Pope says some condom use can be justified

From the NY Times:

Pope Benedict XVI has said that condom use can be justified in some cases to help stop the spread of AIDS, the first Vatican exception to a long-held policy condemning condom use. …

The pope made clear that he considered the use of condoms a last resort and not a way to prevent conception. The example he gave of when they could be used was in the case of male prostitutes.

This news deserves a partial sigh of relief.  The Catholic church’s ban on all contraception has caused great harm, especially with its stand  against condom use in AIDS-infected developing countries.  And remember, the last pope claimed that condom use increased the spread of AIDS.

There’s a crucial question and I’m not entirely sure of the answer.  What about those who used condoms in the past, but whose use can now be seen to be justified?  Did they still commit a mortal sin by using condoms and are they in danger of eternal damnation?  Or is the fact that the act can now be justified tell us that it may have been justified in the past.  Others may well be able to answer this better, but I think in cases like this, where ‘natural law’ is considered operating, what is now justified was justifiable in the past, given of course that there are no relevant differences.  It’s quite different with the Church’s laws.  It used to be a sin to eat meat on Friday; the fact that the law was changed does not effect the sinfulness of the past actions.

Of course, female priests will remain an abomination.  A connection with this view and the pope’s example of male prostitutes signals the problem:  with an all-male priesthood, women’s problems have a greatly diminished visibility.  Still, it’s nice that he clarified the case of male prostitution; would he had done the same for, for example, mothers with children who are rightly afraid of AID or other serious diseases because of their partner’s behavior.  It is unfortunately the case that it might be decided the use is justified to prevent one’s infecting others without being justified to prevent one’s getting infected.

18 thoughts on “Pope says some condom use can be justified

  1. Sounds like a Catholic can now reason, ‘It is only those who have lots of sex partners who are entitled to wear a condom. Therefore, in order that I am entitled to wear a condom, I will have lots sex partners.’ ;-)

  2. The full quotation from the interview, with some discussion by Janet Smith, is here:


    Just judging from the quotation, and setting aside for the moment Smith’s interpretation, it does seem that the NYT is stating things a bit strongly when it says that he is claiming that it is justified, as opposed to the weaker claim that there are circumstances where, if used with a moral intent, using a condom can be an improvement over not using it.

  3. the key element here is that male prostitutes would not (obviously) be using condoms to prevent conception. there is much to be bemoaned and not much to be cheered in this statement. first: i’m willing to bet that male prostitutes are a small (though by no means insignificant) minority among those who can contract and spread AIDS.

    second: male prostitutes are people who sell sex. by bizarrely acknowledging this narrow group the pope would be acknowledging the reality of gay sex without acknowledging the reality of gay love. if he had said “males engaged in same-sex intercourse” he would still not have broken the taboo of procreation-preventing condoms, but would have gone farther into acknowledging that men have sex with each other, not only as a “vice” (prostitution), but also because they like and love each other. so, in a way, the pope’s choice of population both legitimizes (by acknowledging) gay sex and de-legitimizes it.

    third: how about women prostitutes? i’m going to go out on a limb and say that there are more women than men prostitutes. female prostitution is a major factor in the spreading of AIDS in developing countries. female prostitutes, also, can infect their fetuses. but nope, it’s male prostitutes the pope focuses on as being worthy of being spared by HIV by the use of condoms. of course, female prostitution –> heterosexual sex –> possible conception. if what the nyt reports is true, the pope would be willing to sacrifice endless lives to the specter of the possible procreation of babies conceived by prostitutes and their johns. i find it, well, not only sexist but almost gynocidal.

    fourth: is it me or there is something prurient about this choice of population? i mean, seriously, male prostitutes? really? why on earth should the pope single out male prostitutes? what put male prostitutes in his mind in the first place? might it be an attempt to counteract the church’s inadequate response to the pedophiliac priests crisis? is the pope trying to sound hip? is the pope thinking of sinful sexual behavior in which men are typically engaged because the problem of pedophiliac priests is so present to his mind?

    fifth: why has this segment of the pope’s upcoming book been leaked to the press? isn’t this also prurient? is the vatican dangling juicy morsels in front of us to increase sales?

    the book is of course not out. these questions, however, bear thinking about. when the book comes out, i’ll check it out. i hope to find out that i am all wrong.

  4. Thanks for the link, Jender. I do think Pimlico’s second paragraph above adds importantly to the kind of point Sullivan is making, or at least makes explicit some of the issues.

  5. You’re giving attention to an overseas office/state by publicizing its goings on to people whose do not cede control over their own lives to it.

    The concepts described above apply in their own context alone. Without providing an explanation of how the concepts mentioned – including sin and mortal sin – are derived within that context, I am unable to understand the purpose of publicizing this New York Times story.

  6. I really am mystified by all this. By saying condom use by male prostitutes might be justified, the Pope implies there is something immoral about the use of condoms quite apart from their use as contraceptives. They’re just bits of rubber; why would anyone, even the Pope, have thought it was immoral to use them in a medical non-contraceptive role? Should we await further Papal clarification on whether it might be justified to use them as balloons?

  7. I find it thoroughly bizarre that everyone falls immediately into the old stereotype in which the only people who become male prostitutes are exclusively homosexual in orientation. This is manifestly not true; male prostitutes are found along the entire spectrum of sexuality.

    It’s worth pointing out that the book is an interview that was originally done in German, not English, (there is some confusion, for instance, as to whether Benedict actually used the masculine or the feminine form of the word for ‘prostitute’ here, since the English translations are reporting it as masculine and the Italian as feminine), that he was responding to a question that specifically mentioned high-risk populations, and that the prostitute trying to be responsible was clearly given only as an example.

  8. Brandon, I don’t know if anyone had this in mind when going from male sex workers to gay relationships, but since according to Catholic thought the sun is not the orientation but the actual sexual acts, it seems related to me in figuring out what the Pope thinks, assuming that we’re talking about male sex workers with primarily male clients. I don’t know if this is true, but I remember reading, regardless of sexual orientation that this is the majority of male sex work.

    Simon, I actually think so long as the Vatican endorses natural family planning (which according to them, when used correctly is as effective as other forms of contraceptives) they have to be committed to the idea that there is something morally wrong with condoms outside of their ability to prevent conception. What this could be though- I have no idea.

  9. Thanks for the link, though I think the comments still disagree – one person is asserting that the pope also added a word for “male.”

    Meanwhile, I’ve discovered there is a fairly brisk business in male escorts, and some married couples use a gay prostitute for some added excitement. So a male prostitute might well be in a position, so to speak, to impregnant someone.

    Following on Kathryn’s remark, I don’t see why the law of double effect couldn’t apply here; that is, it is alright to use a condom if one intends only not to spread infection. Perhaps indeed it does, though it is incredibly sloppy, surely, for the various popes not to have seen this. It does make one wonder whether the fact that women might need protecting in some way just is foreign to the way these guys think.

  10. SeanH, thanks, that’s useful; although I only mentioned it as an example of why one must take into account the fact that it is a translation.

    I do think there is a possible critical argument against the position given in the interview, based on one of the points made by pimlico and suggested by JJ’s last sentence. But I also find it very ironic that the passage on condoms so widely reported by the media occurs at the end of a complaint by the pope that the media is fixated on condoms to the exclusion of almost everything else relevant to sexuality.

  11. in response to simon’s excellent point, i would like to point out, in fairness, that the pope was explicitly asked about condoms in connection to sex. he wasn’t asked what he thought of the fact of condoms as objects in the world. i have a feeling the pope would prefer real balloons to condom-made balloons, but i’d not be surprised if, in a pinch, he’d resort to condoms to make balloons, finger puppets, or water gourds, whatever the case may be. in fact, that he mentioned condoms in connection to male prostitutes seems to me entirely consistent with the church’s view on contraceptives.

  12. This may seem like hair-splitting; but that’s what ethics is all about…Moral theology is a minefield of homo[i]ousios scenarios.

  13. Logically sex must be the means by which original sin has been transmitted though the generations since Adam and Eve. (It must be so since the only sin-free person born on earth, Jesus, is like us in all respects except for the fact that he was conceived in a virgin without sexual intercourse.

    God did, however, require sex for the regular propagation of the human race, and this can be the the only justification to engage in sexual intercourse, otherwise it is just sin without any justification. This is the reason why no form of contraception is allowable and why abortion is forbidden, not really as the taking of a life, but because it is a way of escaping the only justification for sexual intercourse.

    If the situation is male homosexual sex, then there is no possibility of conception and so possible redemption anyway, so adding a condom cannot make it any worse, and at least reduces the harm of infection.

    However using a condom in heterosexual sex cannot be justified merely as a way of avoiding infection because it makes the sex act sinful in itself which can’t be redeemed merely by removing the threat of a fatal disease.

    See, it makes perfect sense!

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