Of condoms and cowards

After years of the Catholic Church arguing that condoms are never morally permissible, headlines around the world are stating that Joseph Ratzinger, also known as Pope Benedict XVI, has changed his stance and now accepts condom use in some circumstances. People are getting ahead of themselves, however. While Ratzinger’s statement is being interpreted as a major change for the Church’s view on sexuality, it is really just a clarification to show that the Vatican is still morally backward, but perhaps not quite as backward as before. Your local Catholic Church won’t be dispensing condoms this Sunday. This situation shows that people are so anxious for the Church to redefine its pernicious view of sexuality that they are reading into the Pope’s words what they wish he were really saying.

The mistaken interpretation of Ratzinger stems from a short excerpt from a new book by Peter Seewald, titled Light of the World: The Pope, the Church, and the Signs of the Times. This full-length book was assembled from six hours of interviews taken at Ratzinger’s summer home. The problematic passage quotes Ratzinger stating that in certain situations it might be permissible for a person to use a condom because it can show that the individual is assuming responsibility and is thus on the path to moralization.

The source of confusion regarding Ratzinger’s meaning is his use of a male prostitute as an example, arguing that “this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.” Many have generalized this statement to mean that condom use can be viewed in this way, not just for male prostitutes, but for everyone all of the time. While some translations have used the female pronoun, going beyond prostitutes misses the nuance of his argument.

In large part, the Church’s views are grounded in the natural law tradition of Thomas Aquinas, who argued that sexual acts that could not lead to pregnancy — such as anal sex and masturbation — are sins because they interfere with God’s plan to cause pregnancy. More recently, barrier forms of birth control have been included in this category. (Other types of prevention, such as keeping track of one’s menstrual cycle so as to avoid sex when one is fertile, aren’t prohibited, although the pill is.) Theologians have since expanded on Aquinas’s arguments so that heterosexual intercourse in a marriage is what binds the married couple, so using barriers such as condoms decreases the moral worth of the marriage.

Ratzinger’s choice of example is in keeping with previous pronouncements of the Church. Using a male prostitute implies homosexuality, but homosexuals who use condoms aren’t preventing a pregnancy, they’re using it to stop the spread of diseases like HIV. They’re already committing the sin of homosexuality, so using a condom might be an improvement. Ratzinger is clear that he thinks condoms don’t provide a “moral solution” to the AIDS epidemic — they can, however, be the first step to realizing that there’s something wrong with certain types of sex.

The Church’s stance remains confusing. And, viewed in nearly any plausible light, its teachings are as morally bankrupt as ever. Exactly why should condoms be seen as immoral, but taking the temperature of one’s vagina to ward off pregnancy be seen as acceptable? The consequence of the two methods, of course, is exactly the same. Viewing condoms as a metaphorical as well as literal barrier between a couple is silly — many will agree that sex with a condom is less preferable, but surely this isn’t for moral reasons.

In comparison, Ratzinger claims that condom use isn’t a moral solution to the HIV epidemic. If the goal is to decrease the number of people with HIV, then why limit the options available? In response to the media storm, Frederico Lombardi, the head of the Holy See Press Office, has clarified Ratzinger’s message to mean that focusing on condoms “trivializes sexuality, which loses its meaning as an expression of love and becomes like a drug.” Many will agree that sex with a long-term partner is more fulfilling, but promiscuous sex, done safely, is not a moral problem. Further, claiming that homosexual intercourse is immoral because it is unnatural is wrong both because arguments from nature are fallacious and because homosexual intercourse is perfectly natural. It’s suspicious that the Gospels never once quote Jesus as saying anything about homosexuality.

Even if this doesn’t represent a major shift in Church doctrine, it will have the positive benefit of Catholics interpreting it as a shift. Ratzinger may well be attempting a slow change so as to give the impression of consistency. It appears that the Pope is attempting to shift away from a decades long focus on “disordered sexuality” toward reducing the spread of HIV as a primary responsibility of individuals, especially in Africa, which is a major area of growth for the Catholic Church. The best course of action Ratzinger can take would be to claim boldly, without ambiguity, that the Church is committed to stopping the spread of HIV and that condoms are one valuable way of achieving this result. The Church can’t undo their decades of inaction, but they can still decrease the amount of harm they are causing.

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