More on Condoms

So the news is out this morning of the “clarification” that Lombardo asked for and received from the Holy Father.

“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.”

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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24 Responses to More on Condoms

  1. Henrietta says:

    I just wonder why the secular media jumped to the conclusion that the Pontiff was giving the ‘green light’ to condoms and didn’t extend that to giving the ‘green light’ to prostitution.

    I think that is because everyone knows that would be absurd… but its funny how this has been twisted to suit the secular agenda of such papers as ‘The Age’ etc

  2. Peregrinus says:

    Hi David

    I think what you say about the HIV+ husband bears further consideration.

    It’s certainly the case that if he has unprotected sex with his wife, he exposes her to a significant risk. And the more often they have sex, the greater the risk.

    It’s also the case that, if he has sex using a condom, he substantially reduces the risk of infection, but he does not eliminate it. And the more often they have sex using a condom, the greater the risk. But it is still substantially less than the risk of having regular unprotected sex.

    If he never has sex with his wife, he closes off entirely that particular vector of transmission. But there are other vectors of transmission, and if they still share a common home and are intimate in other ways there is still some risk, albeit that it is smaller than in either of the above cases. But we don’t ask HIV+ men to leave their wives. We accept that [i]some[/i] risks of infection are small enough to be tolerated for the sake of greater goods.

    But we must remember that a man who is [i]not[/i] HIV+, and who has unprotected sex with his wife, also exposes her to risk. Why? Because:
    – There is a morbidity associated with pregnancy and childbirth, even where no disease is involved
    – Leaving aside the risks of childbirth, having regular sex is a risk factor for a number of diseases which affect women, most notably cervical cancer.
    – Women who have children die significantly younger than women who do not
    – This discrepancy is especially marked in developing countries, like Africa.

    Now, in modern conditions, in the western world, the risks of sex with a husband [i]not[/i] infected with HIV+ are lower, by orders of magnitude, than the risks of sex with a HIV+ husband. But if we look back a hundred and fifty years ago or so, it’s not clear that this was the case. The risks, for women, of being sexually active were very, very much higher than today. The consequences of sexual activity were, far and away, the commonest cause of death for women at every level of society. As we know, life expectancy for women has more than doubles in the last 150 years. And far and away the biggest contributor to this has been the reduction in maternal mortality. We can reason backwards from that fact to an understanding of quite how big a mortality risk sexual life presented to women in the past, even in the absence of HIV.

    And, on the other side, we also have to factor in the vastly improved prognosis for someone who becomes infected with HIV. This is not, even in Africa, the early death sentence that it was twenty or even ten years ago. Thus the risk of death from HI infection today is significant, but it is dramaticallly less than it was in the past.

    I don’t know that, if we quantified them, we would find that the risks to a woman of having a sexual life at all in, say, 1830 would be comparable to the mortality risk today of having a sexual life, using condoms, with a HIV+ husband. But it’s not implausible that they could be and, for the sake of examining the issues, let’s assume that they are.

    So, on that assumption, the 1830 husband, and the modern HIV+ husband, in having sex with their wives, are both “doing an action that might result in the death of another person”, and they are both exposing the other person to broadly similar risks of death. But we certainly cannot say that “the truly moral thing” for the 1830 husband “would be to refrain from sexual intercourse all together”. How, then, can we say that for the modern HIV+ husband?

    It seems to me that we have several competing values here. There is the value of unitive, loving, intimate, marital intercourse. There is the value of sexual intercourse which is fully open to the generation of new life. There is the value of a selfless love expressed in self-denial (not just the denial of sexual intimacy, but the denial of parenthood) to avoid the risk of harm to the beloved. There is the value (often overlooked in this discourse) of a selfless love which is willing to risk harm to the lover in order to be intimately united in marital intercourse with the beloved and/or to generate new life with them. These are all hugely significant, powerful goods. And there is no way to answer the immediate moral question without attributing value to all of them, and then trying to find some way of living which balances them. It’s not enough to say that condoms still have failure rate when it comes to preventing HIV+ transmission. That affects the way in which we might balance these competing goods, but it doesn’t avoid the need to seek a balance.

    You can take the view, of course, that the principle that every act of intercourse must always and in every circumstance be open to the generation of new life is an absolute value – that it trumps all others, that no balancing of this against countervailing values is possible. If you take that view, then obviously one course of action is ruled out, and the choice the couple faces is between having unprotected sex or having no sex.

    But if that [i]is[/i] the position, it is as well to be clear about this and to admit – to oneself as well as to others – that the position has nothing to do with the efficacy or otherwise of condoms. On that principle, even if condoms were absolutely guaranteed 100% effective, they should not be used. And holding this view makes it pointless to explore how effective, in fact, condoms are in preventing HIV transmission, and others who do not hold this position will tend to discount any views you express on the efficacy of condoms on the basis that these are likely to be a cover for your “real agenda”.

    Now, you agree that if the couple in this situation cannot or will not abstain entirely from sex, then their decision to use a condom may indicate a step towards morality, the truly moral position being not to have sex at all. But I have an issue with this.

    The pope is looking at condom use within the context of a fundamentally disordered sexual relationship (prostitute/client). But here we are looking at condom use within the context of a fundamentally rightly-ordered sexual relationship (husband/wife). If we think condom use is a “step towards’ morality, then we must think that unprotected sex between husband and wife would be wrong. But it’s certainly not wrong in the sense that prostitute/client sex is wrong.

    The only basis on which we can think this is the mortality risk presented by the husband’s HIV+ status; that this completely reverses the nature of marriage from a relationship of love fundamentally ordered towards sex into a relationship of love which now becomes fundamentally ordered against it. But this is hard to reconcile with the fact that all sexual relationships carry a morbidity risk – especially to women – and sometimes a very substantial morbidity risk, and the church faced with large morbidity risks in the past has never before suggested that the morbidity risk “reverses” marriage in this way.

    You suggest that the immorality which remains when the couple use condoms consists primarily in the mortality risk of having even protected sex, and only secondarily in the contraceptive effect of the condom. But, with respect, if “no contraception” is an absolute value which trumps all others, then the immorality must be found primarily in the contraception, not the mortality risk, mustn’t it? So I’m not sure that this is entirely coherent. If you truly think that the evil is found substantially in the risk of harm, and yet we know that risks of harm can be balanced and weighed against other goods, then clearly “no contraception” is not the absolute value that was postulated.

  3. Schütz says:

    You are being far too Jesuitical, Perry. (And I apologise to the Society of Jesus for using that adjective). In fact, I blush at the brazen way you approach the subject. You are completely ignoring the point of my post: that the context in which the Holy Father discusses this question is the context of one who has begun to walk the path of conversion and is seeking to live in rightly ordered relationships with both God and others.

    There are indeed many risks in childbirth and pregnancy. Those you cite are not of the same order as that of a man who knows he is HIV positive having sex with someone. As I said, our laws make the latter a crime in some circumstances. There are risks and there are real dangers in sexual relations. Where sexual relations pose a real danger to another human being, the truly moral person would abstain from such relations. Sex between married partners is a good, but not an ultimate good. Men do not have an absolute right to have sex with their wives. Right relationships always seek the good of the other person.

    As for the uniative aspect of conjugal partnership, it is precisely because this is not served when artificial methods of limiting conception are used that the Church calls it an “intrinsic” evil. In all of the circumstances of risk that you cite, a man who is on the path to conversion may use a “lesser evil” to avoid a “greater evil”, but not as if it is “okay” or “not a sin”. He will be seeking the higher good, and not satisfy himself with a lesser good.

    • Schütz says:

      In addition:

      You can take the view, of course, that the principle that every act of intercourse must always and in every circumstance be open to the generation of new life is an absolute value – that it trumps all others, that no balancing of this against countervailing values is possible. If you take that view, then obviously one course of action is ruled out, and the choice the couple faces is between having unprotected sex or having no sex.

      No, I have said, when one partner is HIV positive, that of “the choices available”:
      1) “Unprotected sex” (as you call it – that is not my term) is a great evil – it endangers the life of the marriage partner and cannot be construed as a “loving” or “uniative” act.
      2) Sex with a condom is still an evil, but a “lesser evil” because it greatly decreases the danger of the act to the partner. I think this is the reasoning of the Holy Father also. The man who is HIV positive and still insists on having sex with his wife needs to ask himself “WHY? For whose good?” This may be a step along the road of conversion, but can never be defended as an end point or something to be satisfied with.
      3) Abstinence is the only truly moral choice. It means there is no danger at all to the life of the partner. In real terms, love shown in this way may be more “uniative” than the insistence upon continuing sexual relations.

      Now, I haven’t mentioned anything about the “double effect” of protection from the virus and artificial limitation of natural conception here. I am simply dealing with it in terms of not inflicting harm on the other.

      Again, conversion is the real issue here. Seeking right relationships that are self-sacrificing love in action. The call to agape-relationships does not leave wriggle room in morality, although pastoral reality recognises the struggle.

    • Peregrinus says:

      Blush not, David. If indeed I am being brazen, is it not I who should blush? Your conscience is clear!

      But I don’t think I am being brazen. I’m just trying to find a coherent and consistent reading of the pope’s comments which doesn’t resort to dismissing them as a disaster and a catastrophic scandal.

      “Again, conversion is the real issue here. Seeking right relationships that are self-sacrificing love in action. The call to agape-relationships does not leave wriggle room in morality, although pastoral reality recognises the struggle.”

      I think this is the key to the business. We have to remember that the pope is not only the Teacher of the all Christians but also the Pastor of all Christians, and the way in which this discourse has been opened – an exchange in an interview for a book, highlighted in an OR report – points strongly to the fact that we should understand the pope as exercising primarily his pastoral office here.

      Proclaiming the truth is an aspect of the teaching office of the church. Supporting and guiding us as we work out how to align our lives with the truth, and as we give effect to what we have worked out, is what the pastoral office is all about. Which is why pastoral considerations are always intimately concerned with where people are now, with the truths that are and aren’t reflected in their lives.

      I want to quibble for a moment with this:

      “There are risks and there are real dangers in sexual relations. Where sexual relations pose a real danger to another human being, the truly moral person would abstain from such relations. Sex between married partners is a good, but not an ultimate good. Men do not have an absolute right to have sex with their wives. Right relationships always seek the good of the other person.”

      Not that there is anything here that is necessarily wrong. But it frames the issue in terms which seem designed to support a particular conclusion. It supposes, for example, that in our hypothetical couple it is the man who wants sex, asserting a “right” to have sex with his wife. But why should this be so? Should we not suppose that in a Christian marriage the wife might want to have sex too? Could it not be that in fact the wife is keener to have sex than the husband? Indeed, if she is “always seeking the good of the other person”, she might attach a lower weight to the risk of harm to herself than her husband does.

      Sure, sex in marriage is not an “ultimate good”, but it is a very great good indeed, and it is of the very essence of marriage (such that the church would decline to celebrate the matrimony of a couple intending a purely “companionate marriage”, in exactly the same way, and for exactly the same reason, that they would decline to celebrate the matrimony of a couple intending never to beget children.

      If the real issue here is “always seeking the good of the other person”, then given the enormous significance and enormous good of marital intercourse it’s not an absolute given that the risk of HIV infection when a condom is used must always and in all circumstances outweigh the good of marital intercourse. There’s always some danger to the other when we have sex, and their can be very significant danger even without the presence of HIV infection. I don’t see that HIV infection is somehow morally different from other dangers in this regard; the question is one of degree, not quality.

      And there’s another dimension to this too. You rightly say that “Right relationships always seek the good of the other person”, but in this context we must go a little further. When I marry I create a family, and thereafter the moral aspect of the decisions I take does not just depend on (a) how the decision affects me and (b) how the decision affects my wife but (c) how the decision affects my family, bearing in mind that my family – even if we have no children yet – is something more than the sum of two individuals. It can be hard to grasp this, and its implications; I think I was four or five years married before I really had to confront it.

      At the very least, the task of judging the balance between the good to me, the good to the other, and the good to the family of avoiding sex in any particular circumstance versus the good of having sex is surely one for the couple concerned, supported by spiritual (and of course medical) advice. I can’t see that it’s something to be “projected in the abstract”, to borrow Pope Benedict’s expression.

  4. marcel says:

    This disaster is going to have wide ranging pastoral ramifications. More Catholic missionaries will hand out condoms. More Priests will give erroneous counselling in the confessional. More Catholic media will use the comment to signal a reversal of Catholic teaching. Just look at Cathnews.

    This interview has opened a Pandora’s box. Peter is supposed to confirm his brethren in the faith. This has been a catastrophic scandal and I have been disappointed with the ultramontanist defenses given by some commenatators who see it as their duty to defend indefensible statements.

    • Gareth says:

      Agree Marcel.

    • Tony says:

      This disaster is going to have wide ranging pastoral ramifications. More Catholic missionaries will hand out condoms.

      Good. More lives will be saved.

      • Gareth says:

        What a load of bullshit Tony.

        You really, really do not fear God do you ……?

        • Tony says:

          Calm down, Gareth.

          I certainly don’t fear your version of God.

          • Schütz says:

            Okay, you two. BE NICE!

            • Tony says:

              OK. Can I say that I think it will be NICE if lives are saved?

            • Schütz says:

              Tony, if you have read the post above on my interaction with our local Greens member, you would see that this is a concern of hers too.

              However, I find the proposition that there is a direct link (or even an indirect one) between the Catholic ban on birth control and the spread of AIDS in Africa simply ludicrous. AIDS is transmitted mainly in two ways, as you know, through sexual intercourse and to children in the womb. I know that both ways are very common in Africa. But two sure ways of preventing the transmission of the virus is abstinence before marriage and faithfulness in marriage. IOW, the way in which the virus is transmitted is predominantly through sexual activity with more than one sexual partner (of course, there are victims here: one spouse may be faithful, but the unfaithfulness of the other spreads the infection to her). My point is, if a person decides to have sex outside of a faithful marriage without a condom, can we really surmise that they are influenced in this situation by the Church’s prohibition of birth control? Am I missing something here?

              On the other hand, I can imagine the very real situation where an HIV infected husband – with no thought at all for the good of his wife and family – forces himself upon his wife without using a condom and she (through lack of education or through fear) thinks that the Church requires her to go along with this. Of course, he may very well refuse to use a condom anyway for some reason of pride, and she may be quite powerless. But again, I don’t think that you can say that the Church is causing this scenario, nor that a wider use of condoms will simply make it better.

              The African AIDS epidemic is obviously a real worry. But a) seeing condoms as a solution, and b) blaming the Church’s teaching on birth control for the epidemic does seem a little bit trite. No, actually, it seems like someone looking to blame anyone other than the real culprit. There is an obvious cause of the epidemic and an obvious solution, but because the solution would require some limitation in that most revered of all “human rights” (the right to have sex with as many people of whatever sex I like as often as I like and “protected” from the “danger” of pregnancy or responsibility to the person I have sex with), the world has looked around for another convenient scapegoat who really is entirely innocent, and who is in fact doing as much if not more to help the victims of the epidemic as anyone else in the world.

            • Tony says:

              I’m slightly gobsmacked by your post, David.

              It’s as if you assumed that I would propose and defend the ‘a’ and ‘b’ you mention. I’m not sure why.

              My simple point was that a condom might save a life and that is a good thing. We may even speculate, as the Pope did, or hope or pray that that saved life might move toward a more moral life.

            • Louise says:

              “Nice” is not a good concept, imo. We need to be Good, rather than Nice.

      • Louise says:


  5. Schütz says:

    You still are not coming to terms with the issue of conversion here, Perry. Remember the defining encounter with the Lord. You are thinking like a moral theologian rather – the pope is thinking like a spiritual director.

  6. Joshua says:


    This has all been very interesting – but I’ve been wondering for a while what you’ve made of the statement made by Cardinal Koch about the need to maintain an ecumenism of return (I assume, particularly in the light of Anglicanorum cœtibus)?

    • Schütz says:

      Ah yes. I have actually been trying to get a hold of the complete presentation that Cardinal Koch made to the PCPCU rather than rely on the report in The Tablet. I do hae opinions on this, of course! A separate post is in order.

  7. Schütz says:

    Tony is having trouble posting, so has asked me to post this comment for him which he sent to me by email. (Please note: these are NOT my comments!)

    But the previously out-of-bounds discussion about whether condoms can be used as a means to prevent the spread of disease is now in-bounds. That is change, by any definition.

    This, from James Martin SJ, was a part of one of the last comments I put into your previous post on the subject and I think it still applies.

    I was also intrigued by comments from ‘TonyM’ on CathPews. His first shows a black sense of humour, but makes a point that I imagine would still be relevant to him:

    The scenario of the male prostitute and the paying customer is such a depraved, irredeemable one in its act that a better analogy would be that if you have to fly your plane into a skyscraper, it would be more morally upright to flash your lights as you approach.

    More substantially here:

    I might be over reacting, but seems to me this is a watershed moment, the beginnings of an appeasement bridging this papcy and the next maybe.

    And here:

    I believe this is a stunning turnaround, if not of a defined teaching but certainly of an implied one and that for those of us who, against the grain of natural reason have performed mental gymnastics to remain faithfull/obedient to this implied teaching, especially those employed in a teaching capacity, rightly feel hung out to dry.

    On a slightly different tack, another impression that I’ve had about PB16’s previous statements about condoms, especially in Africa, is that he’s saying they’re ‘not the answer’.

    It seems to me that he’s challenging a postion that nobody asserts. I don’t know of any agency or individual of substance who suggests condoms are the answer. Even the most vociferous promonents of condoms seem to say they’re part of the answer.

    • Tony says:

      Thanks David. Not sure what’s going on. Sure you haven’t installed a ‘Liberal filter’? ;-)

      • Schütz says:

        If I could, I know a few folk who would probably pay good money for it! (but I wouldn’t use it myself – never could stand simply talking to people who agree with me).

        Obviously you are managing to get through sometimes, and no one else has reported any problems. Can I suggest you prepare your posts in Word and then paste them into WordPress?

        • Tony says:

          There is a kind of cruelty in the one who disabuses another of a conspiracy theory. Sigh. Apparently Elvis is dead.

          Slightly more seriously, I don’t know what is going on. It may be a browser issue or some particular way that I post or the WordPress biorhythm and, yes, I do tend to save my posts these days as I’d hate to think they’re lost to the ‘noosphere’.

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