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 welcome. 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 diseaseprevention, 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 condemned. 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 occupations? 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 safely". 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

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