Ross Douthat argues that the Church's position on condoms is best explained in terms of a general moral argument about the fate of humankind. The core case of Humanae Vitae, he argues, is about confronting the eternal dilemmas of human sexual morality in non-technological ways, not a case-by-case condemnation of all uses of condoms. He quotes a previous interview with Benedict from 1996:
[T]he Church wants to keep man human … we cannot resolve great moral problems simply with techniques, with chemistry, but most solve them morally, with a life-style. It is, I think independently now of contraception one of our great perils that we want to master even the human condition with technology, that we have forgotten that there are primordial human problems that are not susceptible of technological solutions but that demand a certain life-style and life decisions … I would say that in the question of contraception we ought to look more at these basic options in which the Church is leading the struggle for man. The point of the Church’s objections is to underscore this battle. The way these objections are formulated is perhaps not always completely felicitous, but what is at stake are such major cardinal points of human existence.
So when the Vatican finds itself telling an HIV-positive man that he must not use condoms while having sex with his HIV-negative wife, it shudders a little and then tries to change the subject to the broader vision of sexuality as a reflection of humankind's humility toward God and life's mysteries. The vision is quite beautiful, but its application in the case at hand is, well, to quote the Pope, "perhaps not always completely felicitous."
There are two responses to recognizing that your broad principle fails in specific instances. One is to modify the broad principle so as to be less abstract and more in touch with the way human sexuality and morality interact; another is to restate the dogma with more eloquence and force, while insisting that this greater insight trumps any case-specific exception.
For a long time, the Vatican has insisted on the latter. And so an entire human minority - gays - are required never to have any sex or intimate coupling at all. And when a deadly epidemic strikes, and we know that condoms - and now pills - can prevent its spread, we must insist on the broader principle rather than the practical reality. So no condoms in Africa. And in the case of, say, a fertile married couple (one positive, one negative), the ban on condoms must remain. Because choosing to have sex without being open to procreation is a worse sin than knowingly infecting your wife with a virus that might kill her.
This doctrine simply offends the conscience of most human beings. How could it not? And so the Pope, essentially bowing to the reality that marital murder is not something that should be sanctioned by the church, has now affirmed both the general moral rule and the exception to it in any specific case. But surely the insight he has grasped - that murder is worse than contraception and that existing life is worth more than death - is so basic it should prompt a reflection on the dogma as a whole. It should place sexuality in a zone of complicated moral choices, contingent on specific circumstances, dealing with issues such as consent, equality, dignity, and responsibility, rather than the crude procreative/nonprocreative model.
It seems to me to be perfectly possible for the Church to do what the Pope is walking backwards into: affirming its rather beautiful understanding of human sexuality at its height, while allowing also for moral deviations from this ideal type to cope with the actual human reality we confront in the actual world we live in.
Which is to say: if you are wondering where Jesus would stand on perpetuating the infections and deaths of million or adjusting a technical religiously mandated rule, then you haven't read the Gospels in quite a while.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.