The Pope, Condoms, and Contraception: Let’s Get This Conversation Started

The Pope's remarks on condoms have created an opening for a debate that up to now the church has wanted to avoid.  Let's take up the Pope’s remarks about sexuality as well as the basis of the opposition to contraception and kickstart that long overdue debate.

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010 is World AIDS Day.

Last week’s published comments by Pope Benedict regarding the case by case permissibility of condom use to prevent the transmission of the AIDS virus was a welcome, if modest, shift in position.  After some back and forth, the Vatican clarified that–contrary to the hope of conservative supporters of the condom ban–it is applicable not just to “male prostitutes” but also to “a woman, a man or a transsexual.”   

While there is great respect in the AIDS community for the commitment of Catholic health care providers in the developing world to treating people with AIDS and for some aspects of their work on behavior change, as well as among advocates for the just provision of anti-retroviral drugs, questions remain about the extent to which religious beliefs about sexual morality should influence global AIDS policy. Catholic positions against contraception and limiting sexual intimacy to lifelong monogamous heterosexual marriage have been seen as the major reason the Vatican, bishops in various regions of the world, and Catholic AIDS providers have refused to provide condoms as part of the three-tiered AIDS prevention strategy known as “ABC” (abstain, be faithful, use condoms).

There is no doubt that the Pope’s nod to the use of condoms by an HIV-infected person under certain circumstances will lead to significant loosening of the strictures on condom provision, although the rapidity with which the U.S.-based Catholic Relief Services issued a statement saying that their “current policy holds: we do not purchase, distribute or promote the use of condoms” was disappointing.  CRS receives 75 percent of its funding from the U.S. government. Nonetheless, some Catholic workers are already ignoring the ban and doing just that.

Conservative supporters of the ban on artificial contraception immediately responded to the Pope’s comments in an attempt to play them down. George Weigel, who normally is telling Catholics that any statement by the Pope should be taken seriously, painfully explained that an interview does not constitute a really serious statement of church position, it is merely personal opinion by the Pope.

The Vatican seemed to take the Pope’s remarks more seriously. In an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times, David Gibson of Politics Daily noted that Vatican officials have said that the Pope wanted to “kick start” a debate. Given that the debate about condoms as a means of saving lives has been kicked around at the Vatican for about 20 years, one wonders what debate the Pope wants to have.

I would hope that we could take up the Pope’s remarks about sexuality as well as the basis of the opposition to contraception. Up to now, it has been exactly the debate the church does not wish to have. Other Vatican insiders have reported that the reason the Vatican had not clarified the permissibility of using condoms if the intention is to prevent transmitting a deadly disease is precisely because they don’t want to confuse Catholics who might believe some similar reliance on intentionality might be invoked in the case of contraception. The use of contraception after all is the surest method of preventing unintended pregnancy which leads in the mind of the Vatican to baby killing. Contraception would, you would think, be the lesser of two evils in the mind of an institution that considers abortion the greatest crime of our times.

Since the ban on contraception was pronounced in 1968, it has been repeatedly subject to theological dissent as well as practical rejection by the majority of Catholics worldwide who simply think it profoundly wrong. For most married Catholics who increasingly face the challenge of providing adequately for their children, contraception is seen as a moral obligation, not a violation of the marital bond. Unmarried and divorced Catholics are increasingly accepting of the idea that sexual expression outside of marriage by those who have never married, are not heterosexual or are divorced and remarried can be moral.

Yet they are faced with seemingly unchangeable church positions about the link between marriage and procreation that seem bizarre and immoral. The commentary on the Pope’s remarks on sexuality, condoms and contraception are going to make things even stranger.

I started to reflect on all the strange things that concern clergy, theologians and lay Catholic opponents of contraception as I read both what the Pope said and a comment from John Smeaton of SPUC (the Society to Protect Unborn Children in UK).  Smeaton claimed that:

the Catholic Church is against condoms because condoms’ use, by closing the marital act to the transmission of life, separates the procreative and unitive dimensions of sexual intercourse, contrary to the crystal-clear teaching of Humanae Vitae that: “[E]ach and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”  (Humanae Vitae, 11)

Now John Smeaton is no more qualified as a theologian than I. We both have degrees in English literature and both have spent our lives as advocates not academics.  His quote from Humanae Vitae is however illuminating in light of the Pope’s comments.  :”[E]ach and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.”

Recently, a conservative priest in the Legionaries of Christ order reminded me of the debate about whether Humanae Vitae applied to unmarried people having sex. After all, only marital sex is licit and only marriage needs to be open to procreation. Does it not follow that those having sex who are not supposed to, who are not married, might have every moral right to prevent conception since they have no right to procreate? Like arguments regarding how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, it would seem one needs to ask if those committing the sin of “fornication” incur two sins if they do so with contraception, or is one sin enough?

In a 2004 article in the Tablet, a British Catholic paper, Father Martin Rhonheimer, an Opus Dei priest, seemed to follow this line of reasoning as well. He wrote that married Catholic couples who do not wish to conceive more children should practice periodic abstinence, but he wonders about:

promiscuous people, sexually active homosexuals, and prostitutes? What the Catholic Church teaches them is simply that they should not be promiscuous, but faithful to one single sexual partner; that prostitution is a behaviour which gravely violates human dignity, mainly the dignity of the woman, and therefore should not be engaged in; and that homosexuals, as all other people, are children of God and loved by him as everybody else is, but that they should live in continence like any other unmarried person.

But if they ignore this teaching, and are at risk from HIV, should they use condoms to prevent infection? The moral norm condemning contraception as intrinsically evil does not apply to these cases. Nor can there be church teaching about this; it would be simply nonsensical to establish moral norms for intrinsically immoral types of behaviour. Should the Church teach that a rapist must never use a condom because otherwise he would additionally to the sin of rape fail to respect “mutual and complete personal self-giving and thus violate the Sixth Commandment”? Of course not.”

Of course not. At its most extreme and humanly incomprehensible, but absurdly logical in the eyes of the Vatican, the only ones who can’t use contraception are married couples faithful to each other. They can only control their fertility through some form of abstinence. Does this really make sense?

Can we kick start that discussion? And perhaps along the way we can think about the absurdity of Catholic IVF treatment which forbids masturbation as a means of collecting sperm and instead prescribes the use of a condom with holes in it. The married couple than have sex with this condom in place. The man withdraws carefully after ejaculating and the sperm left in the condom can then be injected into the woman’s fallopian tube as a possible means of conception. Is this kind of behavior necessary to preserve the idea that any sex act that does not include eventual ejaculation directly into the wife’s vagina is sinful?

With these examples in mind, let’s return to what the Pope said about the church’s concern – not prohibition – regarding condoms as a means to prevent the transmission of the AIDS virus.

First, he repeats old charges that the ABC approach relegates the condom to a last resort if the other two methods – abstinence and faithfulness fail; it is not one of three methods that each has its own purpose and applicability. He then uses this flawed interpretation to assert that a “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.”

Few Catholics still hold that sexuality in marriage is inextricably linked to openness to procreation nor do they believe that it is banal for a couple to express their love through sexual acts that are technologically more closed to procreation than those that involve taking one’s temperature and checking vaginal mucosa rather taking a pill. A good number of Catholics believe that even unmarried Catholics can have sacred sex. Some even think it immoral not to make every effort to prevent an unintended pregnancy that will result most likely in children deprived of adequate financial and emotional support or somewhat less likely in abortion.

Can we kick start the discussion please?