“The body is . . . an anamnetic expression of good as form or, we could also say, of beauty, disclosing the vocation of human nature itself.”
Benedict XVI’s comments regarding the question of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in his 2010 book-length interview1 with journalist Peter Seewald generated an initial firestorm of commentary. As a general matter, the immediate response from both the secular and much of the Catholic press read the statement as signaling a “change in Church teaching.” Within the ranks of Catholic theologians, philosophers, and ethicists, however, the comments—which occupy only a brief passage of the book—raised some important questions. A year later, now that emotions have perhaps quieted, it seems like a good time to offer some brief reflections. My purpose here is a limited one: merely to lay out the larger principles involved in and driving the controversy and to offer a brief and tentative interpretation of Benedict’s comments.
Perhaps it is best to begin by recalling the text at issue. Responding to a question regarding the reaction following his earlier comments on condoms and HIV/AIDS en route to Africa, Benedict stated in pertinent part as follows:
[T]he sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.
There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.
At this point, Seewald asks whether this means that “the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms,” to which the pope replies:
She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.
Now, clearly, the pope’s central point is that the main problem lying behind the HIV/AIDS pandemic is what he calls the “banalization of sexuality” and the failure to see sexuality as an “expression of love.” Since condoms are both a cause and symptom of this banalization, they can never be considered a genuine solution to the problem of HIV/AIDS, as seems to be supposed by the news media, large numbers of activist and professional groups, and various governmental and nongovernmental organizations. So, Benedict’s overall message is certainly a reaffirmation of what has been widely understood to be the Church’s teaching.
Nevertheless, potential ambiguity remains. The Church has never taken an explicit position on whether it may be morally acceptable, under certain circumstances, to use a condom for the purpose of disease prevention, so long as the intention is not contraceptive. Might Benedict—in speaking of “a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility”—be properly construed as indicating a tentative acceptance of condom use solely for purposes of disease prevention? Certainly, Benedict tells us that the Church does not regard condom use “as a real or moral solution . . . .” But here too, someone might reasonably ask, to what is condom use not a “real or moral solution”? Is Benedict saying that condoms are not a “real or moral solution” to the overall problem of HIV/AIDS (i.e., because their rampant use is both a cause and a symptom of the banalization of sexuality)? Or is he saying that condoms are not a “real or moral solution” to the immoral character of acts of prostitution (i.e., because, whatever we might think of condom use to prevent disease, the condom cannot convert the act of prostitution into a morally good act)? Or is he saying that the use of the condom is not “a real or moral solution” to the problem of possible disease transmission in particular sexual acts (i.e., because even when “intended” for the prevention of disease, the choice to use a condom is itself always wrong)?2 If this latter, one might reasonably ask how an act can be morally wrong and also a “first step” or “first movement” toward moralization or responsibility.
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