Sunday, November 21, 2010

What I've been taught about condoms

Well, I guess the cat is out of the bag. The Church doesn't teach that any and every use of condoms is itself a sin.

But I have to say I'm amused by the recent caterwauling over Pope Benedict stating what strikes me -- a same-sex-attracted man who has not lived a perfect life regarding chastity and has more than once reasonably feared coming down HIV-positive -- as fairly obvious, if obscure and of limited applicability.

As others, such as Jimmy Akin and Janet Smith, have pointed out, the whole context is essential, and Pope Benedict does not (CANNOT) alter the Church teaching on contraception. But here's the nub from his interview book "Light of the World" (emphasis is mine):
As a matter of fact, you know, people can get condoms when they want them anyway. But this just goes to show that condoms alone do not resolve the question itself. More needs to happen. Meanwhile, the secular realm itself has developed the so-called ABC Theory: Abstinence-Be Faithful-Condom, where the condom is understood only as a last resort, when the other two points fail to work. This means that the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.
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 recovering 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.
Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?
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 in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.
I have never sold sex, though I have purchased it. And I have talked about the issue of condom use with two different priests — neither of the dissident sort, and one is my confessor (the other priest spoke knowing of my SSA). The two men both said the use of a condom in a homosexual act is not a separate sin, over and above the sin of the homosexual act itself. And they both made, more or less, the same explanation.

In a very general non-technical way, if you say "the Church says condoms are always wrong," that's close enough for the proverbial government work and for almost all practical issues.But that common-sense understanding is not actually exactly true. The Church teaching is that **contraception** is immoral.

You might think that a distinction without a difference, and in most cases, you'd be correct. It is obviously the case that the usual and intended use for condoms either IS an act of contraception (in a male-female act) or presupposes an act that is already immoral (a male-male act) for reasons not unrelated to the Church teaching on contraception.

But the Church does not teach condoms are evil, and for the very simple reason that no "thing" can be a moral evil, only acts can be. A condom is not an act and so, like all the things men make, has no intrinsic moral qualities. If you wanted to, you could use it as a balloon. Even Zyklon-B was invented as a perfectly licit pesticide and is still made for that purpose.

So consider, in this light, the use of a condom in a homosexual act. Is it is an act of contraception? No ... the use of the condom itself is not. How can it be, since the underlying act is not fertile and there is therefore no "ception" for a condom to act "contrary" to?

Now, let me be as perfectly clear as President Obama, neither priest ever exhorted me, "[John], use a condom when you stumble" or "keep them around in that event." But my confessor did put it to me in the negative form that I shouldn't deliberately eschew a condom out of some misguided sense of residual fidelity, or from misunderstanding or misapplying what the Church teaches. Not-using a condom in a homosexual hookup, he said, is "stupid" and a risk to your own health and that of others. He has asked me, in the separate contexts of Confession, whether "you put at risk your own or others' health," which has several meanings other than condoms (recent VD diagnoses, say), but that too.

But context matters. These conversations with priests took place in circumstances where fidelity to the Church's teaching on sexuality can be presumed all around and such theological detail-sweating is appropriate. And the priests both know that I'm quite well educated, theologically literate and devout enough to care about i-dotting and t-crossing. But in at least one of the cases (I forget which), the priest said that public discussion along these lines carries too great a risk of scandal and misrepresentation ("Church teaches condoms are OK") to be worth the rare circumstances where they apply. Indeed, the only reason I'm writing about this subject at all and repeating what I've been told by priests is that, well, now that Pope Benedict has spoken, the cat's out of the bag and in public.

Which is where, I believe one can say that perhaps Pope Benedict erred.

As I say, not because of what he said, which is unremarkable, not contrary to Church teaching, and perfectly familiar at least to me. A male prostitute is not committing a sin in the per-se act of condom use and his doing so can reflect sound health concerns, which are not nothing, though they cannot make the evil act good. It's surely relevant and telling that Pope Benedict *specified* a male prostitute (and he is therefore talking about a gay act. Let's not kid ourselves -- we know that men are mostly the purchasers of immoral sex, whether prostitution or pornography).

No, Pope Benedict did not err, but Josef Ratzinger may have. He may have erred in judging the seriousness of the world and its openness to a full and serious discussion of sexuality. (He also certainly erred about the people in charge at L'Osservatore Romano, leaking an out-of-context, badly-translated account of the interview-book.) The reaction in the world press over the last two days confirm what that priest told me -- that attempts to introduce nuance are doomed to failure. The Church says "condoms" and the secular press (and therefore also those who listen to them) becomes ... ahem ... irrationally aroused and stops thinking with the organ intended for that purpose.


Nicole said...

Thank You for this clear inciteful and educated article. I was away from news for two days and heard only today that "the Pope said that condoms are OK." i thought when I heard it that that could not be, so I've been scouting about for news. your article gives it a clear perspective and makes good sense.

Dad said...

Great article!

I know how hard it is to speak clearly on any of these issues, but as far as I can tell, you've done a really really good job in this piece.


Joel said...

the use of a condom in a homosexual act is not a separate sin, over and above the sin of the homosexual act itself.

Thank you! That's the best encapsulation of the distinction that I've heard. Certainly better than the explanations I've been stumbling over.

The rest of the post is excellent, too, but that line jumped out at me.

Clare Krishan said...

Lets trust that Pentecost redeems Babel. Consider that the interview was conducted in German - I've no copy of the original text, but am familiar with more formal vocabulary for the item in question - Prophylaxe or Präservativ derived from the Greek prophylaxis or French préservatif, where the nuance of useage may be more readily comprehended in medical terms than in English -- the etymology of condom is lost to modern memory yet its identity is singularly associated with thwarting fertility.

I'm not so ready to call foul play on the events so far, the pneumatology of grace is a mysterious thing. The Pope has thrown down the gauntlet so to speak - (forgive the pun one of the theory's of the naming of the item in question is 'gaundom' from glove) - for us to rediscover a sense of sin, since shades (or nuances) can only be discerned by constrast to the light that illumines and forms consciences in whose Image all were created. Since Evil is absence of Good, and we pray in the Lord's own prayer, 'deliver us from evil' we can trust that concern for another's welfare is a spark of true human goodness, even if almost extinguished by selfish comfort-seeking circumstances - a smouldering wick will not be quenched, nor a bruised reed broken (Isaiah 42:3).

Mareczku said...

So what is your opinion on the use of condoms? Have you ever used them or on a personal level didn't you believe in using them?

Panic Away said...

There has to be a firm stand on these issues. Though wearing condoms is deemed necessary to prevent the spread of AIDS, the primary concern is deeper.