It isn’t the job of a Protestant to try and interpret the Vatican, yet it is important in inter-religious dialogue to understand one’s partner. And that is true as Christians and others seek to understand just how Pope Benedict’s recent comments about condom use are consistent with Christian moral reasoning.
It appears common for people, and the press, to think of morality in terms of choosing actions leading to different possible outcomes. The goal of moral reasoning is thus to choose the action that leads to the best possible outcome. Looked at in this way the long standing Catholic opposition to the use of condoms in places like Africa, where HIV/AIDS is a near continent wide crisis, seems strange. Doesn’t condom use lead clearly to a better outcome than infecting or becoming infected with HIV/AIDS?
But let’s look at morality in a different way. Let’s look at moral choosing NOT as an act primarily aimed at acting toward the best of two outcomes. Instead think of moral choosing as primarily a process of making one’s self a saint whose character is ever better tuned to serving God’s purposes and thus both individual humans and humanity as a whole. Previously it appears that the judgment of the Vatican was that choosing to use a condom, although it’s use might lead to the best of possible outcomes given that sex would take place, was not a choosing that cultivated sainthood. Cultivating sainthood demanded choosing abstinence. Now it appears that the Vatican has admitted that at a very basic level choosing to use a condom may be a choice that cultivates a saintlike concern for the well being of another. All the Vatican did was affirm that this second motivation could exist, and that thus the pursuit of saintliness might be found in this choice. One assumes in the eyes of the Vatican the more saintly choice would still be abstinence.
This difference between cultivating one’s own character as a saint and merely pursuing good ends is a fundamental, if often forgotten, part of many religious traditions. From a classic Christian perspective the purpose of humans is to become sufficiently saintlike to live in God’s presence eternally. It is not simply to be washed free from sin and thus saved from hell. Nor is it to just make choices that lead to good ends for one’s self and others. This means that what is moral is not merely what we do, but how we think about what we do. Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons really isn’t as good as doing the right thing for the right reasons. Sometimes it can be worse, since in the balance it cultivates the character of a clever con artist rather than a saint. This is why the gratuitous pursuit of goods with no fungible value (like worshiping God who does not need our worship) is such an important gift from God. It not only cultivates saintliness, it helps overcome our despair at understanding our always mixed motives. Random acts of anonymous kindness don’t create saints nearly as well as disciplined acts of gratuitous self-giving.
And by the way, the road to hell is not paved with good intentions. They lead to heaven