Thursday, December 2, 2010

Faith and reason; morals and ethics

Sandro Magister, author of Chiesa and one of the foremost Vaticanisti, today posted a comprehensive guide to the great condom conflagration of 2010 sparked by the Holy Father’s answer to a question posed to him by journalist Peter Seewald for a book-length interview, published under the title The Light of the Word: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Time. I think Magister quite right when he writes that by addressing this disputed and controversial question “Benedict XVI has brought this dispute into the sunlight, encouraging everyone to take part in it.” I weighed in previously on this question, taking what amounts to what I would call a compassionate traditional view by invoking a version of the lesser of two evils argument, which amounted to writing that if you are already engaging in gravely immoral sexual behavior, then using a condom both to protect yourself and others does not add to the gravity of your sinful behavior.

The argument I used does not extend to legitimizing the use of condoms within marriage. However, it is the clear teaching of the Church, as Luke Gormally, a member of the Pontifical Academy of Life writes in a letter to Magister, that even "[t]he prophylactic use of condoms within marriage is objectively a grave sin against the marriage covenant." He bases his position on Humanae Vitae §12, which reiterates the "unbreakable connection" between the unitive and the procreative meanings of the marital act. In short, sexual intercourse within marriage "is not truly unitive if the behaviour engaged in is not of the generative/procreative type."

I stand by my argument, despite the argument Magister and several others make in this on-going controversy that "[i]f this loving understanding applies to a sinner, it could apply all the more to the classic case encountered in Africa and elsewhere by pastors and missionaries: that of two spouses, one of whom is sick with AIDS and uses a condom to avoid endangering the life of the other." A position he notes that, with certain variations, has been taught by "[n]umerous moral theologians and authoritative ecclesiastical figures," but remains something "we have not heard… from the mouth of the Pope, even… in a[n] informal and not magisterial form."

Instead of relying on lesser of two evils arguments, those who would extend condom use to marital relations in cases in which one partner is HIV-positive seek to apply what is known as the principle of double effect. My objection to applying this principle to these cases is that legitimate application of this principle stipulates that the bad effect must not be the means by which the good effect is achieved. My formal objection is articulated well by Gormally in the citation above. By breaking the connection between the unitive and procreative meaning of marital intercourse it contributes to what Pope Benedict goes on to call "the trivializing of sexuality," which results in the mass confusion, bordering on insanity, we currently experience with regard to human sexuality. Another concern about condom use, which I stated in my initial reply, is that while it significantly reduces the risk of HIV infection, it does not eliminate it, even when the prophylactic is used correctly (so-called prophylactic failure- using them improperly- obviously heightens the risk).

I have to admit that Gormally’s argument that intercourse between a male "john" and "a female prostitute is made into a sexual perversion by the use of a condom" takes me by surprise. In effect, he argues what is already a sin with grave matter is compounded by the use of a condom. While I agree to some extent with this assertion, I think given that the behavior, even prior to the introduction of a condom, is gravely sinful, it lacks significance. I was taken more aback by Gormally’s straightforward critique of the Holy Father, whom he criticizes for continuing "to function as a private theologian, even in areas in which he possesses no particular competence (moral theology)." He goes on to say that such functioning "is both irresponsible (because it creates confusion in the general populace about the exercise of the papal magisterium) and self-indulgent; self indulgent because it is a case of the Pope retreating to his 'comfort zone' of writing and talking while neglecting urgent tasks of governance."

It is important to contextualize what the Holy Father said: "Concentrating only on the condom means trivializing sexuality," he insists. He goes on to say that "the struggle against the trivialization of sexuality is also part of the great effort so that sexuality may be valued positively, and may exercise its positive effect on the human being in his totality." Further, Pope Benedict explicitly states that distributing and using condoms "is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality." To that end, I could not agree more with Fr. Martin Rhonheimer, a Swiss philosopher and priest of Opus Dei, who, in an article written for The Tablet regarding the Holy Father’s comment, said that "[t]he teaching of the Church is not about condoms or similar physical or chemical devices, but about marital love and the essentially marital meaning of human sexuality. It affirms that, if married people have a serious reason not to have children, they should modify their sexual behaviour by – at least periodic – abstinence from sexual acts. To avoid destroying both the unitive and the procreative meaning of sexual acts and therefore the fullness of mutual self-giving, they must not prevent the sexual act from being fertile while carrying on having sex."


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