

'every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible' is intrinsically evil" (emp. added).
The italicized text is important to our understanding. The dictum of moral theology is that a moral act is conditioned by the object of the act. This is not the "intention" - an important point, since intention is another of the sources of evaluation for the quality of a moral action and not to be conflated with the end of the act itself. Rather, the object (CCC 1751) "is a good toward which the will deliberately directs itself. It is the matter of a human act." This chosen object "morally specifies the act of willing" (CCC 1758) and, in the case of intrinsically evil actions, can never be chosen, is never ameliorated by the intention or the circumstances. In the case of contraception, the moral object is not reducible to the material and genital particularities, althought these tend to be bound up with the act: the contraceptive act is the one which chooses "to render procreation impossible."

The use of a condom, in and of itself, is not the greatest concern in this regard. The use to which the condom is put is essential. For the sake of example, a condom could be envisioned as taking part in the (already disordered and perverse) act of masturbation. Yet, it would be absurd to see the role of the condom in this case as substantially changing the nature of the moral action. It might add in degrees to the gravity of the act, according to how it shapes the perverse intention of the person doing it. But here, the condom becomes primarily a factor in the other two criteria of moral action, namely intention and circumstances, rather than being bound up with the object of the act. The condom is being used: but it's not, morally speaking, "the use of a condom."

From there, we step over into the moral situation with which the Pope is grappling in his interview: the case of a male prostitute who is himself infected or servicing an infected client. We have seen at least how a condom is not necessarily bound up with the object of the contraceptive act (which is intrinsically evil). Now, in the quotation from the Holy Father which I provided above, we don't see any explicit address of this issue. However, in the Associated Press article floating around out there, there is a common trope being used:

Benedict said that for male prostitutes — for whom contraception isn't a central issue — condoms are not a moral solution. But he said they could be justified "in the intention of reducing the risk of infection."
We the readers are left wondering whether this notion of contraception not being "a central issue" comes from something the Pope explicitly stated in the interview, or is material implied by the context in which the discussion took place. To my mind, this question is central: because, as far as I can see, it will determine the difference of whether we're talking about a condom being used or morally distinguished "condom use" (i.e., the contraceptive act).

I cannot put words in the Pope's mouth, nor have I read the book. I'm only trying to make sense of the burgeoning firestorm in the media. This situation wants clarity, but until we have it, I think we can at least direct the matter to the appropriate evaluative measures by means of hypothetical consideration.

I'd suggest that the AP account of the interview implies a context for the dicussion - perhaps an unspoken understanding about the moral "players" of the hypothetical situation - which took "male prostitutes" to mean "homosexual male prostitutes." Now, I offer this because it's really the only way I have of making sense of what the Pope might have meant - if he really said it - by saying that, for these folks, "contraception isn't a central issue." In male-to-female (vaginal) sexual relations, it would be very hard to see how the use of a condom doesn't translate into an instance of the contraceptive moral act. However, in homosexual relations - a perversion of the life-giving act of sex between a man and a woman - the condom is not bound up with the object of the act in the same way, as with the example of masturbation given above. In this case, there's not question of disrupting conception since conception is impossible. Thus, - in terms of individual action, which is the focus of the Pope's remarks (as distinct from social planning to combat an epidemic) - the choice of the male to use a condom could be the kind of "first step" toward "responsibility" the Pope acknowledges. Plenty of objections will be raised to this, and it really forms the kernel of a whole other discussion. Suffice to say for now that the condom in this situation is not part of the intrinsically evil act of contraception; rather, it is something impacting the circumstantial and intentional parts of the moral action of sodomy, which is already intrinsically disordered. On the finer points of this we can - and I imagine will - have further debate.

In the meantime, we will have to wait and see what clarification comes out about these comments - as surely some clarification must. If the Pope meant male prostitution in general... well, then I simply must join the droves of perplexed readers waiting with eyebrows raised. Regardless,though, of what may be forthcoming, it is essential for any understanding of this discussion to know ahead of time what the Church means in Her teaching about condoms and contraception, about the end of the sexual act and the problems of its disordering. These notions a little clearer in our minds, we will be better poised to make sense of whatever it is the Holy Father really did say to Peter Seewald, and therefore help give this issue the nuance it requires (which certainly will be wanting in the main-stream media's treatment).

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