Ethicist: Pope intended condom use/AIDS reflection

Fr. Rhonheimer's final response»

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Fr. Rhonheimer's first response»

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Original interview with Fr. Rhonheimer

Opus Dei Fr. Martin Rhonheimer

Pope Benedict XVI knew he’d ignite a firestorm, even among Catholics, when he said in his new book, “Light of the World,” that use of a condom by a male prostitute could be seen as “a first assumption of responsibility” of growth in the moral life, according to a priest who has consulted for the Vatican’s doctrinal congregation. 

Opus Dei Father Martin Rhonheimer, professor of ethics and political philosophy at the Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, said Catholic thought has tended toward extremes: Condoms either are intrinsically evil — to be avoided at all costs — or a “lesser evil” — and almost morally obligatory — in the fight against AIDS. 

In some aspects, the pope’s new formulation of the question is similar to a 2004 article Father Rhonheimer published in the British Catholic newspaper, The Tablet, and for which he was heavily criticized by some moral theologians faithful to Church teaching. The priest said he sent the article for review to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — headed by the future Pope Benedict — “and was subsequently informed that they had no problem with it.” He has since treated some aspects of the topic at greater length in his books “Ethics of Procreation and the Defense of Human Life: Contraception, Artificial Fertilization, and Abortion” (CUA Press, $39.95), and “The Perspective of Morality. Philosophical Foundations of Thomistic Virtue Ethics” (CUA Press, $39.95). 

This is an early December email interview with Father Rhonheimer.

Our Sunday Visitor: You did some informal consulting work for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith while Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, was prefect. In that same period, you published a piece in The Tablet (of London) called “The Truth about Condoms,” which produced a furor in some circles but is consistent with what Benedict says in “Light of the World.” Have you ever discussed this issue with him? Do you know if he was supportive of your Tablet piece? 

Father Martin Rhonheimer: After publishing that article in July 2004 and becoming aware that, unexpectedly for me, it was being heavily criticized by some moral theologians faithful to the Magisterium, I sent the article to the CDF, and was subsequently informed that they had no problem with it. I suppose that Cardinal Ratzinger came to know that article. I don’t recall ever having discussed the topic with him. I assume, however, that the Holy Father was informed about my views, and know that the CDF certainly followed the subsequent debate in scholarly journals. I don’t know, therefore, whether the then Cardinal Ratzinger was supportive of what I wrote in the Tablet article. 

What he said as pope in “Light of the World” is more restricted than what I proposed in that article, even though in one essential point I recognize something very similar to what I wrote there, namely his view that disease prevention or “prophylactic” condom use by people engaged in high-risk and morally disordered sexual activity could be a “first step in the direction of a moralization” and “a first assumption of responsibility.” 

I feel very much relieved by what Pope Benedict said in this regard because my 2004 article was strongly criticized by a number of faithful Catholics who saw what I wrote as a betrayal of Catholic moral doctrine. In the article I wrote that prostitutes, homosexuals or promiscuous persons who use a condom when having sex at least show a sense of responsibility. I wrote further that, as a priest, I would not tell them not to use condoms, but would instead “help them to live an upright and well-ordered sexual life” by encouraging them to completely abandon their life style. 

Because he rejects the moral theory that one can do evil for the sake of good, the Holy Father does not suggest that using a condom is a lesser evil which one might choose in order to achieve a greater good. Nor does he provide a general justification for using condoms to prevent transmission of disease. He simply says that, by using a condom, these people engaged in immoral behavior at least show some concern about the grave consequences of their acts, and this makes their behavior, while still intrinsically evil, less evil. But, the Holy Father adds, this is not a real moral solution even though for such persons it may be simply a first step towards living sexuality in a more human way. 

OSV: Has your position on this developed or changed in any way since the 2004 Tablet piece? 

Father Rhonheimer: My position has not changed, but has developed in a sense. To explain this I have to go back to what was really at stake when I wrote that article. 

I wrote the article in order to correct what I saw as two erroneous views expressed by senior Catholics in response to two British television documentaries which attacked the Church’s approach to tackling AIDS in the developing world. Some bishops and cardinals claimed that the use of a condom to prevent AIDS was a “lesser evil” or even a moral duty; some moral theologians rejected that view, arguing that condoms were intrinsically evil and their use could never be justified even where the purpose was prophylactic. 

Both of these views seemed to me to misrepresent the truth. In my article “The Truth about Condoms” I therefore tried to show that nothing of the sort follows from Church teaching on contraception, especially not from the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae. The reason is that this encyclical clearly declares as immoral not determinate “things” — e.g. condoms — but certain kinds of bodily behaviors embodying a contraceptive choice. A contraceptive choice is a will or intent to impede the procreative consequences of marital acts. Humanae Vitae opposes to such behavior the alternative of responsible parenthood, which essentially includes the willingness to modify one’s bodily behavior by acts of abstinence during fertile periods in order to responsibly regulate births, if there are justified reasons to do so. In this way, both the love-expressing, unitive, and the procreative (parental) meanings of human sexuality are safeguarded so that the “language of the body” expresses both loving union and responsibility for the task of transmitting life. 

Conversely, the contraceptive choice seeks to prevent one’s freely chosen sexual acts from having procreative consequences; it is rooted in a refusal to responsibly modify one’s sexual behavior by refraining from intercourse, which of course demands self-control and sacrifice, and actually embodies procreative responsibility in one’s sexual behavior. This latter is an exercise in the virtue of temperance to which chastity belongs. Contraception is thus essentially directed against marital chastity understood as the embodiment of procreative responsibility in concrete sexual behavior. 

Obviously this is a doctrine about marital love and its expression in sexual acts. From this doctrine nothing directly follows in relation to prophylactic condom use, and specifically in the context of morally disordered sexual behavior such as prostitution which is intrinsically disordered sexual activity. 

This is why the questions of contraception and of preventing the transmission of disease (prophylaxis) are morally different ones. If a married couple contracepts — perhaps by using a condom in order to have sex without children — they do something essentially different as an act susceptible of moral evaluation from a person who uses a condom while having sex with a prostitute to prevent infection. From the Church’s declaration in Humanae Vitae that the first kind of sexual behavior is intrinsically evil, no moral norm is implied for the second case. Conversely, because the prophylactic use of condoms by prostitutes is considered a sign of responsibility, it cannot be deduced that contraception as described by Humanae Vitae is anything other than intrinsically disordered. 

In my 2004 article I also incidentally mentioned the case of a married couple in which the HIV-positive husband uses a condom to prevent infecting the other spouse. I said that this is not contraception in the way Humanae Vitae described the contraceptive choice. If conception were thereby prevented, it would be beside their intention, and thus not shape their act as an act of contraception. Yet from this I did not conclude that prophylactic use of condoms for married people was morally permitted or advisable. On the contrary, I wrote that for “pastoral and prudential reasons” it should be advised against. If I wrote this article today, I would perhaps not talk only about “pastoral and prudential reasons”, because for married people there is always something also morally defective — lacking perfection — in prophylactic condom use. 

Secondly, when I wrote that short article to uphold Church teaching against distortions of it, I did not sufficiently take into account a problem which was emphasized by my subsequent critics. Relying on an old tradition in moral theology that is also reflected in canon law, it was argued that sexual intercourse with a condom by impeding insemination would not meet the physical requirements of a marital act. Because insemination was interrupted, according to this understanding, the act of intercourse was therefore not an act of a generative kind but instead something intrinsically perverted, more like an act of masturbation, sodomy or even bestiality than conjugal love. Although there would be no act chosen explicitly for the purpose of rendering infertile a conjugal act, the use of the condom to prevent the transmission of HIV would be intrinsically evil, annulling the properly marital meaning of sexual intercourse. 

There was some scholarly exchange about this, mainly in the National Catholic Bioethical Quarterly. To this day, I am not sure whether this argument is really compelling and I decided not to insist further on my point but to await a possible clarification by church authorities. 

It is important to note that what Pope Benedict said in “Light of the World” does not touch upon, let alone settle, that issue. It remains an open question and a matter of debate. What seems to me to be clear after the Holy Father’s statement on condoms is that the question of prophylactic condom use and the moral question of contraception, as a doctrine about marital love, are to be distinguished. To use a condom for prophylactic reasons is not contraception; if it intrinsically deprives marital acts of their procreative meaning, this is not because it embodies a contraceptive choice. If a condom is used by people engaging in intrinsically immoral behavior, such as prostitutes, it might even be, as the pope has now asserted, a first assumption of responsibility and a step towards humanization of sexuality. To see things in this differentiated way, I think, is an important clarification, which is useful in defending the Church’s badly understood doctrine about marital sexuality and contraception against the charge that it leads to the death of those involved in immoral kinds of sexual behavior. 

OSV: Some Catholic commentators are calling the pope’s remarks a “sea change”; others say absolutely nothing has changed. Which position is right? 

Father Rhonheimer: Neither. Let me begin with the second one: “Nothing has changed.” This is not true. Pope Benedict, after what I assume careful consideration, has made a public statement that has changed the discourse on these issues, both inside and outside the Church. For the first time it has been said by the pope himself, though not in a formal teaching act of the Church’s Magisterium, that the Church does not unconditionally “prohibit” prophylactic use of condoms. On the contrary, the Holy Father has said that in certain cases (in the sex business, for example), their use can be a sign of or first step toward responsibility (at the same time making it clear that this is neither a solution for overcoming the AIDS epidemic nor a moral solution; the only moral solution is abandoning a morally disordered life-style, and living sexuality in a really humanized way). This topic raises many emotions on both sides, which is why I hope Benedict’s step might change the way we discuss these matters, in a less tense and more open way. 

But the second claim, that what the pope said is a “sea change,” is equally not accurate. 

First, it in no way changes Church doctrine on contraception; what he said rather confirms this doctrine as taught by Humanae Vitae. 

Second, his statement does not declare condom use to be morally unproblematic or generally permitted, even for prophylactic purposes. Pope Benedict speaks about begründete Einzelfälle, which translated literally means “justified single cases” — like the case of a prostitute — in which the use of a condom “can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.” 

What is “justified” is not the use of the condom as such — not, at least, in the sense of a “moral justification” from which follows a permissive norm such as “it is morally permitted and good to use condoms in such and such a case.” What is justified, rather, is the judgment that this can be considered to be a “first step” and “a first assumption of responsibility.” Benedict certainly did not want to establish a moral norm justifying exceptions. 

Third, what Pope Benedict says does not refer to married people: He spoke only about situations which are in themselves intrinsically disordered. 

Fourth, as he makes very clear, the pope does not advocate the distribution of condoms, which he believes leads to the “banalization” of sexuality which is the primary cause of the spread of AIDS. He simply mentions the ABC method, insisting on the importance of A and B (“abstain” and “be faithful”), calling the C (“condoms”) a last resort (in German, Ausweichpunkt) in the event that some persons refuse to follow A or B. 

And, most importantly, he declares this last resort to belong properly to the secular sphere, that is, to government programs for combating AIDS. What the pope said, therefore, does not address how Church-run health institutions should handle condoms. He gave an assessment of what to think about a prostitute who habitually uses condoms, not about those who systematically distribute them in order to contain the epidemic, which is the responsibility of state authorities. For its part, the Church will continue to present the truth about the truly human exercise of sexuality.

OSV: In his remarks, Pope Benedict does not call the use of condoms by HIV-infected people a “lesser evil,” but that is how some Catholic theologians and leaders are explaining what he said. Are condoms in some cases a “lesser evil”?

Father Rhonheimer: Describing the use of condoms to prevent infection as a lesser evil is very ambiguous and may lead to confusion. Of course, we could say that when a prostitute uses a condom, this lessens the evil of prostitution or sex tourism, given that it lessens the risk of transmitting the HIV virus into wider sectors of the population. But this does not mean that it is good to choose evil acts to achieve a good end.  

Take the case of blackmail in a kidnapping: One may not choose, for example, to kill a hostage in order to save, say, the nine other hostages. Or consider the case of the French Nazi collaborator Jean Touvier. Even though he claimed to have saved the lives of 93 Jews, he in reality murdered seven in order to achieve the good of saving 93. By killing seven Jews to prevent the Nazis from killing 100, Touvier did not licitly choose, and perform, a “lesser evil” in order to avoid a greater one. His choice of killing seven remains morally evil and in 1994 he was convicted for life for crime against humanity. 

The doctrine of lesser evil is reasonably applied, however, in cases of toleration: One may tolerate — not choose or do — a lesser evil to achieve or preserve a good or avoid a greater evil. In this way civil laws tolerate many evils in order not to cause greater evils such as public disorder or the suppression of civil liberties. 

The central moral question is what we really choose, when we are acting; that is, what our will is engaged in when doing this or that. We must never choose an action which in itself — technically speaking: by its moral object — is evil. We must not do this even to avoid a greater evil. It would be tantamount to justifying the maxim “the end justifies the means,” doing evil that good may come of it. Some Catholic moral theologians hold that we may choose to cause evil provided there is a proportionate reason (the avoidance of a greater evil or the achievement of a great good), a doctrine known as “proportionalism”; but this doctrine has been rightly rejected by the Church’s Magisterium in John Paul II’s encyclical Veritatis Splendor. Thus, insofar as the doctrine of the “lesser evil” means something like proportionalism, it is clearly to be rejected as a licit interpretation of the pope’s mind. 

Granted that immoral sexual behavior should be avoided altogether, in my view the point rightly made by the Holy Father is that when someone who is already performing immoral acts uses a condom, he or she does not properly choose a lesser evil, but simply tries to prevent an evil — the evil of infection. From the sinner’s point of view this obviously means to choose some good: health. Yet, provided we consider the immoral activities (for example, prostitution) to be intrinsically evil, using a condom to prevent infection means to reduce the evilness and moral disorder of this activity. 

OSV: If the pope says condom use in some cases can be a sign of moral awakening, isn’t he saying that the use of contraception is sometimes acceptable? Or that the use of contraception is preferable to the transmission of HIV? 

Father Rhonheimer: A condom is designed to be a means for impeding male fluids from penetrating into the woman’s womb. Its normal use is for contraception. In the case the pope speaks of, however, the reason for their use is not the impeding of conception, but preventing infection. We should not confuse human acts, which may be intrinsically good or intrinsically evil, with “things.” It’s not the condom as such, but its use, which presents the moral problem. Therefore, what the pope says does not even refer to the question of contraception. 

Admittedly, some moral theologians contend that since — except in the case of sterile sexual partners — the effect of condoms is always physically contraceptive and for this very reason intrinsically evil, those who use them necessarily commit the sin of contraception, even if they don’t use them for that purpose. This is why they argue that their use will make an already immoral act even worse. What Pope Benedict now has said — and provided he did not want it to be restricted to only male homosexual prostitution in which the question of contraception obviously is not an issue — decisively weakens this argument; it is, after all, inconsistent with what the pope says in his interview.. 

I think the only way to escape from the bizarre impasse which such arguments lead to — the claim, for example, that also from a moral point of view it would be better for a prostitute to be infected than use a condom — is to be clear that condoms, considered as such, are not “intrinsically contraceptive” in the sense of a moral judgment. It’s their use, and the intent involved in this use, which determines whether using a condom amounts to an act of contraception. 

This is why what the pope says in no way implies that contraception is acceptable to prevent infection. I think this concords with a statement issued Nov. 29 by the Kenya Episcopal Conference which, after stating “that the position of the Catholic Church as regards the use of condoms, both as a means of contraception and as a means of addressing the grave issue of HIV/AIDS infection has not changed,” and that such a use “remains as always unacceptable,” adds in point 6: “It is important to explain that the morality of human actions always depends on the intentions of the person. It is the way we use things that make the action evil or good. The use of condoms is unacceptable because it is often an external manifestation of the wrong intention of the action, and a distorted view of sexuality.” Even though this formulation might need some qualification to be clearly understood, it certainly supports my point. 

OSV: If the question is intent in the use of condoms, couldn’t there be other applications, too, beyond preventing transmission of HIV? How about preventing the spread of herpes, or other sexually transmitted diseases? Or a genetic disorder like Tay Sachs? Or simply preventing the burdens associated with pregnancy that might occur between sexually promiscuous people? Where’s the line? 

Father Rhonheimer: The word “intent” or “intention” is tricky. It sometimes refers to the further intention with which, or the goal for which, we perform an action which in itself, by its moral object, is already defined as a morally good or evil action. So we can do good acts (e.g. giving alms) with evil intentions (seeking the approval of men), or evil acts (adultery) with a good intention (trying to get information crucial for state security). A bad intention converts good acts into bad ones; a good intention, however, does not convert evil actions into good ones. 

Now, the question of intent, as I see it, in the case of condoms is not intention in this sense of intention beyond the object of the act. It is not the further intention with which we perform an act already specified as good or evil. Concretely, it is not the (further) intention of preventing infection which renders an otherwise evil act (using condoms or contraception) into an acceptable one. In fact, the “condom” is not an act, but a thing. The question is: what is someone really doing when he uses a condom? What kind of moral act is he performing? Or expressed in a more technical way: what is the moral object of what he is doing? To know this, we must look at the basic intention without which we cannot understand what someone morally does. If we don’t know what the purpose is in using the “thing” — the condom — in a sexual act of prostitution, we cannot know what kind of moral act is performed here; that is, we cannot know what the moral object of that act is. This is why using a condom for preventing infection and using a condom for contraception are two different kinds of moral acts. (This has nothing to do with the principle of double effect, sometimes invoked in this context; but I need not enter into this here.) 

Therefore it is not a question of simply shifting intentions (the further intention) with which we are doing this or that. In this way nearly any action could be justified. One can always find a good intention for justifying the doing of evil things. What I think is that using a condom as such is not yet sufficiently described as a moral act; we need to know why it is used in order to understand what kind of moral act its use actually entails. 

Coming back to your question (and remembering we are continuing to refer to morally disordered sexual activity such as prostitution): It would also seem to be a sign of responsibility and care for others if the prostitute, for example, insisted on the use of condoms to prevent infection with other sexually transmitted diseases. It would also lessen the evil of other morally disordered sexual acts. I should make clear, however, that the prevention of transmitting a genetic disorder does not refer to the sexual partner, but aims at preventing the conception of a baby which has this genetic disorder. Here the condom would be used with a clearly contraceptive intent. 

These kinds of special questions are outside the scope of what the pope wanted to say and we should not try to extend his remarks to very different cases which are the subject of many expert books. And in so far as these questions refer to sexual acts within marriage, the problems are again of a different order. 

However, I wish to add something to your example of promiscuous people: Notice again that Church doctrine on contraception is a teaching about marriage and marital love. Sexual promiscuity and fornication are of course deplorable and their grave evil is not removed by preventing the risk of pregnancy. The case is thus different from preventing one’s partner being infected by a deadly disease. On the other hand, I consider that a man who at least cares that his occasional female sexual partner not become pregnant acts more responsibly — or less irresponsibly — than a man who does not care about possibly destroying a girl’s entire life; I am thinking of the man who prefers to maximize his pleasure and thus insists on having sex without using condoms. To apply the Church’s teaching on contraception, which is a teaching about marital love, to such cases, in my view leads to counterintuitive conclusions. 

I wish to repeat that the pope did not address the question of prophylactic use of condoms in marriage. And I don’t believe that his remarks offer a concrete answer to that question. The distinction between prophylactic and contraceptive condom use, and the fact that the pope’s assertion seems to imply that what makes the difference is not the use of the condom as such, but the context in which and the purpose for which it is used, could open a way to a solution of this question. The counterargument is that, by impeding insemination into the woman’s womb, condomized sex is in any case not a marital act and thus intrinsically evil. The question is under study and I have no problems accepting whatever solution the Church proposes. 

In any case, I have always maintained there will be always good reasons for pastors to advise spouses against using condoms. In practice it is hard for an intention to prevent infection not to fuse with other, morally disordered intentions, such as the properly contraceptive intent of preventing the conception of an infected baby. For this reason, spouses should in any case abstain from intercourse, at least in knowingly fertile periods (this doesn’t apply to sterile spouses, of course). Secondly, I think complete abstinence would be the morally better choice, not only for prudential reasons (condoms are not entirely effective in preventing virus transmission, even when used consistently and correctly), but also because it better corresponds to moral perfection — to a virtuous life — to abstain completely from dangerous acts, than to prevent their danger by using a device that helps to circumvent the need for sacrifice. Christian spouses should be exemplary in always choosing the path of perfect virtue.

Pastors must be very sensitive, however, to the fact that there might be significant relational strains in a marriage concerning these questions, in which there may be disagreement over abstinence, say, or the possibility of violence. 

These are hard cases. Bishop Klaus Küng of St. Pölten, Austria, a trained gynecologist who is in charge of family issues in the Austrian Bishops’ Conference, said in a recent interview: “If for instance a husband who has AIDS refuses to be reasonable and if it looks as though he would use force if refused, then his wife would be justified in demanding that he use a condom as that would lessen the danger of infection. In my view, that would not contradict Humanae Vitae. The purpose of using a condom in such a case is not contraception but protection from disease.” 

Thinking of similar hard cases, I wrote in 2004 in a letter to The Tablet that “Personally I would never encourage a couple to use a condom, but to abstain. If they disagree, I would not think their intercourse to be an intrinsically sinful act or even a sin ‘against nature’ equal to sodomy, as some moral theologians say.” 

OSV: One can presume that the pope was aware of the confusion how words would occasion among Catholics. Without asking you to speculate unduly about his intentions, what good can come out of this? 

Father Rhonheimer: It is obvious that the Holy Father wanted to bring this into the open. He certainly foresaw the uproar, misunderstandings, confusion and even scandal which it could cause. And I believe he considered it to be necessary, despite all these reactions, to talk about this, in the same spirit of openness and transparency with which, from his time as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, he dealt with clerical sex abuse cases. I think that Benedict trusts in the force of reason, that things will become clearer over time. He has changed the public discourse on these issues and has prepared the ground for a more vigorous and appropriate understanding and defense of the Church’s teaching about contraception, as part of a doctrine of marital love and the true meaning of human sexuality. as it is contained in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. 

As I wrote in my “Ethics of Procreation and the Defense of Human Life,” the real menace is a culture of separating sexuality and procreation — manifesting itself not only in a culture of contraception (sex without procreation), but also in vitro fertilization (procreation without sex) and the resulting problems, along with the justification of any form of hetero- or homosexual activity. This I think is the real challenge, and in order to meet it we have to deepen the significance of the Church teaching on marital love and contraception. 

The present confusion has not been caused simply by the pope’s words. What Benedict XVI’s remarks on condoms have brought to light is a general confusion already existing on all sides. Personally I am very grateful to the Holy Father that he had the courage to break the ice. I hope things will become clearer in the near future by some further statements of Church authorities or official clarifications — which does not mean, incidentally, that I expect to be confirmed in all my views. If what I have written contributes to help making things clearer, I will feel entirely recompensed for my efforts, even if it should turn out that I was wrong in certain points. In the meantime we should discuss these matters in a spirit of communion and mutual respect because all sides desire to serve the Church and to help all men and women living on this earth to encounter happiness, not only perfect beatitude in the next world but also authentic happiness and inner peace in this earthly life to the extent that we live according to God’s will. 

John Norton is OSV editor.

Read Janet Smith's response to Father Rhonheimer»