Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Pope on condoms

With some reluctance I interrupt my Sunday to post this:

"When asked whether the Catholic Church was not opposed in principle to the use of condoms, the Pope replied: "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." "

He is talking about the use of condoms by male prostitutes (presumably, male prostitutes with male clients.) So, what he is saying is that the use of condoms is immoral in all circumstances. This isn't the message the secular media and liberal Catholics want you to hear, so read this paragraph carefully and be prepared to quote the Holy Father's words when other people are giving you tendentious paraphrases.

The situation he describes reminds me of a case considered by the well-known Catholic moral theologian Germaine Grisez when he did some seminars in Oxford some years ago.

Suppose you meet a man preparing to commit suicide. He's strapped a vast amount of explosive to himself and is preparing to flip the switch. You remonstrate with him; he's going to kill not only himself but a lot of innocent bystanders. He is adamant that he wants to commit suicide, however, and is going to do it in a few moments - you can't stop him.

Grisez's case was about the question of whether you could help him in committing suicide by a means which did less damage to others. What it takes for granted is that it would be better for him to use an alternative means of killing himself. That doesn't make it right, but it is still better. Perhaps he would still go to hell, but his punishment in hell would be less severe.

That's the Holy Father's point: some sins are more serious than others. There is a view among some Protestant thinkers that all sins are equally bad: even the smallest sin is an offense against an infinitely good God, and so infinitely bad and worthy of infinite punishment. That is not the Catholic view. Sins come in degrees. Killing 6 million Jews is more serious than getting involved in a bar-room brawl, even if the latter is a mortal sin. Working as a male prostitute is a totally immoral way of life, involving daily sins of an extremely serious kind: sins categorised as crying out to heaven for vengeance. Does it make any difference if a male prostitute also steals, lies and hits people? Of course it does. Would it be better if he took even non-fool-proof measures to lessen the risk of infecting his clients with a deadly disease? Yes it would.

Would this apply to a female prostitute? Not necessarily, because condomistic heterosexual sex outside marriage is morally worse than non-condomistic heterosexual sex outside marriage. Using a condom in homosexual sex makes no difference because it neither acts as a contraceptive nor does it deform the sexual act itself, making it an un-natural sexual act (it can't do that because it is already an un-natural sexual act), as (it has been argued) the use of condoms for heterosexual sex does.

This is not the kind of thing I normally write on this blog, but it needs to be said. For more on the Pope and condoms, see my Philosophy blog here and here.


  1. Joseph Yarbrough8:19 pm

    Thanks for this good write-up!

  2. Cristobal Orrego9:07 pm

    Dear Joseph,

    The Italian translation speaks of a female prostitute. I have not read the German (<span>Straßenmädchen is for female, but I do not for male). I think that even for female prostitution, since the act is already disorder, it can be tolerated the use of condoms with profilactic intention. The act is not more disorder because is condomistic, and, even if it is more disorder under one respect (for more further removed from the order of rational sexual intercourse), it may be less disorder under other respect, namely as a life-threatening activity. </span>