Winter 2011

Benedict XVI and the Structure of the Moral Act: On the Condoms Controversy

David S. Crawford

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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2. Roughly a month after the passage from Benedict’s interview became public, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith released a document, “Note on the Banalization of Sexuality: Regarding Certain Interpretations of ‘Light of the World’” (21 December 2010), that sought to repudiate some of the obvious misunderstandings that had been spread in media discussion. However, this document, while explicitly rejecting certain interpretations, such as that Benedict means to signal a change in the Church’s teaching on contraception or that he is accepting a proportionalist theory of action, does not really clear up the ambiguities indicated above, when it says, for example, that “those involved in prostitution who are HIV positive and who seek to diminish the risk of contagion by the use of a condom may be taking the first step in respecting the life of another—even if the evil of prostitution remains in all its gravity” ( Again, it is unclear as to whether the choice to use a condom should be taken as a distinct choice from that of engaging in prostitution and whether it can be called objectively good or whether it simply may indicate a subjective state, a changing interior disposition. On the other hand, in 1988 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and with the explicit knowledge and approval of John Paul II, had seemed to clarify that the use of condoms, even for the prevention of HIV/AIDS infection, is in itself immoral when he declared in relation to “the precise moral issue in question here” that “‘To seek a solution to the problem of infection by promoting the use of prophylactics would be to embark on a way . . . unacceptable from the moral aspect. Such a proposal for ‘safe’ or at least ‘safer’ sex—as they say—ignores the real cause of the problem, namely, the permissiveness which, in the area of sex as in that related to other abuses, corrodes the moral fiber of the people’” (On “The Many Faces of AIDS,” Letter to Archbishop Pio Laghi, 29 May 1988 [ article-31158?l=English].  In retrospect, and in view of the recent interview, even this definitive-sounding statement might be understood as referring, not to individual acts of condom use themselves, but to the moral ambiguity entailed in policies seeking to promote condom use to prevent transmission, since these latter fail to attend to the “real cause of the problem.”