Belated Reflections on Pontiff's Condom Remarks

Benedict XVI Did Not Issue New Church Teaching in Book-Interview

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By E. Christian Brugger

WASHINGTON, D.C., DEC. 1, 2010 ( Now that the media furor has subsided regarding Benedict XVI’s remarks about male prostitutes and condoms, I thought a brief consideration of one relevant unsettled question in Catholic moral theology might be valuable to ZENIT readers.

Let me state clearly at the outset: The positions I consider below are held and defended by theologians who are committed to all the authoritative moral teachings of the magisterium.

Although last week’s media explosion might have suggested otherwise, the truth of the central moral norm taught in «Humanae Vitae» is a settled part of Catholic teaching. The norm has been clearly, repeatedly, and authoritatively taught by the magisterium, most recently and emphatically during the pontificates of Pius XI, Paul VI, John Paul II and even Benedict XVI (see Message to “Humanae Vitae” Congress, 2008). That norm teaches the wrongness of any choice that has as its end or means to render sexual intercourse non-procreative. This, of course, does not apply to the choice by married couples to abstain for serious reasons from intercourse during fertile periods, since that choice is for abstinence, not for intercourse intentionally rendered sterile.

But there is another question that has not been settled by the magisterium: Is it ever legitimate to use a condom during sexual intercourse as a prophylactic against the spread of HIV? A condom’s use under this circumstance will, of course, render the act of intercourse non-procreative. And some moral theologians believe that the choice to use a condom, even to avoid the spread of HIV, is always also a choice, morally speaking, to contracept. If that is true, then the question of the prophylactic use of condoms to avoid HIV is settled by the moral norm formulated above.

No intention to contracept

But other theologians think that a married couple can use a condom without intending to contracept. If one spouse is infected with HIV, the couple in using a condom intends to avoid transmitting the virus to the non-infected spouse, and both accept as a foreseeable effect — unintentional but inevitable — that their intercourse will be rendered non-procreative.

Moreover, if an 80-year-old husband, married to a 77-year-old wife, contracts HIV through a blood transfusion and would use a condom as a means of protecting her from being infected, neither he nor his wife would use the condom in order to contracept insofar as both know that she is no longer able to conceive. In not intending a contraceptive act, they do not violate the moral norm taught in «Humanae Vitae.»

Permit me to complicate the matter even further. Among those theologians who think a condom can be used without intending to contracept, some think it is still wrong for married couples to choose condomistic sex, while others think it can be justifiable. Those who think it is still wrong, judge that condomistic intercourse, even though not necessarily contraceptive, is always a choice for a sexual act that does not realize a true one-flesh union between the spouses. Because a husband intends to ejaculate into a condom and not inside his wife (i.e., he intentionally prevents his semen from entering his wife) the act is non-marital in type (i.e., it does consummate their marital love). It is morally akin to a masturbatory act.

Those who think that using a condom to avoid the transmission of HIV can be legitimate argue that the intention is to reduce the risk of infection between the spouses, and so the act is not contraceptive; and since the husband, although ejaculating into a condom, does so while penetrating his wife, the act should be considered as constituting a one-flesh union (i.e., is a marital-type of act).

I introduce these positions (and there may be others that I’ve not set forth) to illustrate, at least in part, the theological conversation that’s going on presently in regard to this controversial question. They stand as a sort of backdrop behind the Pope’s remarks.

Holy Father’ stance?

Which position is held by Benedict XVI? I do not know. But it is not unreasonable to conclude from his remarks that he thinks a heterosexual condomistic act can be chosen without a contraceptive intent, as held by positions two and three above. (Recall from what I’ve already said, this would not necessarily mean he thinks such an act is ever morally licit.) Let me explain why I say this.

In the last two weeks several high profile Catholic commentators argued that the Pope’s reference to the activity of a «male prostitute» should be interpreted as referring to homosexual sex. If that were true, then it would take the moral analysis entirely outside a discussion of contraception, since homosexual sex as intrinsically sterile can never be contracepted. There would be no sense even in asking whether a moral norm excluding intentional contraceptive acts excludes sodomistic behavior.

But on Nov. 23, Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, contradicted the interpretation of these commentators. During the press conference at which the Pope’s new book was being presented, Lombardi stated: «I asked the Pope personally if there was a serious or important problem in the choice of the masculine gender rather than the feminine, and he said no, that is, the main point — and this is why I didn’t refer to masculine or feminine in (my earlier) communiqué — is the first step of responsibility in taking into account the risk to the life of another person with whom one has relations. […] Whether a man or a woman or a transsexual does this, we’re at the same point. The point is the first step toward responsibility, to avoid posing a grave risk to another person.»

Recall Benedict XVI’s words: «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, on the way toward discovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.»

At this point in the interview, Peter Seewald, the German journalist who questioned the Pope, predictably asked: «Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?»

Benedict XVI replied: «She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.»

The Pope adverts to the intention to reduce the spread of HIV and makes no mention of contraception. This suggests that the Pontiff conceives the prophylactic use of condoms to reduce the risk of HIV as a moral issue distinct from contraception. At the risk of playing interpreter for Benedict XVI, it seems to me that if the Pope thought, along with position one above, that heterosexual condomistic intercourse was always contraceptive, he would not have said that the Church «does not regard this as a real or moral solution.» He would have said with the Tradition that the act was intrinsically evil.

A different way

Is it likely that the Pope thinks that condom use sometimes can be licit? I don’t know. At the Nov. 23 press conference, Seewald stated his own thoughts on the Pope’s remarks: «The Pope indicates that, in addition to the case he cited [i.e., that of a male prostitute], there may be other cases in which one may imagine that use of a condom could be a step toward responsible sexuality in this area, and to prevent further infection.”

The phrase «a step toward responsible sexuality» goes further than Benedict XVI’s remarks and seems to indicate a minimal degree of acceptability
. In my opinion the Pope’s words — «a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality» — do not suggest such a conclusion.

We don’t know, or at least I don’t know, all that Benedict XVI meant by his rather elliptical remarks. We do know that he did not change the Church’s condemnation of contraceptive acts. We also can be confident that he did not intend to teach that condom use is sometimes legitimate. If he meant to teach that, he surely would not have used the context of an interview with a journalist to do so.

As to his opinions on the theological positions set forth above, his remarks do not commit him one way or another.

But whatever his theological opinions might be on the issue, I do not think they are a matter of overriding importance. In the end, the Church should only ever teach authoritatively on a moral issue when she is clear on Jesus’ will for that issue — in other words, when the magisterium, through discernment, prayer, theological inquiry and pastoral experience, agrees that some judgment on some moral issue is certainly true. No such judgment is set forth in the remarks in the Pope’s new book, «Light of the World.»

* * *

E. Christian Brugger is a Senior Fellow of Ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation and is an associate professor of moral theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado. He received his Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford in 2000.

[Readers may send questions regarding bioethics to The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. The fellows at the Culture of Life Foundation will answer a select number of the questions that arrive.]
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