Media sources have put a charge into the leadup to today’s World AIDS Day by once again floating the suggestion that the Catholic Church is on the verge of approving condom use in limited circumstances; that is, for the purposes of preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
"Will Vatican Review Stand on Condoms?" reads the headline from India’s Daily News and Analysis Web site. The report is shy with hard details but full of bald editorializing and hopeful conjecture: Moved by criticism that the Church’s "strident anti-condom stand has killed millions of people," it says, "Church sources" indicate Pope Benedict is prepared to depart from "the absolutist stand" of John Paul II. It adds that "sources" have also shared that the Indian bishops’ council has already made such a departure, granting permission (it’s unclear through what means) for married couples to use condoms for health reasons.
The last time this rumor made the rounds was May of 2006. "The Catholic Church is on the brink of a historic change . . . which could bring hope to millions," exhaled the Independent; not included in those millions were the "stolid" Catholic opponents of the change who would be left to wail and gnash their teeth. The New York Times framed the story as nothing less than a "clash" between anti-contraception conservative hard-liners and more moderate Catholic leaders whose "consistent ethic of life" would have the Church strike a pragmatic balance between its opposition to birth control and its concern for the millions infected with HIV globally.
Then as now — and as it has always been, from when the recommendation of the Pontifical Birth Control Commission was leaked in 1968 — every major media treatment of this same basic story has operated from the same set of presumptions:
a) This is going to be a big change for an organization that prides itself on changelessness.
b) The change will bring the Church one small step closer to the times.
c) Catholic conservatives are up in arms.
d) The change is a good thing — see b) and c).
But is the media assessment correct? After all, secular journalists can be naïve and clumsy around most any religious topic, and heedlessly out of their depth when trying to communicate the nuanced teachings and inscrutable movements of the Church of Rome. They get names and terms slightly wrong; they exhibit a muddy apprehension of dogmas; they lean distinctly toward reliable religious progressives (or the occasional loony-sounding arch-conservative) for background research and quotes. To many of them, the peculiar precepts of orthodox religion are so alien — so absurd — that they couldn’t be expected to cover the Catholic position on an issue like contraception any more earnestly than they would if the pope had forbidden all foods beginning with the letter F.
Thus does the Indian story declare, after scrabbling together a few out-of-context phrases from an Indian priest, that married couples will be granted permission to use contraception to prevent disease, but not unmarried couples, because it would "promote promiscuity" (think about that for five seconds). Thus did the Independent tell us that the Church forbids condoms because of its "’pro-life’ policy, according to which the purpose of sex is procreation" — a comically shy phraseology that would make knowledgeable Humanae Vitae Catholics wince. Thus did an AP article muse (hope?) that the minute revisions in policy that the Church may be about to undertake could actually constitute a decisive event that would "lay the groundwork for an end to the church’s blanket ban on contraception." Thus did nearly every media treatment wrongly pose the case as a values-clarification exercise for Rome, forced by the great evil of AIDS to capitulate on the lesser evil of contraception.
Given the need to sell newspapers, and the ever-widening chasm of understanding between secularist and religious America, perhaps we can’t blame the media much for shoddily building mountains out of ecclesial molehills. But the fact remains that a proposed change to Catholic "condom policy," should it be effected, would likely no more endanger the Church’s traditional teaching against contraception than its 1994 approval of altar girls has led to the end of its "blanket ban" on women priests.
It’s not necessary to believe in the Catholic Church’s divine authority or immutability to see this, or even to think that the Church has got it right in this one case. Simply as a matter of logic it’s clear enough that the "new" teaching, if it comes, would represent a small niche meticulously carved out of an established doctrine, not the replacement of a discarded doctrine with some novelty. It would be the product of so much tedious moral hairsplitting that if it didn’t involve sex, secular Church-watchers would hardly be bothered to yawn.
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The principle from which Catholic opposition to contraception flows is its teaching that sexual intercourse be always open to the possibility of creating new life. "Contraception," as defined by that principle, is any act that seeks as its end (or one of its ends) to make sexual intercourse infertile; one way to do that, of course, is through the use of physical barriers such as condoms.
But in serving as a barrier to seminal fluid, condoms can also prevent the transmission of HIV. So were a couple to use a condom solely and expressly with the intention of preventing disease, in the Church’s eyes, would this still be a violation of the anti-contraception doctrine? After all, venerable Catholic principles such as Double Effect, Self-Defense, and Totality have traditionally been invoked to permit morally good or neutral acts that have unintended and unwelcome evil effects.
I’ll give you my opinion if you give me yours. For our purposes here it’s enough to note that the Vatican would be certain to root any new "condom policy" firmly and credibly within its moral tradition — including its teachings against contraception. That means it will never be the substantial change some want to see, nor even a first step to future change.
When the Church decided to permit altar girls a decade ago, some took it as a crack in the dyke; surely a flood of female priests was not far off. But as we’ve learned since, if anything it has only strengthened the Church’s doctrinal hold on the male-only priesthood (certain women’s ordination advocates recognized this at the time, and urged their followers to throw the bone back on the master’s table), by underscoring rather than blurring the differences between ordained and lay ministry. In like fashion, the narrow distinctions and careful qualifications that would accompany any Church "concession" on condoms will only leave the larger contraception teaching tighter and more unassailable — at least philosophically — than before. Through its loopholes it will breathe.
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So the rumored change would not revolutionize Catholic doctrine. But would it have any practical effects? The Catholic Church has not yet declared in any official capacity whether the preventing-AIDS function of the condom can be morally distinguished from the preventing-pregnancy function, and for this inaction it has found itself at the pointy end of no little condemnation, accused of complicity through silence — or worse, through some kind of perverse intent — in the deaths of millions of AIDS victims. Last year James Carroll was characteristically sour in the Boston Globe: In rejecting condom use the Catholic hierarchy "has been killing people" for over 20 years, a legacy of indifference to suffering that has been "central to the broader collapse of Catholic moral authority."
Now it might be fair to ask how many people truly are stricken by AIDS because of their faithful adherence to a fine point of Catholic moral teaching, especially considering that rejecting a broader point (through sexual promiscuity) is what puts so many at risk for HIV in the first place. Indeed, most media coverage has pursued the seemingly irreconcilable dual claims that the Church has been sending obedient drones to their death by forbidding them to use condoms, and yet that by permitting some condom use the Church would move "fractionally closer to the practice of believers," as the Independent put it. In other words, the Church should change its teaching because so many people obey it that it creates a global health hazard — and besides, everyone disobeys it anyway.
Likewise it’s fair to scrutinize the oft-cited example of a poor African or South American woman who is physically and culturally powerless to withstand the sexual advances of her HIV-positive husband, and thus needs condoms for a kind of self-defense. It may certainly be that such scenarios exist, even that they’re all too common. But how many of those husband-rapists are forcing themselves on their wives unsheathed, as it were, out of some weird, highly selective piety? And would a pronouncement from far-off Rome or the urgings of the local missionary nurse suddenly motivate these brutes to put on a condom out of tender regard for the wife?
Such questions might be posed in response to charges that the (otherwise, we’re told, increasingly irrelevant) Catholic Church wields life-and-death power over the sexual practices of its faithful — or at least its benighted Third World faithful. Nonetheless, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the combined effect of the Catholic Church’s moral catechesis, mission work, medical relief services, and sheer cultural influence is such that its blanket-ban approach to condoms does indeed have some discernible net impact on HIV rates in certain parts of the world. So in examining these questions, the Vatican is undertaking more than an intellectual exercise in casuistry; it is aiming at a real effect on the lives and health of the poorest in its charge.
But if the rumors come to pass, the more immediate effect will probably be felt within the corridors of the Church, as mistrustful philosophical and theological factions debate fine definitions of contraception and the "marital act," as bishops and lay leaders brace for the inevitable crowing by secular Church critics and the religious left, and as pastors and teachers ponder the potential for widespread misunderstanding or, worse, scandal among the faithful. Missionaries and moral theologians from Rome to Rwanda will wrestle with the prudential application of the new (or newly nuanced) teaching: For example, even if it were no violation of the anti-contraception teaching for a married couple to use a condom during sex in order to prevent HIV transmission, in light of the potential — albeit just a few percentage points — for condom breakage or failure would it not still constitute an unacceptable risk to one’s spouse? (What if condoms failed half the time? Twenty-five percent? Twelve? Where to draw the line?)
On the flip side is the question of whether using a condom to prevent disease would add to the sin of unmarried couples, who are already fornicating and thereby "lying in the language of the body." So the secular pundits may have it completely backwards: It may be more "permissible" (in the sense of "not any more evil") for unmarried couples to use condoms in order to prevent disease than it would be for married couples where one spouse is infected. Faced with a choice between abstinence and subjecting one’s spouse to a deadly risk, how could one morally choose the latter?
If the pope signs off on a "new teaching," questions like that one will stoke the fires of debate within the Catholic Church for years to come. But secularists and religious progressives on the fringes seeking fundamental changes in Catholic moral doctrine will be disappointed. And the professional controversy-mongers will have to lick their chops until somebody finds the Next Lost Tomb of Jesus.
Todd Aglialoro is the editor of Sophia Institute Press and a columnist and blogger with www.InsideCatholic.com.