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

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Catholic condom debate III

A few weeks ago, I was stunned by the almost uniformly negative comments on my defense of the rather liberal position of Cardinal Carlo Martini and Fr. Martin Rhonheimer on the question of prophylactic condom use by married couples of one whose members has AIDS. See Part I and Part II along, of course, with the comment boxes. Since I believe this matter to be very important, not just theoretically but also pastorally in regions where AIDS is pandemic, I shall here sum up the state of the question and give my duly reconsidered opinion.

I maintained that, by a principle of double effect which is typically invoked in Catholic moral theology, prophylactically condomistic intercourse cannot be said to violate the Church's teaching against contraception. Such is also Rhonheimer's main argument. My critics replied, in effect, that that is true but irrelevant. According to them, such intercourse fails to rise to the level of a conjugal act in the first place: given that semen is not actually deposited in the vagina, the act is morally no different from—or at least no better than—sodomy or mutual masturbation.

Two converging arguments have been presented for that claim. In my view, neither suffices by itself but, when taken together and with further arguments, they establish the claim in question and thus rebut my original argument. Accordingly, I find myself persuaded by the critics.

The first argument is from authority: the Magisterium of the Church has so defined 'the conjugal act' that any sexual performance counting as such an act must, inter alia, terminate in the actual deposition of semen in the vagina. See, e.g., Anthony McCarthy's comment. I must admit that I did not know that. But it is unclear, by the usual ecclesiological criteria, that such a definition counts has been infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium. Theologians do not even agree on whether the well-known stricture against intentional contraception has been so taught, even though I believe it is. Hence the rulings McCarthy cites could be treated as reflecting a theologoumenon: a matter of opinion that, as such, does not permit settling the question by appeal to authority alone.

The second argument, expressed with considerable force by Hugh Henry, is that failure to deposit semen in the vagina deprives intercourse of its unitive significance. Now I had already conceded that condomistic intercourse, for whatever reason, is sub-optimal. But Henry and the critics make a stronger claim than that: such intercourse is no more unitive than oral or anal intercourse (and arguably is even less so, given the measure that is taken). Yet the question is why that should render the act intrinsically evil as distinct from merely sub-optimal. Given the traditional teaching of the Church, I can find only one plausible answer to that question: regardless of subjective experience or intent, such an act is per se inapt for procreation, i.e. the sort of act that is unfit for procreation. In such acts, the man withholds the gift of his fertility from the woman and thus withholds what the Church takes to be essential to the act's unitive significance. That is the nub of the issue; but it is not even addressed by considering the unitive in abstraction from the procreative significance of the conjugal act.

While Luke Gormally insists that his position is no different from Henry's, he does have what seems to me a stronger argument for their common conclusion. The argument takes shape most clearly in the following passage from Gormally's paper, which is linked in Parts I and II:

The “one body” unity of baptized spouses actualized in intercourse is not an extrinsic symbol of the Church’s unity in the body of Christ.30 It is what St. Paul calls a mysterion of that unity, a sacramental realization of a kind of unity which shares in the unity of Christ and the Church, and in doing so reflects the nature of that unity. Now the unityof Christ and the Church is created by the self-giving love of Christ, centrally through his passion, death, and resurrection and through our participation in his victory over sin and death principally by our partaking of the risenbody of Christ in the Eucharist. Marriage distinctively shares in the unity of the body of Christ as husband and wife enact in their lives both the self-giving of Christ and the receptivity of the Church. And the action which both signifies and realizes this unity is marital intercourse. But in order for it to do so, there clearly must be both a giving by the husband of his substance to his wife and a receiving of it by the wife. When this giving and receiving are fruitful in the birth of children, we have the reality that is called the “domestic church.” (Emphasis added by me.)
That is quite an elegant distillation, for the purpose at hand, of Pope John Paul the Great's "theology of the body," which is not merely a set of opinions but an authentic development of the Church's teaching on human sexuality. If sound, Gormally's argument would also show why condomistic intercourse necessarily lacks unitive significance, and as such is intrinsically evil. But as I've implied, the critical premise needed to show as much is that condomistic intercourse lacks procreative significance. Nothing about seminal fluid merely as such seems to me so morally significant that failure to leave it in the vagina, after ejaculating it within the vagina, renders the sexual performance no different from sodomy or masturbation and thus intrinsically evil. What makes the depositing of seminal fluid morally significant is that it leaves semen in the woman's body, which is procreatively significant. That is primarily what makes it unitively significant, and that is why Gormally also claims that condomistic intercourse is "per se inapt for procreation." But does his argument establish that claim?

Not, I think, by itself. My claim was that such intercourse, unlike sexual performances ending in orgasm but not involving male ejaculation within the vagina, is only per accidens inapt for procreation. An argument for that claim, which I only adumbrated, would be this: (a) unlike those other sorts of act, the couple must modify the act itself (with a condom) if the possibility of procreation is to be suppressed; and (b) in fact, and again unlike those other sorts of act, the possibility of procreation cannot be fully suppressed by condom use; for one or another reason, condoms don't always contracept. I don't think Gormally succeeds in rebutting that argument. What he does accomplish is to explain why sexual performances which are indisputably and necessarily inapt for procreation, such as the husband ejaculating into an orifice other than the vagina, fail to rise to the level of conjugal acts. It thus explains the constant and irreformable teaching of the Church that such acts are intrinsically evil; it also helps to explain why intentional contraception is intrinsically evil even when it doesn't work. But for the reasons I've given, it does not show that an act of vaginal intercourse in which a device is used to prevent semen's being retained in the vagina is per se inapt for procreation even when the couple have no contraceptive intent.

Even so, it's not clear that Gormally needs to show that. Instead of claiming that condomistic intercourse is per se inapt for procreation, he could simply say that, regardless of a given couple's further intention-with-which, the procreative and unitive significance of the act itself are both so truncated that it doesn't count as a conjugal act regardless of the couple's further intent. And that is the line of argument he pursues in effect.

He claims, on the grounds quoted above, that for a truly conjugal act there must "clearly" be a giving and receiving of semen, such that the semen is actually deposited in the vagina. (To be fair, he also makes the argument from authority; but I'm not concerned with that at the moment.) Now by itself, that seems little better than a petitio principii. All that the preceding argument establishes is that the general pattern of a couple's sexual life must include such deposition as a normal feature. It does not establish that each and every completed sexual performance by the couple must conform to that pattern, if and when those that don't are prophylactic and are only contraceptive as an unintended side effect. Yet Gormally's case can be strengthened by two other considerations.

First, if a married person has AIDS and doesn't want to transmit it to their spouse, they aren't going to want to transmit it to any child they might conceive. But when a woman catches AIDS and becomes pregnant, she often does transmit AIDS to her child. Hence it is psychologically almost impossible to use condoms in the case at hand merely prophylactically. Contraception in this case is extremely attractive for basically the same reason prophylaxis is.

Second, the Vatican and many others are surely right to argue that giving the green light to condoms for "pastoral" reasons in AIDS-ravaged areas is only going to encourage the illusion of "safe" sex. Sex with condoms is certainly "safer" with condoms than without them; but there are no guarantees, and condoms also encourage the counterproductive illusion of complete safety in the sort of person who would have caught AIDS by means of (hetero- or homosexual) adultery. Hence, in the long run condoms aren't even a practical solution to the problem at hand. Better medicines and contraceptives over the last half-century, after all, have not meaningfuly reduced the incidence of lethal, sexually transmitted diseases. Only the type of killer has changed: syphilis doesn't kill many people anymore, but AIDS does. As long as there's promiscuity, chances are it'll always be something.

That of course does not hold of every couple in the situation under consideration. Some are very good Christians who understand what marriage is and are merely caught in a tragic situation. But there is always the safest alternative of all: abstinence. By using condoms, even such a couple as that are putting themselves in the position of taking a significant, non-obligatory risk with one party's health in order to meet their (usually the husband's) needs. What that says to me, and not only to me, is that "use" is winning out over "love." There are other ways of expressing deep love; so why, in such a situation as this, is a truncated version of conjugal intercourse so important? Simple: incontinence. That is less an expression of love than a satisfaction of lust.

Such considerations do not demonstrate, apodictically, that condomistic intercourse is not conjugal intercourse. They do, however, show that condomistic intercourse in the sort of case under consideration tends toward the same results as acts that the Church has always and clearly taught are intrinsically evil. Thus, such considerations provide evidence that Gormally's key premise is correct. And I can find no other difficulty with his argument. In conjunction with the argument from authority, that result leaves Catholics no justifiable alternative to concluding that condomistic intercourse is intrinsically evil and thus "grave matter" for sin regardless of further intent. I don't like having to admit that, but the facts on the ground as well as the past teaching of the Church are on the critics' side.
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