"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Catholic condom debate II

As I had expected, my post of last Friday: "Why the condom debate is big for the Church" elicited more comments than any other since I started this blog a year ago. What surprised me, however, is that most commenters opposed my position favoring, in certain cases, the use of condoms by married couples one of whom is infected with AIDS. That also happens to be the position of Cardinal Carlo Martini, Fr. Martin Rhonheimer, and a fair number of Catholic theologians generally accounted faithful to the Magisterium. (I say "faithful to the Magisterium" because I find no good reason to admit to the conversation those theologians who reject what has indisputably been the teaching of the Church about birth control. As far as I know, that happens to be the majority of the guild.) Nonetheless, I did find two opposition arguments, at least as posted, plausible and worthy of the most careful consideration. And I want it known up front that I am prepared to be corrected on this matter by the Magisterium of the Church should the Pope, as widely anticipated, rule publicly on it.

To aid our focus, I shall sum up the debate and deal with a few preliminaries.

The most common argument against prophylactic condom use that I had hitherto encountered is that such use renders the conjugal act contraceptive and thus intrinsically evil by Church teaching. My main response has been to point out that contraception in such a case is neither a means to prophylaxis nor need be intended as an additional end; therefore, by the principle of double effect, prophylactic condom use as such cannot be condemned as intentionally contraceptive, any more than use of an anovulant pill for purely therapeutic reasons can be so condemned. While several people disagreed, I found little argumentative substance in their comments. It seemed to me that they were begging the question by simply reiterating the opposite conclusion. But that is by no means the end of the debate.

I was also privileged to get comments from the moral theologians Hugh Henry (HH) and Luke Gormally (LG), both of whom have published carefully argued papers opposing all condomistic intercourse regardless of motive or intent. They summed up their theses in the combox; you can find the full texts of their papers here and here. Also, the blog American Papist has been following the Catholic condom debate very closely and provides a wealth of useful information. Since this is but a blog post, I cannot here present a full-scale scholarly analysis of their papers. But I don't think that such would be necessary for grasping the central point in the debate.

HH''s claim is that condomistic intercourse is not "unitive" in the sense specified and required by the teaching of the Church. More sloganistically: "safe sex" is not "real sex." Gormally's claim is that any sexual encounter is which the male semen is ejaculated into a vessel other than the vagina—even if that vessel is a latex bag, stretched over the penis, that happens to be in the vagina at the time of ejaculation—is morally of the same sort as masturbation, sodomy, or any other sexual act that Church teaching traditionally condemns as per se inapt for procreation. More sloganistically: "safe sex" is morally no better than "solitary vice." Those are interrelated but slightly different claims, each of which act as premises in, respectively, HH's and LG's arguments that condomistic intercourse is intrinsically evil. I shall consider each claim, both separately and as interrelated.

First, however, I want to answer one of LG's criticisms that I find simply off the mark. Addressing me, he wrote:

I'm amazed at you coming out in support of Martini, who recommends condomistic copulation as "the lesser evil". Since the Church has never allowed that one may recommend the choice of any morally evil course of action, are we to assume that he is in the proportionalist business of calculating 'pre-moral' evils? On that approach to moral choice see Veritatis Splendor.
I believe LG is miscontruing Martini here, at least as I construe and agree with Martini. The Church has always and irreformably taught that "evil may never be done so that good might come of it" or a greater evil avoided; that principle was explicitly reiterated by Paul VI in Humanae Vitae (§14) and by John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor (§78-§83), to which latter LG alludes. Yet 'evil' here does not mean merely 'that which is undesirable'. E.g. the principles of just war, as propounded by the Church, acknowledge that all sorts of "evils" foreseebly come about by waging war, even when the war is just; 'evils' in such a case means 'undesirable things', not primarily 'immoral actions' (though we can be sure that some such actions will be also done as part of a just war). When the Church teaches that evil may never be done so that good might come or greater evil avoided, she means by 'evil' 'that which is intrinsically evil', i.e., action of a kind that is always and necessarily immoral, irrespective of motive, further intention-with-which, circumstance, or outcome. Now proportionalism, which was condemned by John Paul II, denies that there are any acts of that sort; the baptized grandchild of utilitarianism, it is a kind of heresy. But Cardinal Martini, I submit, knows that perfectly well and doesn't deny it. So when he characterizes condomistic intercourse as in some cases a justified 'lesser of evils', I take it he means 'lesser evil' in the sense of 'less undesirable thing' and not 'an intrinsic evil less evil than some other undesirable thing'. Accordingly, LG's criticism on this score seems irrelevant to me. Even if I'm wrong and he's right about what Martini meant, LG is wrong about what I mean. I do not believe that intrinsic evil may be done so that good may come of it or greater evil avoided. So, granted that condomistic intercourse is at the very least sub-optimal and thus not as desirable as sexual intercourse can be, the sole question is whether condomistic intercourse is intrinsically evil, not merely "sub-optimal." I don't think it unduly charitable to say that, if Martini thought the answer were yes, he would not have defended "safe sex" in the circumstances he described.

With that misunderstanding out of the way, what about the central claims of HH and LG?

Having read HH's stuff, I am not clear about how to construe his claim both fairly and as a distinctive claim. He insists that condomistic intercourse doesn't meet the definition of conjugal intercourse traditional in Church moral teaching because it doesn't entail actually depositing semen into the vagina. And that is because, on HH's showing, it lacks the unitive significance of conjugal intercourse, inasmuch as—putting in the terms introduced by John Paul II's magnificent "theology of the body"—the husband is not making a complete "gift" of himself to his wife. But there's more than one way to construe that claim.

It doesn't seem plausible, at least to me, to claim that the mere touching of vagina and/or cervix by semen is always necessary to make conjugal intercourse unitively significant. Aside from how it causes certain feelings or might lead to conception, I don't find the mere touching to be morally significant in the slightest. So I don't think it would be fair to hold HH to the claim that the mere touching is morally significant as a necessary condition of unitive significance. It can more plausibly be said, however, that irrespective of its contraceptive effect, condomistic intercourse is experientially sub-optimal. Men often hate it because they cannot feel their partner nearly as well as in regular intercourse. I've heard a few women say that they dislike it because they don't get that warm feeling caused when their partner ejaculates directly onto the surface of the vagina and/or cervix. But even here, I don't think it can be plausibly argued that such experiential deficits are morally significant in such a way as to render condomistic intercourse intrinsically evil. The lack of physical contact between semen and vagina makes the experience of sex sub-optimal, at least typically; but much in life is sub-optimal as a result of legitimate choices we make. I find nothing so far in HH's case to tell us why the choice of "safe sex" is intrinsically evil as distinct from merely sub-optimal.

The mere fact that trapping semen in a bag doesn't meet the theologically standard "definition" of the conjugal act doesn't tell us why that which is lacking is also necessary for moral liceity. Where the real gravamen of the issue lies, it seems to me, is in the matter of fertility. Thus if "safe" conjugal sex isn't real sex, that can only be because the husband is withholding the gift of his fertility from his wife by trapping his semen in a bag. I'm not sure that's where HH wants to make a stand, but it's the only construal of the "gift" language that I find both pertinent and powerful enough to support the claim that trapping semen in a bag is intrinsically evil. And such is why, to my mind, LG's approach is far more plausible.

LG argues that, by trapping the semen rather than depositing it directly into the vagina, condomistic intercourse is morally indistinguishable from acts that are per se inapt for procreation—such as fellatio, buggery, or masturbation. That is supposed to hold regardless of the couple's further intention-with-which they do the trapping, such as that of life-saving prophylaxis. LG's is a better argument than HH's because it bypasses any problematic appeal to unitive significance. The argument is that we can and must assimilate condomistic intercourse, regardless of intent, to a kind of sexual activity that has always and irreformably been condemned by the Church. And that also serves as the argument that commenters other than HH and LG failed to provide.

Even so, the difficulty with the argument is precisely that it seeks to settle by definition the question what intentions are being embodied in the sort of case under consideration—that of the married couple having vaginal intercourse with a condom purely for the sake of prophylaxis. LG says: "Condomistic copulation in the vagina is no more vaginal intercourse (as you seem to think) than sodomy is. Vaginal intercourse requires an ejaculate into the vagina not into a latex rubber sheath." Thus a man's ejaculating semen while his penis is in his partner's vagina is not vaginal intercourse at all if the semen does not actually touch and remain in the vagina. Well, that seems to me an attempt to settle by stipulative definition a question that calls for actual argument.

What is (or would be) morally significant about a given act of sexual intercourse's not being "vaginal intercourse" is that it's not the sort that, in and of itself, is apt for procreation. Such acts are indeed intrinsically evil when performed voluntarily. But it's a bit of a stretch to say that a man's ejaculating semen while his penis is in the vagina counts as "vaginal" intercourse only if the semen actually lands in the vagina. The penis is doing its thing in the vagina, is it not? Why is that not "vaginal" intercourse? Well, the point of the stretch—even granted arguendo that we make it—is to tell us what is it about failing to be vaginal intercourse that, according to Church teaching, is morally unacceptable. And what we're being told is that non-vaginal intercourse it's not apt by nature (per se) for procreation. But ejaculating inside the vagina is the sort of act that is apt by nature for procreation; that's why couples contracepting with condoms worry about the condoms breaking! What the couple using condoms for contraception are doing is turning an act that is per se apt for procreation into one that per accidens inapt for procreation. They are not engaged in a sterile sort of act; they are intentionally, and illicitly, trying to interrupt what might otherwise be the generative process initiated by the sort of act they're engaged in. Such contraception is just as evil, if not more so, than acts that are per se inapt for generation: one is actually taking steps to render sterile an act that might otherwise produce a child. But it is not quite the same sort of act as ones that are per se inapt for procreation.

Now in the sort of case under consideration, the couple having condomistic intercourse have no contraceptive intent, even granted that their use of a condom has a contraceptive effect. So, once one grants that the contraceptive effect doesn't render their intercourse per se inapt for generation, there is no longer any reason to hold that it fails to be a morally licit conjugal act. Therefore, LG's argument does not succeed.

Perhaps I haven't done full justice to either HH or LG. In fact, I'm sure I haven't. This post should be considered a mere adumbration of what ought to be a longer, more scholarly critique in the journals, the sort of thing HH and LG have done the work to provide themselves. But I hope I've said enough to indicate the direction I would take.

The strongest argument against prophylactic condom use, it seems to me, is that it's psychologically next to impossible for a fertile couple to use condoms for that purpose without also intending to contracept. Who, after all, would want to pass AIDS on to a conceived child? That alone might cause the Pope to tell Catholics that abstinence, at least for fertile couples, is the only morally safe choice. But again, more work needs to be done in order to determine what, if anything, would be intrinsically evil about any and all use of condoms. So far, I just don't see it.
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