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Moral Awakenings?

Anthony McCarthy

Oh for the days when the pope was a prisoner in the Vatican and spoke in the first
person plural!
Author of Is Notre Dame Still Catholic?

"The pope said that condom use to prevent the transmission of HIV is ‘a first step in a
movement toward a different way, a more humane sexuality.’ This admission is the
Catholic hierarchy’s own first step in addressing the realities about sex and sexuality.
Catholics for Choice 21st November 2010

Pope Benedict’s latest statement on condoms has provoked a storm of different

reactions. On the one hand, many welcome what they see as a change or clarification
of Church teaching - or at least the start of a debate. These include not only liberal
Catholics, who have never accepted the Church’s teaching on sex, but conservative
Catholics who wish to support the Church’s teaching on sex but assume (in the
absence of definitive teaching) that it applies to condoms used for contraception, not
for ‘saving lives’.

Other orthodox Catholics have rushed to say that the media has gratuitously
misrepresented the Pope’s words, and that what he has said is simply true and
commendable and changes nothing. The Pope has done no wrong: it is all the fault of
the Vatican newspaper l’Osservatore Romano for premature and selective quoting
from a mistranslated text. One ethics centre described the Pope’s comments as
“significant and thoughtful”.

What is going on here? To answer this question, it may be helpful to go back a few
decades to the 1960s. Many Catholics, including highly orthodox Catholics, expected
that the Church would change her mind on the question of contraception. Sexual
liberation and population control were two growth areas at the time, and a great deal
of US elite Foundation money was pumped into promoting both worldwide. During
this period a papal commission was set up to deliberate on whether the Church’s
traditional absolute prohibition on contraceptive acts should remain. That
commission, peopled, as it turned out, by members funded by the Population Council
and the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, unsurprisingly decided it should not.

In 1968, Pope Paul VI definitively reiterated the Church’s traditional teaching by

issuing the encyclical Humanae Vitae. However, during the years leading up to 1968,
speculation had grown so rife, and the sexual revolution had become so victorious,
that by the time a seemingly dithering Church got around to upholding her teaching,
she had lost many Catholics on the ground.

Why is the teaching of Humanae Vitae, whatever we might think of it, so important?
Elizabeth Anscombe, the great philosopher, bluntly pointed out that “If contraceptive
intercourse is permissible, then what objection could there be, after all, to mutual
masturbation, or copulation in vase indebito, sodomy, buggery...But, if such things are
all right, it becomes perfectly impossible to see anything wrong with homosexual
intercourse for will have no solid reason against these things.”

In 1930, at the 7th Lambeth Conference of the Church of England, approval was given
to married couples for the use of birth control in hard cases. The current Archbishop
of Canterbury recently admitted that this move did indeed open the way to acceptance
of the very things Anscombe mentioned - something he, unlike her, appears to

So, ideas have consequences, and ideas about sexual ethics have especially significant
consequences. The Pope knows this. So, more importantly, do the leaders of
institutions committed to condom-promotion on a multi-billion dollar scale. Any
statement by the former on this matter will be met with great interest on the part of the
latter. After all, the only major religious institution that has a consistent and serious
opposition to condom-use in practice is the Catholic Church. And maintaining such
opposition coheres with a whole set of propositions about the nature and dignity of the
human person when it comes to sex and its nuptial meaning. Those propositions do
not sit easily with a population-control and/or sexual liberationist agenda.

Using a condom to prevent the transmission of disease is not contraception, if there is

no intent to prevent conception. However, there is reason to see the Church’s teaching
as applying to all condomistic sexual acts, regardless of whether there is any intent to
contracept. For the only morally good sexual acts are those of a married couple who
are truly united, in a way that refers to conception even in the infertile. Sexual love is
about a physical uniting: in the process of loving, procreation can occur and in the
openness to procreation, love is expressed. Pope Benedict’s predecessor John Paul II
explained it thus: “The contraceptive act introduces a substantial diminution into this
reciprocal giving, and expresses an objective refusal to give to the other the whole
good of femininity and masculinity.” By extension, a condom used for disease-
prevention, even by a married couple, makes an act incapable of being a truly
unifying act. The act, like an act of buggery, is no longer capable of expressing the
unity that only an act open to procreation can achieve.

What did Jozef Ratzinger have to say on these matters, before he became Pope? On
May 29th 1988, in a letter to Archbishop Pio Laghi on the subject of AIDS, he pointed
out that ‘safe sex’ programmes ignore the real cause of the problem, i.e. sexual
permissiveness, and that one is dealing not just with

a form of passive toleration but rather with a kind of behavior which would result in
at least the facilitation of evil.

Ratzinger added that

The problem of educational programs in specifically Catholic schools and institutions

requires particular attention. These facilities are called to provide their own
contribution for the prevention of AIDS, in full fidelity to the moral doctrine of the
church, without at the same time engaging in compromises which may even give the
impression of trying to condone practices which are immoral, for example, technical
instructions in the use of prophylactic devices.
So far so clear. Even giving an ‘impression’ of condoning certain practices is to be

Fast-forward to the present day, and the now-famous Light of the World interview, in
which the Pope again speaks on condoms, but in a way that has confused the world.

Condoms are not, the Pope says, “a real or moral solution” to the problem of AIDS.
Nonetheless, there may be a “basis” (or persons may be ‘justified’ (begründete)) in
the case of some individuals (male prostitutes, say), where using a condom “can be a
first step in the direction of a moralisation” even if “not really the way to deal with the
evil of HIV infection” . (One might add here that condoms do not in any case offer
significant safety to those engaged in homosexual penetration.)

Since “basis” or “justification” cannot mean objective justification of something

(condom use) which the Pope appears here to condemn, it must mean some kind of
grounding from the person’s own perspective and/or a factual basis for some process
of ‘moral awakening’. Well, that wouldn’t directly contradict the prohibition. But why
on earth say this? Compare: “There may be a basis, in the case of some individual
airmen, to issue a few not terribly effective radiation suits for people in cities they are
going to drop nuclear bombs on. That can be the first step toward a moral life; it could
be the first instance of taking responsibility toward developing a consciousness that
not everything is permitted and that a man can’t do everything he wants to do.” Of
course, as a factual statement (as opposed to a recommendation) this could be correct
– but would still be unwise to say. How many nuclear bomb-dropping pilots might
take comfort from such words, and tarry before exiting from their immoral

The Pope seems to be recognising an element of concern for others which (necessarily
wrongful) preparation for wrongful acts - the male prostitute donning a condom, the
pilot dropping the suits as a preparatory act - may nonetheless involve. Such people
may be moving in the direction of greater humanity in the midst of very serious moral
evil. To say this is not to say that use of condoms or protective suits by those with
these criminal occupations is recommended; on the contrary, it is vital not to lull
people into a false sense of security by inviting them to prepare for wrongful acts.
Prostitutes should be helped out of prostitution, not encouraged to continue "more

As if all this weren’t confusing enough, the Papal spokesman, Fr Lombardi, later
claimed that Pope Benedict had said his comments also applied to female prostitutes.
This is more relevant than it might seem. A man using a condom who has sex with a
prostitute is showing some concern for her and his own health; he is also, on at least
one view of Catholic teaching, engaged in perverse sex – as is always the case with
male prostitutes. So while the heterosexual client’s choice to use a condom is better
from one perspective, in that it shows a glimmering of concern for others, it is worse
from another perspective. One might equally say that in choosing not to use condoms,
an unmarried couple could be showing the beginning of moral awakening concerning
the true meaning of sex (or even that, in certain extraordinary circumstances, the
choice of a homosexual not to use a condom might be due to some special
concern/moral awakening of concern for a male prostitute). However, such a
statement would be less confusing than the Pope’s actual statement, as no-one would
conclude from it that the Pope was recommending sex outside marriage, providing a
condom was not used. In contrast, millions have, understandably, concluded that the
Pope is recommending condoms – at least for male and female prostitutes. But in any
case, Christian life is all about living a life of the theological and natural virtues, and
virtue is all about the formation of good moral habits. Is the beginning of the virtue of
chastity, in particular, to be found in preparing to engage in condomistic sex? To
appear to suggest this seems a betrayal of prostitutes who need to be helped out of
their bondage.

Why does all of this matter, especially to those who think the Church is not a little
crazy on the subject of sex? Well, if we care about our civilization and about the
institution of marriage, we need to be aware of those forces which seek to tear down
the one institution that still propounds an exalted view of human sexuality, and for
that reason says a firm ‘No’ to the many things that degrade our culture. However
fallible we may be when it comes to sexual matters, we should not have to accept the
agenda of those neo-Malthusians who like to flood countries with condoms under the
guise of healthcare while refusing to give real aid to those in need. That they are
hugging themselves with glee over the Pope’s remarks and subsequent silence is a
reason to be worried. That they are praising him should make him sleep a little less
easy at night.

Contrast the Pope’s words on condoms with this advice to preachers from St Teresa
of Avila.

“Even preachers have the habit of so framing their sermons as to displease nobody.
Their intentions are good and their activities splendid, but they do not persuade very
many to amend their lives. Why? Is it that there are so few who are led by sermons to
abstain from public sin? Do you know what I think? It is because preachers have too
much worldly wisdom. They do not fling all restraint aside and burn with the great
fire of God, as the Apostles did; and so their flames do not throw out much heat. I do
not say that their fire could be as great as the Apostles', but I wish they had more than
they have.” (St Teresa of Avila, Life, Ch. 16).

Anthony McCarthy, an ethicist, can be contacted at