So what exactly did the pope say in his new book and what does the Catholic Church say about condom use? Father Thomas D. Williams is a Michigan-born Catholic priest, professor at Regina Apostolorum University in Rome, and author of Knowing Right from Wrong: A Christian Guide to Conscience, Greater Than You Think, and A Heart Like His, among other books. He took some questions about the current papal media frenzy about condoms.
Q. We’ve read in the New York Times that the pope is sowing confusion on condoms in the new book-length interview with him, Light of the World. What’s the pope thinking going around confusing people?
A: The fact is that people, including Catholics and even many priests, are already confused about the Church’s teaching on contraception and natural family planning. They know that the Church opposes contraception but they don’t know why. The pope’s remarks didn’t cause this confusion but they did bring it to the fore. All this attention on the possibility of using condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa actually provides us with a singular “teaching moment.” People are asking important questions: Why is the Church opposed to contraception? What about the use of condoms in homosexual relationships? How about condoms in the case of prostitutes? Unmarried couples? These issues are usually taboo, and now is a great time to discuss them.
Q. So what did he actually say?
A: Very simply, Pope Benedict, after making it clear that AIDS cannot be defeated just by distributing condoms, noted that the use of condoms in certain cases (he specifically mentioned the case of prostitutes) may constitute “a first step in the direction of a moralization” or “a first assumption of responsibility.” In other words, while using a condom doesn’t make sex with a prostitute a morally good act, it can represent a better option than the same act without a condom.
Q. Now does that mean that the media got it right? That this is an exception to the Church’s ban on contraception?
A: Not at all. Some people are saying that the Church considers contraception to be morally evil, but in cases where human life is at stake, it could be a lesser evil. In other words, protection from disease trumps the moral prohibition of contraception. This is incorrect. Catholic morality never accepts that evil may be done to attain a good end. The end does not justify the means. The pope’s statement actually underscores a totally different point. Contraception doesn’t add moral evil to sex with a prostitute. If anything, it lessens that evil.
What many fail to realize is that the Church’s opposition to contraception refers specifically to sex between husbands and wives. In his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI placed his condemnation of contraception in the context of married couples, and never intended it to be applied to every conceivable sexual act. Contraception is wrong because it violates the integrity of marital intercourse by intentionally frustrating the procreative meaning of the act. Marital intercourse has both a unitive and procreative dimension, both of which are essential to the wholeness of the act.
Let’s take an extreme case: that of rape. Would the use of a condom by a rapist add a moral evil to his already heinous act? It is, after all, a sexual act. By no means. There is nothing about the act of rape that merits respect of a supposed “unitive” and “procreative” meaning of the act. These are entirely missing, though the act is undoubtedly sexual.
In the case of rape, or sex with a prostitute, there simply is no procreative meaning to the act. There is no sacredness to be respected, no reason to uphold the “integrity” of the act. Sex with a prostitute has no unitive or procreative meaning, since it is a banal act of sexual commerce. If we understand clearly why the Church opposes contraception in the case of married couples, it is easier to understand why sex with a prostitute is a different animal altogether and the use of a contraceptive adds no moral evil to an already disordered act.
Q. What about the case of the many unmarried couples that use contraception?
A: There is no official Church teaching on this case and the jury is still out. Orthodox moral theologians debate this issue, since it isn’t clear. An act of fornication (the technical term for sex between two unmarried people) is evil in itself. Does contraception add a further evil to this act? The Church hasn’t ruled one way or the other. Even if the Church were to determine that contraception does not add an evil to fornication, since the act is already sinful and a corruption of God’s intention for sexual relations, she still wouldn’t go around trumpeting this, for a number of other good, pastoral reasons. For one, if a young couple planning to get married engages in sexual activity and practices contraception, though this latter fact may add no more sinfulness to their activity, it still accustoms them to disassociating sexual intercourse from its procreative meaning, and this will make it much harder for them to understand the full meaning of their sexual activity once they are married.
Q. Why the male prostitute example? Was that bad pr? Someone should have known that could turn into the story from the book.
A: Pope Benedict has always been remarkably candid and never beats around a bush. I think that this comes from his fundamental attitude toward the truth: something to be embraced, never feared. I don’t think he spends an awful lot of time considering all the possible consequences of his statements. He answers honestly, and lets the chips fall where they will. Did Benedict realize that his answers would produce this kind of fallout? Perhaps. Perhaps he was willing to accept this, and perhaps he welcomed it as a chance to bear witness to a truth that people often ignore.
Q. You’ve written a book on conscience. Is there a lesson about just that in what the pope has to say?
A: The pope cares deeply about right and wrong. He welcomes any opportunity to bear witness to the truth and to stir up debate about important issues. He understands that as successor to St. Peter, this is part of his mission. He believes firmly that the Church’s teaching about morality and yes, this includes contraception, is a truth that doesn’t shackle human beings but liberates them. God’s law is ultimately a blueprint for the thoroughly good, fulfilling life we are all created for.
Q. Still, is this some kind of first step in the Church changing its position on condoms in some kind of dramatic way? Can it? Even a friendly commentator in the Washington Post called what the pope said a “trial balloon.”
A: I think from what we have already said it is clear that the Church is not reconsidering her stance on the evil of contraception. Moreover, the popes have made it clear that the matter isn’t up for discussion. Rather, the current debate allows the Church to clarify why she is opposed to the use of contraception in marriage, and why, in cases such as prostitution, it is a moot point. Since most Catholics don’t understand why contraception is wrong on the first place, this whole debate will furnish an especially helpful opportunity for moral education on a broad scale.
Q. By getting so out of sorts about condoms, is the media missing out on the pope’s message?
A: Undoubtedly. The pope himself said as much in his recent book. Condoms will never be the answer to preventing HIV-AIDS in Africa (or anywhere else) and those countries that have relied most on condoms to stem their aids epidemics have suffered a much higher rate of new cases of aids that countries that have adopted a more thoroughgoing approach to the problem.
Q. Is the “abstinence, be faithful, condoms” approach to AIDS in Africa — which the Bush administration supported – evil?
A: No, it is not evil. Since the Church is opposed to contraception because she is convinced that it doesn’t help people to live satisfying, moral lives, she will always be uncomfortable with any program that involves this measure. At the same time, the Church is also realistic, and sometimes accepts less-than-perfect measures if they represent a better option than other programs currently in place. Since it aims primarily at changing people’s sexual behavior, A-B-C is both a more effective — and a more moral — approach to combatting the scourge of AIDS than programs that rely heavily or exclusively on distributing condoms.
Q. As a member of the Legionaries of Christ, was there anything in particular you were looking for in what he had to say about scandals in the Church?
A: I found Pope Benedict’s words about the Legionaries immensely consoling. He expressed sentiments that many of us Legionaries share. He said that our founder “remains a mysterious figure. There is, on the one hand, a life that, as we now know, was out of moral bounds — an adventurous, wasted, twisted life. On the other hand, we see the dynamism and the strength with which he built up the congregation of Legionaries.” He added that, “corrections must be made, but by and large the congregation is sound.” For those of us who have given our lives to the Church within this congregation, such words provide great hope and comfort.
Q. What’s the damage done by this misreporting? How can it be turned around?
A: Honestly, in my mind the greatest damage done is by Catholics, and even moral theologians, who misrepresent the Church’s position on contraception and thereby stoke the confusion that already exists. On the other hand, it also provides the Church with a beautiful opportunity to catechize the faithful regarding sexual ethics. Catholics must realize that far from something to be ashamed of, the Church’s moral teaching on human sexuality is a precious gift for all mankind, and offers an effective antidote against the dehumanizing view of sex that reigns in much of our contemporary world.
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