“I personally asked the pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine,” Lombardi said. “He told me no. The problem is this: … It’s the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship.”
“This is if you’re a man, a woman, or a transsexual. … The point is it’s a first step of taking responsibility, of avoiding passing a grave risk onto another,” Lombardi said.
Some are saying that this response shows that Cardinal Pell and Bishop Fisher (see previous post on this topic) – or even your host on this ‘ere blog, for that matter – were “wrong” or “jumped the gun” in stating that the Pope was specifically speaking about the “possibility of a male prostitute” using condoms, not male/female relationships. Were not those theologians correct who surmised that this could be extended to relationships between husbands and wives where the husband was infected with HIV?
Well, no and yes to those questions in that order. The problem of the translation has been clarified, but that doesn’t really alter the point.
Keeping in mind that none of this has been discussed or determined at the level of the magisterium (and that the author of the book, Peter Seewald, is obviously more than a little disturbed at the attention this one topic has received in the media), let us get to the “authentic heart” of what the Holy Father is saying.
The context is one of repentance and conversion, of moving away from a life in which one habitually commits acts that are intrinsically evil toward a life of moral integrity. This is, as the Pope, Seewald, Pell, Fisher and everyone else (including commentators on this ‘ere blog) a pastoral matter, it is a matter of realising, as Pope Benedict put it in Deus Caritas Est, that
“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” DCE §1
When we encounter the Lord, we are called to conversion. “The Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). As Martin Luther expounded it in the very first of his 95 theses:
When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
Repentance can happen in two ways (and an infinite number of ways in between): it can be sudden and decisive for a change of life, OR it can involve a process, a progress toward turning one’s life away from evil and toward good.
Now it would seem to me – and I am sure to those who have the pastoral care of souls – that the latter is more common than the former. That is, the encounter with the Lord results in a call to repentance which then takes time and effort to work itself out in life. Often (almost always?) it is a case of moving from a disordered life to a life less disordered.
This throws light on the celebrated “lesser of two evils” question. The question is usually answered along the lines of “It is better to do a lesser evil than to do a greater evil”. But even answered in this way, the idea is that the doing of “less evil” has the goal of doing “no evil”. Viewed in a more personalist way – keeping in mind that that Christian life is about the encounter with Christ and the transformation that comes as a result of that encounter – the question of the “lesser of two evils” would be answered along the lines of the process of repentance, that is of answering Christ’s continual call to conversion by habitually practicing doing “less evil” with the aim of seeking a full conversion of life in which one habitually does “no evil”.
Let’s see how that would work in the case of a man infected with HIV having sex with his wife. We keep in mind that artificial limitation of natural conception is a grave evil. But so is doing an action that might result in the death of another person. (Actually, I believe it is against the law in this country for a man who knows he is HIV infected to have sex with another person in a way that risks infection of the other person). The truly moral thing for such a person to do would be to refrain from sexual intercourse all together. Let us imagine that the man in this case is a man who has encountered the Lord and has heard the call to repentance. He should begin to move from a situation where he has relations with his wife that could kill her to a situation where he does not pose any threat to her at all – ie. abstinence. Like the pope’s case of the prostitute, however, this man may find that – though he has heard the call to repentance – he is nevertheless unable to act with a firm will against the drives of concupiscence. In the context his active and aware attempts to answer the call to repentance and live a life that is morally integral, it would be a step forward on the road of conversion to commit less rather than more evil. In this circumstance, the responsible use of a condom to prevent disease transmission would actually signify a step along the road to moral improvement.
The important thing here is context. What path is the man following? Is he in fact following the path of conversion, and is his condom use “a step along the way”? Or does he mis-hear what the Pope and the Church are saying and say to himself: “Hey, condom use is okay. I can now have sexual relations with my wife without any qualms of conscience”? Hardly. His sexual relations with his wife are still disordered, not only (in fact, very secondarily) because the condom acts as an artificial limitation of conception, but far more because, with his illness, he is still exposing his wife to danger by having sexual intercourse (sex with an infected person using a condom is less dangerous than sex without a condom, but still not as safe as abstinence). The argument may be put up that abstinence is un-natural and therefore wrong. No, that is never true. Under normal circumstances it would be wrong for a husband to deny his wife the pleasure she seeks in his body – as a withdrawal of conjugal love, for example – but in this abnormal (and already distorted) situation where he has a deadly disease that sexual intercourse might transmit to his wife – abstinence is the most loving action, the action to which the encounter with the Lord calls him.
Now all of that is likely to be far too subtle for the average newspaper. But it should not be beyond us. This sheds light on why the Church does not say “condoms are the solution to the AIDS crisis”. The Pope is quite clear in the book that one must not speak in abstract terms.
Concentrating only on the condom means trivializing sexuality, and this trivialization represents precisely the dangerous reason why so many people no longer see sexuality as an expression of their love, but only as a sort of drug, which one administers on one’s own. This is why 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. There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a 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.
As the same AP report linked to above quotes George Weigel saying:
“This is admittedly a difficult distinction to grasp… What the pontiff is saying is that someone determined to do something wrong may be showing a glimmer of moral common sense by not doing that wrong thing in the worst possible way — which is not an endorsement of anything.”