Pope Benedict Doubles Down on Condoms

Pope Benedict Doubles Down on Condoms November 23, 2010

I have to admit it.  I thought Benedict was hedging his bets when he chose the example of a male prostitute to make his point that, if someone is engaging in dangerous sexual activity (which is and remains contrary to Church teaching), they are better to use a condom to prevent the spread of infections than not.  Much has been made of translation issues and the consensus seemed to be that Benedict meant to indicate homosexual prostitution in particular because contraception is not an issue when the sexual act in question is naturally infertile.

Today we learned that the Pope sees his point as applying not just to naturally infertile acts, but to any dangerous sexual acts. Some pundits definitely put their money on the wrong horse.

Now, I was surprised that Benedict came out this clearly and this soon on the issue but, upon reflection, I am less and less shocked.  It is starting to look to me like the basic logic for this move was implicit as soon as then-Cardinal Ratzinger appointed a commission to determine whether the Church could allow HIV-discordant married couples to use condoms.

Such a move makes it clear that Benedict has always been much more willing than those Catholics whom this latest move has thrown into a tizzy to consider the use of condoms under the rubric of double effect.  Of course, the example of homosexual prostitution does not need double effect.  The only effect of a condom in homosexual sex is disease prevention.  But my sense is that the most recent clarification tells us that the Pope sees double effect at work here.

How?  Allow me some more-or-less wild speculation.

Any commission studying whether or not HIV-discordant married couples could use a condom was certainly working with the idea of double effect.  The basic issue looks like this:  can a couple use a condom to prevent infection (a good) even if contraception (an evil) is foreseen but not intended?  Recall, such a couple would be engaging in an inherently good act, so that is not at issue here.  What remains to be determined is whether or not the good to be had (preserving the health of the uninfected partner) is proportionate to the unintended evil (rendering the act infertile).  Those who suggest that it is not proportionate seem to me to confuse contraception with murder.  (Not that this is uncommon given what many Catholics understand by the Church’s teaching about openness to life.  As far as I can tell, such readings of Church teaching make incoherent the fact that the Church has no problem with all kinds of infertile sex: post-menopausal, during pregnancy, post-hysterectomy and about 3 weeks of every month.  But I digress.)

I suspect that the majority of the commission found the same; i.e., that, under the principle of double effect, spouses could use condoms to prevent infecting one another with HIV. There is, of course, a wrench in the works here. Condoms are not 100% effective. The question is not simply “Does condom use by HIV-discordant married couples satisfy the logic of double effect?” but “Is it ever okay to engage in an act that has the possibility, however slight, of infecting your spouse with a fatal disease?”  Even if the answer to the first question is “yes,” it seems clear to me that abstinence for such couples remains the only morally available option.

We were told that the commission completed its work but that the Vatican decided not to make the findings public due to concerns that its findings would be misrepresented and misinterpreted.  It seems that the commission’s report has now come out sideways.

What we have learned (and I’m thinking Benedict read the reports) from the question of the HIV-discordant married couple who should, ideally, remain celibate, is that condoms can be justified under the principle of double effect.  What are we to do with this conclusion?

Well, it seems to me that our first job is to advocate that anyone (married or otherwise) who does or could have HIV remains celibate.  I don’t think there is any doubt that this is still the position of the Catholic Church.  The Pope was crystal clear on that.  But the Church is also aware that not everyone is going to take this advice.  There is a broad range here, from rapists to prostitutes and “adult entertainers” to promiscuous individuals to monogamous couples.  HIV could be passed on in any of these relationships.

The thorny question that comes up for the Church here is, “What advice do you give to people who won’t follow your advice?”

By allowing Catholic hospitals to use (non-abortifacient) emergency birth control in cases of rape, I think the Church has already implicitly answered the question for wives who are raped by HIV-positive husbands.  Double effect says they can use a condom.  Of course, the first thing to do is to get men to stop raping their wives.  No one denies that.  But if a woman is about to be raped, must the Catholic Church’s condemnation of artificial contraception prevent her from trying to get the rapist to use a condom?

What if your son or daughter was engaging in prostitution?  Of course you’d try to stop them.  But, knowing you failed at that, knowing that right now he or she is engaging in an incredibly dangerous act with an HIV-positive partner, does your adherence to Catholic teaching mean that you hope he or she is doing so without a condom?

What if your daughter (or son) was being raped?  Of course you wish that she (or he)  wasn’t.  Of course you’d do anything in your power to stop it from happening.  But if you couldn’t stop it, would you, because of your understanding of Catholic teaching, hope that the rapist didn’t use a condom?

Look.  I’m as pro-Church teaching on artificial contraception as you’re likely to find.  My wife and I have endured serious marital difficulty because of our struggles with NFP, but I still write books and give “sex talks” endorsing Church teaching on this question.  I am not saying I support artificial contraception.  But the Church’s credibility on this question suffers when the teaching is endorsed in such an unnuanced way that some Catholics might feel they have to answer yes to the above questions.

There is room for some nuance here and every Catholic who answered the above questions honestly knows it.  Thanks to Benedict, the rest of the world now knows that we know it.  Call me a heretic, but I’m backing the Pope on this one.

[Update: Thanks to the many commenters who have already joined the conversation.  It is distinctly possible that double effect has not, as WJ put it, “done the heavy lifting” here.  Father Fessio’s object-intent distinction looks like a good candidate in this regard.  I was, in any case, admittedly engaging in “more-or-less wild speculation.”

For the record, I think that the Church is going to have to spend some time hashing this out and I see this as my little contribution to that endeavor.  I think that even if I am wrong about double effect, some of my other points still stand up.  It seems Father Fessio’s point would also serve to explain my conclusion; i.e., that Catholics need not panic if they do not wish that those being raped, sold for sex etc. are doing so with no protection from infection.  I remain happy to amend my conclusions following further clarification from Benedict, or even particularly insightful blog commenters.]

Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto.  He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • M.Z.

    I have difficulty seeing how double effect would provide the opening considering that contraception wasn’t disallowed for cause of disproportion but intrinsic disorder. Unfortunately, I’m afraid we end up at the torture debate dilemma where people want to argue torture is wrong but what we understand torture to be is circumstantial. To me this would seem to be a clear case of economia, but we don’t really have the concept in the west as far as I’m aware.

  • brettsalkeld

    I think the way in is that contraception is defined by Humane Vitae with reference to intent. Cf. “proposes”

    “Every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil. (Humanae Vitae quoted in the Catechism)

  • Pingback: Did Pope Benedict Just Change Church Teaching about Condoms? « Vox Nova()

  • Cindy

    So may I ask a serious question? For those people that are the so called cafeteria catholics, that read what is written, and yet use their own minds and come to their own conclusions on certain things. Were they wrong then? I mean I often listen to people who love to call out the cafeteria catholics and basically make them feel like they are sinners- or more prone to sin than others are. However, one has to reason for themsleves in some ways based on certain situations in the world. Another thing I notice when I look around on Sundays is, if everyone was not using some form of birth control, then why are the pews not filled with families with children of 5 to 8 children? I think this reversal by the Pope is really something. I personally was sort of amazed at the take by so many that it was only homo-sexuals the Pope was referring too. I just didnt see it that way when I read the statement for myself. Now more light has been shed by the Pope. Ijust think sin is what it is. Everyone know’s what sin is and sometimes we sin anyway. We are all sinners. Yet if we are going to sin, then wouldnt one take precautions? I mean I know that makes me a class ‘a’ sinner I suppose. But isnt that logic? With what we know today, and how man is fallen, why can we not use our own logic sometimes?

    • brettsalkeld

      I think the answer here depends on a lot of factors.
      Those healthy, stable people with a two-car garage who use artificial contraception because they never bothered looking into Church teaching don’t seem to me in the same boat as those who reached the same conclusions as the Pope about condoms in terrible situations before if became public knowledge.

      • Melody

        And people should be careful about assuming that people with small families were using something illicit. Because what they are really saying is NFP doesn’t really work, it’s just good penance. Which really does not encourage young married couples to give it an honest try.

  • And its debates like these that push more people further from the Catholic Church, because it’s silly and moot to most people I know who are both Catholic and those who are not. What the Pope has done by failing to support the widespread use of condoms (to prevent disease, regardless of the (Church’s) unwanted contraception side effect) is to condemn thousands of people to an early death. Despite his relative irrelevance in the lives of people living in North America, he’s still a world leader and his objectives have an effect on public policy and perception. To oppose a healthy device is akin to being opposed to blood transfusions or other medical technology to delay death in otherwise healthy people (who are by definition sinners regardless of their normal consensual sexual habits).

    • brettsalkeld

      As true as it may be that this pushes some people out, my guess is that conforming to the culture on sexual ethics means we die when the culture does. I don’t put that much beyond 50 years.

    • Juniper

      “What the Pope has done by failing to support the widespread use of condoms … is to condemn thousands of people to an early death.”

      I’ve never understood this argument. Who are all these thousands of people who feel free to ignore the Church’s teaching that sex belongs exclusively in marriage, but then still have pangs of conscience about using a condom? When you reject the first teaching, don’t you necessarily reject the other?

      Are you saying that many engaging in the forms of sex most likely to spread disease are just waiting for the go ahead from the church to use a condom? But haven’t they already demonstrated that they don’t need the church’s approval to do or not do something?

  • grega

    Thank you Cindy for this honest comment – so true.

  • Pingback: The More Things Change « Saskboy's Abandoned Stuff – Site News()

  • Yeah, the Pope has not said anything about double-effect for married couples here. He’s said condoms are the lesser evil. He never said they were justified under double effect.

    In double effect, the act itself must be at least morally neutral. So, for example, removing a cancerous uterus is neutral (even if it happens to contain a fetus). The effect on the fetus is indirect.

    Using a condom to prevent HIV is different. The contraception is NOT a foreseen “side effect” but is, in fact, the very means used to prevent the HIV spreading. The prevention of the deposit of the semen IS not a side-effect of preventing the disease, but is in fact the very means used to prevent the spread.

    The couples must abstain, married or not. The question is, if they refuse, is condom use the lesser evil and the answer is (I think quite obviously) yes.

  • David Nickol

    “Is it ever okay to engage in an act that has the possibility, however slight, of infecting your spouse with a fatal disease?”

    There has to be a point at which the risk is so low as to be considered negligible, and it may very well already be so. After six months of treatment, when the virus is undetectable in a person, he or she may well not be considered “contagious.” If condoms are used at that stage in addition, the risk would be even lower. You can’t live life by avoiding risk “however slight.” I believe one of the things the Vatican commission studied was the risk of transmission. It is extremely unfortunate their findings have been suppressed.

    Also, what about cases where it is known that a pregnancy would be dangerous for a woman? How do you assess the acceptable level of risk there?

    Also, does “any act” include taking your spouse on a trip to a foreign country where he or she might contract a fatal disease? Or must the risk be zero only for sex?

    • brettsalkeld

      It would be interesting to see the commission’s thoughts on this point. There is probably such a point that is low enough, but it would need to be extremely low to engage in an act repeatedly.

      I think assessing the dangerous pregnancy issue is a little different because pregnancy itself is a positive good whereas HIV infection is not. But there are some parallels that make it an interesting question.

  • M

    Recall, such a couple would be engaging in an inherently good act, so that is not at issue here

    So sex with a condom is an inherently good act, it’s just the intention that determines its moral category?

    • brettsalkeld

      No, sex with one’s spouse (as opposed to with a prostitute etc.) is an inherently good act.

  • Paul

    I agree that in those cases where sexual intercourse takes place against the will, Humanae Vitae doesn’t apply.

    But double effect is not applicable in the way you suggest, since the contraceptive effect of a condom is not a side-effect, but an actual component part of the direct effect of the condom.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    I refer everyone to the blog at America Magazine, which has some detailed theological analyses and copious background information.

    The most recent article is at


    • brettsalkeld

      Thanks David.

  • WJ


    Thanks for this update. I have one suggested caveat, however. I don’t think we can determine, at this point, whether double-effect is in operation in the way that you describe. I don’t think we can determine this because Fr. Rhonheimer’s articulation of his own position in his debate with Benedict Guevin (http://americanpapist.com/ncbq/562030k671p51440.pdf)
    rejects the Guevin’s claim that Rhonheimer is relying upon double-effect. Rhonheimer rejects this reading because, on his view, (1) not everything done praeter intentionem is analyzable according to double effect and (2) the “use of a condom” does not for him specify with enough precision the *object* of the intentional act. (see pp. 41 ff. in the above document).

    If Rhonheimer’s thought is behind the recent clarification of teaching, it is unlikely that double effect is doing the heavy lifting here.

  • brettsalkeld

    The question as to whether contraception can be a side-effect or the direct effect is an interesting one. It seems to me that understanding it as a side-effect makes the Pope’s comments much clearer. If the Pope indicates that is an unfair way to interpret his words, I’ll happily retract.

  • Mick

    I don’t think the pope is advocating that we, non-prostitutes, actually provide prostitutes with condoms. Some seem to imply that is what he is saying. What does his statement have to do with double effect?

    All he is saying is that in the prostitute’s journey, he or she may go from not caring about his/her clients (at all), to actually caring about their health. The intention to use a condom in this instance may show that the prostitute has taken a first step toward living a more healthy and moral life.

    Nowhere does he say that using a condom is a concretely moral choice, or even that using them is “the lesser of two evils.” He absolutely does not say that we should start giving them out. It is certainly not a call for us to start giving out condoms to help prostitutes become more moral and sexually healthy.

  • brettsalkeld

    Father Fessio is saying that the “lesser evil” issue isn’t the answer either. He points to the distinction between intention and object.


    For the record, I think that would also square with my last 5 paragraphs. (Maybe better than my own guess!)

  • Nate Wildermuth

    If double-effect is proposed as a solution to this, then it has to be thus: the condom blocks both the sperm and the virus. The good-effect: blocking the virus. The bad-effect: blocking the sperm. If by some miracle the sperm got through, the virus would still be blocked. The blocking of sperm does not cause the blocking of the virus.

    Double-effect is very tricky, in my opinion.

  • The contraception is NOT a foreseen “side effect” but is, in fact, the very means used to prevent the HIV spreading. The prevention of the deposit of the semen IS not a side-effect of preventing the disease, but is in fact the very means used to prevent the spread.

    A Sinner,

    Contraception is “deliberate prevention of conception or impregnation.” Blocking the path of semen is not contraception unless contraception is willed. For a woman, taking the pill as a contraceptive is forbidden. But taking the pill for noncontraceptive reasons is not contraception and is licit, even though the contraceptive effect is present. Humanae Vitae says:

    On the other hand, the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result there from—provided such impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.

    • brettsalkeld

      I think this goes well with my quote of HV above. In other words, HV does define contraception with reference to intent. I think it must, otherwise any infertile act (e.g., during pregnancy) would be problematic by that very fact.

      • It seems clear to me that the pope’s comments imply that the use of a condom in an of itself is not evil, and certainly not intrinsically evil. If it is a moral step in the right direction for a prostitute to protect his customers by using a condom, using the condom must be either neutral or good. You do not take a step in the right direction by performing an evil act. Repeat all together now: “One may never do evil so that good may come of it.” If it is evil for a prostitute to use condoms to protect customers, they are doing evil so that good may come of it, and the pope would be endorsing that as a welcome act of a developing conscience.

    • M.Z.

      That all is well and good except a condom isn’t a therapeutic device.

      • M.Z.,

        The quote from HV is not to demonstrate that the use of condoms is permitted. It is to demonstrate that the Church does not forbid the use of anything and everything with a contraceptive effect. The argument was that a condom, by its very nature, is a contraceptive. But so is the pill.

        • M.Z.

          For a 50-year-old single woman to use the pill to control menopause would be an indisputable example of therapeutic use. It is not dependent on any sex act. Condom use is purely to capture the ejaculate, an act finding legitimacy only in conjugal relations.

          Don’t get me wrong, I don’t really have a problem with where Pope Benedict has gone. I don’t just want us to accept any explanation for it.

    • Juniper

      David said:
      “For a woman, taking the pill for contraceptive reasons is forbidden. But taking the pill for noncontraceptive reasons is not contraception and is licit, even though the contraceptive effect is present.”

      I don’t dispute the underlying point from Humanae Vitae, but I think in the particular case of the pill and some other forms of hormonal contraception some caveats are in order:

      1) Doctors are prescribing the pill in all sorts of situations that treat only symptoms by the suppression of a woman’s fertility cycle, without addressing the underlying cause of a particular disorder. The pill is a facile solution; when in the future a woman decides she wants to conceive, she may go off the pill to find that the original symptoms return, plus the long time on the pill may make conception more difficult. How is this just or treating women with dignity?

      Googling “Gianna Healthcare”, “NaproTechnology” or “Paul VI Institute” can provide some more information on this.

      2) Even if there are legitimate theraputic uses for the pill, we must also consider that it is designed not just to act as a contraceptive, but as an abortifacient if there is “breakthrough ovulation”, which obviously changes the moral calculus.

      Aside to Brett Salkeld: I always find your VN posts original and thoughtful, and your comment boxes feature people arguing in good faith, and learning from one another. You should try to bottle this and sell it to the rest of the internet!

      • Juniper,

        I would not say the pill was “designed not just to act as a contraceptive, but as an abortifacient.” The pill was designed to prevent ovulation. Whether or not it does act as an abortifacient is another question.

        The use of cigarettes, alcohol, and many drugs, and exposure to pollutants can increase the risk of miscarriage. So if we must be wary of legitimate medical uses of the pill because of potential abortifacient effects, it seems to me we must even more cautious about other potential “abortifacients” that are not only avoidable, but some of which (like cigarettes) have no legitimate use at all.

      • brettsalkeld

        Thanks Juniper.

        I am kept on my toes by the fact that I will be job hunting in the near future (hoping to be a Catholic theology prof at a Catholic school) and the suspicion that my bishop reads my posts. If every other blogger had such constraints, the blogosphere might improve. 😉

        I suppose we could all just try to be aware that Jesus reads our posts, but most of us are already convinced Jesus agrees with us, and that, if Jesus agrees with us, almost any means are justifiable. That’s probably why he gave us bishops.

  • Young Canadian RC Male

    Alright. I got to weigh in on this. So for those that don’t know any moral theology, Here’s the principle of double effect:


    1.] The intended act must be good in itself. The intended act may not be morally evil.
    [2.] The good effect of the act must be that which is directly intended by the one who carries out the act. The bad effect that results from the act may be foreseen by the agent but must be unintended.
    [3.] The good effect must not be brought about by using morally evil means.
    [4.] The good effect must be of equal or greater proportion to any evil effect which would result.
    [5.] Acts that have morally negative effects are permissible only when truly necessary, i.e., when there are no other means by which the good may be obtained.

    So could the condom use itself in light of knowing you are a carrier of AIDS apply to the principle?

    Condn 1)Perhaps applies. I am wearing a condom not to give the other person a death sentence and the accompanying physical, mental, social etc. damage.

    Condn2) I think if you take the 2nd condition verbatim, it could apply.

    Condn3) This is where I think this condom situation starts to falls short. Literally, if you think, I am just using my hands (the means) to put on a condom, perhaps Condn 3 applies. However, if you take that you are having sex outside of marriage, and even worse with another man, and that is the means to need to do the act of condoming up, then that violates the condition. As a man you are also wasing sperm that could have produced life.

    Condn 4)No. Perhaps if the condom does not break, maybe the effect of the condom itself is good, but, it can always break and also you are still having innapropriate sex with it. Since the condom breaking still allows for evil to occur in the disease, its good cannot outweigh the potential evil.

    Condn5)NO! The condom itself is not truly necessary. Furthermore, giving a person the disease b/c the comdom breaks is truly unneccessary. The only viable solution is abstinence.

    So, although I love my Pope, I think that the pope made a human error in applying double effect here and should have retracted that comment he made in the book. This is just getting worse between the media firestorm and the Vatican’s clarification.

    • brettsalkeld

      I agree that the answer to 5 is no and that is why the Church does not promote condom use. The Pope is talking, however, precisely about people who are already doing something unnecessary.

      Maybe that’s another reason double effect does not apply? It looks more and more to me like Fessio is on the right track.

  • I don’t think the pope is advocating that we, non-prostitutes, actually provide prostitutes with condoms.


    It is not yet clear. You may have seen this posted over at America:

    Just released by the Vatican:

    Caritas Internationalis works in the prevention of HIV infection and in the treatment and care of those living with HIV and AIDS.

    Caritas Internationalis Secretary General, Lesley-Anne Knight, said:

    “The Pope’s reported comments in this book illustrate the importance of compassion and sensitivity in dealing with the complexities of HIV/ AIDS prevention. Caritas delivers its HIV/AIDS programmes in line with Church Teaching and we will consider, in close consultation with the Holy See, whether there are implications for our work in these reported comments of Pope Benedict.”

    Caritas Internationalis is the confederation of 165 national Catholic aid agencies. Its members provide HIV programming in more than 100 countries.

    If there is a change “on the ground” by Caritas Internationalis, working “in close consultation with the Holy See,” then surely there has been a change.

    It seems to me if the pope was making a purely hypothetical statement about a male-prostitute, the response to inquiries regarding whether it applied to female prostitutes would have been, “His Holiness was giving one hypothetical case. There is no need to extrapolate from that case to others.” Instead, the response was that the remarks applied to men, women, and transsexuals.

    • Mick

      I think the hypothetical applies across the board. If someone does something (in this case wearing a condom) with the intention to do good, to avoid causing harm, or to cause less harm to another, whereas before that person had a disregard for the other person, that person has made a step towards a stronger morality.

      Here’s another hypothetical, along a similar vein:

      Suppose a man has a complete disregard for women. He’s a user and an abuser. One day, however, he realizes that he no longer wants to treat women poorly. He wants to make amends for how he treats women, and decides to volunteer for Planned Parenthood. Using Benedict’s logic, even though the man has not made a good or moral decision (in fact, he likely does more harm to women working for PP), this change in behavior may signal a first step in the moral development of the man. Assuming he is acting sincerely and out of empathy for women and a desire to improve their health/wellbeing/whatever, he is quite possibly on the road to developing a well-formed conscience and a more healthy sexuality.

      That said, the Church would certainly never endorse such a choice. It merely recognizes that people are on different stages on the road to Christ, and that in many cases even a bad or ill-advised choice is a step closer to Christ, as long as it is sincere and well-intentioned.

  • Charles Robertson

    This kind of speculation should not have arisen in the first place. The reason it makes no difference whether the pope is talking about a gay or a straight prostitute, or any one at all for that matter, is that the good of starting to act in a more human manner is completely accidental to the act that is done. Indeed, it could be that the use of the condom indicates a more perverse will than non-use does (for instance, to be able to persevere in doing evil without fear of harming oneself). It has nothing to do with the fundamental analysis of the moral act but is entirely circumstantial. Hence there is no need to talk about double-effect, material cooperation, proportionality or the rest.

    • brettsalkeld

      I think this is roughly Father Fessio’s point, yes?

      • Charles Robertson

        I haven’t read Fessio on this. I suppose I should. It seems to me that no one has really clarified what moral questions this comment by the pope raises. It seems to me that it raises no questions at all. What are the relevant questions? I suggest these:

        1. Does contraception introduce a new disorder into an already illicit act of sexual intercourse? Here I would make a distinction: in an act of sodomy, it would not, in heterosexual relations it would: there would be in addition to the improper material object of the act, a frustration of the active power’s teleological order to the good of the species.

        2. Does this analysis imply that the Church should exhort adulterers and fornicators to not use contraception? Not at all. The Church exhorts people to do what is right. She’s not interested in counseling evildoers how to sin efficiently.

        3. Can condom use be an act of virtue? Not at all. The use of the condom is per se related to the act of intercourse and derives from a disordered will with respect to that act. Accidentally, however, it could indicate a beginning of responsibility.

  • Ronald King

    Intent is everything with every act. Intent in the sexual act concerning contraception and protection from harm seem very clear at one point and then very ambiguous at other points.
    The ambiguity concerns NFP and the intent applied to NFP.

    • Charles Robertson

      Intention specifies the will as good or evil. The external act as conceived specifies intention. Intention is everything in the sense that it determines whether our will is rightly ordered or disordered. It is not everything in the sense that it needs to be specified by a prior act of practical reasoning which determines the moral species of the act intended.

  • Late to the conversation, but FWIW:

    It seems to me that the pope’s comments have nothing to do with double effect in the use of barrier method contraception, but rather to do with the sense in which an act which considers the good of the other (where such a consideration had not previous had place) can provide a path to greater moral awakening.

    Thus, in his HIV positive prostitute example — the use of a condom represents some basic consideration of the other as someone worth caring for and protecting, rather than simply as a source of money in return for sexual acts, and thus the use of the condom (for the reason of protecting the other) represents a possibility of growing moral awareness.

    If the same HIV positive prostitute began using condoms for some strictly selfish reason, I don’t think that the use of them in and of itself would be considered morally superior in any clear way.

    I happened to hear NPR’s All Things Considered last night, and they had Fr. Fessio on talking about the book. He used the example of someone who is in the habbit of mugging people by bashing in their heads with a metal pipe, and then one day, seeing the destruction he is causing others, starts using a padded pipe instead which stuns people but causes much less grevious injury. It’s not so much that the new method of mugging people is “good” through some sort of double effect in which the assailant doesn’t intend harm but only robbery, but rather that the mugger has changed his actions out of the beginnings of a concern about the other as a human being who is worthy of being treated better. If the mugger started using a padded pipe simply because he thought he was less likely to be heard by police — it seems to me that he would not be acting in a more moral fashion as a person, though the harm he was inflicting was less grevious.

  • This new reply feature may be helpful to those who only read replies to their own messages, but to those of us who read complete threads, it is a major impediment. It is now impossible to tell if you have read everything in the thread by checking the last message. I say turn it off!

  • Pingback: WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON EDITION | The Pulpit()

  • brettsalkeld

    Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. John Allen:


    I especially like:

    “In practice, that means that if someone were to ask a Catholic priest, “Is it okay to use a condom?” the answer is still supposed to be “No.” Catholic teaching holds that to be fully consistent with God’s plan, sexuality should occur only inside marriage and should be open to new life.

    If the question, however, is, “I’m HIV-positive and will have sex regardless of what the Church thinks, so is it better to use a condom to try to save lives?” the Pope has implied that a pastor might legitimately say “Yes,” while still stressing that condoms ultimately are not, as Benedict says in his interview, a “real or moral solution.”

    In other words, we’re dealing here not with abstract moral teaching, but concrete pastoral application to a specific set of facts.”

    I talked to a professor of mine earlier today who said that double effect or object-intent distinction etc. are less important than this concrete fact: there are cases in which the Church has no official teaching (like how to safely break the moral law) and where a prudential pastoral decision must be made. It is clear to anyone in the world that, if you’re going to (imprudently!) have dangerous sex, using a condom is prudent.

  • If a man is about to rape a woman, and she begs him not to, or at least to use a condom, and he rapes her using a condom, is she guilty of some sin? I would say absolutely not. So if HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment workers say to prostitutes, “If you won’t stop being a prostitute, will you please at least use condoms,” can they be accused of encouraging evil? I don’t see how. When working toward the goal of public health, is it necessary to, on the one hand, convert everyone you come in contact with from a sinner to a saint or, on the other, have nothing whatsoever to do with them? People working at HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment are not missionaries sent to save souls. They are health workers sent to save as many lives as they can. How could it be wrong for them to employ the ABC method — doing their best to convince the people they work with to abstain or be faithful to a partner, but if they won’t, to use condoms.

  • If someone does something (in this case wearing a condom) with the intention to do good, to avoid causing harm, or to cause less harm to another, whereas before that person had a disregard for the other person, that person has made a step towards a stronger morality.


    I think your interpretation needs to be totally rejected. His clear meaning was that for some people, using condoms could be a step in the right direction — a less than adequate step in that direction, but nevertheless a positive step. He was not saying that any act of assuming personal responsibility that a person performs in good faith, no matter how mistaken, is a step in the right direction.

    • Mick

      I’m not sure why you believe my interpretation should be “totally rejected,” because it is clear (or at least a reasonable interpretation) that Benedict is speaking about the decisions made by individuals, and in no way endorses organizations becoming involved in condom distribution.

      Nowhere in the piece does he say that the use of a condom, in and of itself, is a less bad solution. In fact, I would argue that the the statement, “she does not regard it as a real or moral solution” implies that condom use is a false and immoral solution (as in my hypothetical of the PP volunteer), or at best an ineffective and useless solution.

      I understand the compassion behind the desire to use condoms to reduce AIDS. The Church’s stance is a hard teaching to swallow. But giving out condoms is simply incompatible with Catholic teaching. The Church is not and should not be in the business of peddling “safe sin.”

      It is a well-established Christian principle that God works through each of us differently. In Salt of the Earth, when asked how many ways there are to God, his response is, “As many as there are people.” This is entirely consistent with what he is saying now. Each of us has a different path, and a different way of looking at things. The example of the male prostitute is an extremely generous and merciful portrait of a person living a seriously sinful life.

      Benedict’s statement is radical. But it has nothing to do with condoms. It has everything to do with God’s mercy and how he can open the door to salvation even when it may seem that we are very far from him.

  • jake G

    ‘A Sinner’ and ‘Dave B’ best speak to the matter.

    Pattering on about double-effect is over-intellectualizing that misses the original point. It is like a car thief driving the vehicle 100 miles an hour through town and waging your finger at him to use his turn signals.

    If the sexual act is already illicit (outside marriage, prostitution, affairs, et al) and therefore of potentially disastrous consequence (disease, unprovided for children, etc.) then debating about the ‘sin’ of using contraception is unimportant if not moot. Are you going to tell two teenagers headstrong for fooling around not to use contraceptives, as it might somehow compound the wrongness? You use common sense and mitigate the consequences.

    The Pope is essentially testing the waters on what some even relatively conservative pastoral priests have been saying semi-privately over the years on the HIV problem.

    • brettsalkeld

      I must be blogged out. I can’t find this Dave B you speak of.

      In any case, I am feeling that I went down the garden path a little with the double effect business. It wasn’t necessary to make my point which is, essentially, that the Pope said something we all already knew, or should have.

  • The question the pope was asked was, “Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?” Did the pope:

    A. Answer in the affirmative (“Yes, you got my drift. The Church is not opposed in principle.”)

    B. Answer in the negative (“No, don’t put words in my mouth. The Church is opposed in principle.”)

    C. Not really answer the question

  • Ronald King


  • Joshua Brockway

    And the Ultramontanists responds….Sounds like cafeteria catholics come in all stripes.

    “Germain Grisez, a prominent moral theologian who advises bishops, said that promoting condoms as protection against disease would be “pernicious” because it assumes a person does not have the capacity to make good, moral choices. He lamented that the pope’s comments “can be – and are being – misused to sow doubt about Catholic teaching.”

    “‘Many of Jesus’ own sayings were misused, and he no doubt foresaw that they would be misused. But he nevertheless said what he thought would lead to salvation those who were open to his teaching,’ Grisez wrote in an e-mail. ‘I assume that Pope Benedict’s intention in speaking out as he does is similar to Jesus’ intention. But Benedict’s judgment about what to say may not be as sound as Jesus’ judgment was.'”


  • brettsalkeld

    “Cafeteria Catholics come in all stripes” might be a good motto for Vox Nova.

    However likely it is to be misinterpreted and misapplied 😉

  • Contraception is irrelevant here; nothing in what the Pope said makes contraception OK in his eyes. He is only referring to the use of the condom as a prophylactic against disease.

    A problem for this is that it involves the thwarting of the semen’s progress to the vas debitum — something priests of Ratzinger’s generation see as intrinisically evil — so he can only justify condom use as the lesser evil. And even this strains the fabric of traditional Catholic sexual ethics, where the evil of sex outside the one context in which it is approved is always “grave matter”. He picked the male prostitute case, since the evil of the semen going astray is already occurring and the use of a condom does not compound it in this case.

    The confusion surrounding his remarks is not accidental, but comes from the remarks themselves and the thinking behind them.

  • Brian Killian

    This is definitely the principle of the lesser evil at work here.

  • Dan

    I see no reason this is such big news. If we all put our theological bias away for one second, the matter is simply a matter of common sense: If you’re not going to listen to the Church anyway, and continue to damage yourself by your behavior, at least try and limit the damage you’re going to do to other people. Hopefully, in doing so, you’ll start thinking about how your actions are harmful and may start taking the first steps necessary to fix your behavior.

    Not rocket science.

    • brettsalkeld


      I think the real news here is that we can no longer be accused of lacking this common sense. As far as I can tell, our credibility is increased, not decreased, by this.

      • Brett,

        But hasn’t it been common sense all along, from a public health standpoint, to follow the strategy the experts have come to endorse: the ABC policy? Urge Abstaining and Being faithful first and foremost, but for those who will not follow that advice, urge the use of Condoms. But would anyone want to bet that Catholic HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention organizations are going to start taking this approach? Who would be willing to bet money on this?

        If common sense is confined to a hypothetical example about male, female, and transsexual prostitutes and doesn’t translate into real-world practice in HIV/AIDS prevention, then I would say the image of the Catholic Church will be further damaged.

        • brettsalkeld

          In as much as people thought our position on condoms implied not simply that people shouldn’t engage in risky sexual behavior but that those who do so should do it without condoms, we have clarified that we do not believe such nonsense.

          In as much as we find it counterproductive to tell people that condoms can be (even part of) a genuine solution, we will not be media darlings.

  • We may not believe in such nonsense, but the papal speechwriter who is now Cardinal Archbishop of Bologna publicly proclaimed such nonsense, unreproved, whereas those who took the point of view of common sense, such as the US bishops, were reproved.