Sunday, 21 November 2010

New Catholic ruling on condoms? Maybe, and maybe some ethics news as well!

Today, it was made public that the current Pope in an interview has announced what looks like a change of official Roman Catholic Church teaching on the morality of using condoms, e.g., here, here, here, here. Nothing has been posted at the Vatican website yet, but the reports cite the German journalist Peter Seewald, who has been interviewing the Pope for a new book, as the source. So, maybe, maybe not, but interesting enough to have a closer look at. This is what the BBC relates (with my own emphasis added):

When asked whether the Catholic Church was not opposed in principle to the use of condoms, the Pope replied: "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."
The Pope gives the example of the use of condoms by male prostitutes as "a first step towards moralisation", even though condoms are "not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection".
He says that the "sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalisation of sexuality" where sexuality is no longer an expression of love, "but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves".

Catholic commentator Austen Ivereigh interprets this for the BBC as meaning:

"The prevalence of HIV raised the question of whether condoms could be used to prevent the transmission of the virus.

"If the intention is to prevent transmission of the virus, rather than prevent contraception [I'm sure this should be "conception" and will assume so in the following], moral theologians would say that was of a different moral order."

Now, part of this argument is very familiar territory in Catholic ethics, namely the reference to the need for a proper intention. I will not rant on the outdated view of what human sexuality may properly be used for here, so let's just concentrate on the idea that preventing the HIV virus to spread would be a good thing and grant, solely for the sake of analysis, that using condoms for any other purpose would be wrong. What Mr. Ivereigh is referring to then seems to be the application of the so-called doctrine or principle of the double effect, a theoretical device conceived within the Thomistic part of Catholic philosophical tradition for dealing with problems of apparently conflicting moral duties that are a necessary part of the sort of rigid absolutist ethical system that the Catholic reading of Christian ethics results in. Take, for instance, the idea of the sanctity of human life, normally understood to be expressed by an absolute moral ban on homicide. What does this idea tell us to do in situations where the consequence of abstaining from homicide will be the death of one or more human being(s)? Strictly read, of course, the fifth commandment still forbids killing, but already medieval Catholic scholars realised that such an interpretation is both inhuman and very difficult to reconcile with many things in the Bible, such as the message of love. Therefore the idea was gradually conceived that in situations where avoiding an act that would otherwise be forbidden would lead to a sufficiently evil effect, it may be permissible to perform this act. There's quite a lot of fine print around this, but the most important condition is that the intention or motive be the right one. If your intention is merely to avoid the bad side-effect of avoiding the otherwise wrongful act, this act is in fact not wrongful. This principle has been used for justifying war, capital punishment and abortion, to give a few examples. In effect, if a side-effect of the act of having unprotected sex is an elevated risk of transmitting the HIV virus, then having protected sex with the intention of preventing such a transmission is permissible. This becomes even more significant on a societal policy scale: if the political motive behind a policy of, e.g., handing out free condoms, provide sexual education, and launching propaganda campaigns for safe sex, is to prevent the public health menace of HIV, then this is OK!

The only strange or surprising part of this way of reasoning is why on earth the Vatican has not thought of saying this a long time ago. As observed, it seems to go well enough with established theory as well as past policies condoning much worse things than a roll in the hay, while the HIV pandemic is an extraordinary evil of seldom seen proportions. Seemingly, the Catholic church's curious fixation with the act of sexual intercourse has made them seriously loose track of much, much more serious matters - also judged by their own moral standards. But my mission here is not to rant about that. I'm quite pleased that they have seen the light (if that is indeed what they have done) - better late than never, however cruel that may sound in light of the many human lives that have been the victims of the delay.

But this is only half of what the Pope seems to be saying. The other part is that he seems to be introducing a rather novel element in Catholic ethical theory: right and wrong on a scale! The Pope's own formulations here are more than a little slippery. The use of condoms to prevent HIV, he says, is not "a real moral solution" but "a step" in the right direction. Mr. Ivereigh attempts to clarify this when he says that what the Pope means is that using condoms for preventing HIV transmission  is "of a different moral order" - presumably different than using condoms for just avoiding having sex resulting in pregnancy, and presumably not as wrong. Now, since the official teaching is that having sex with any other intention than that of procreation is a sin (unless you exploit the occurrence of so-called safe periods in the menstrual cycle - an exemption for which I have so far never seen an intelligible explanation), the Pope thus seems to be saying that having sex using a condom with the intention of preventing HIV is, in fact, not a sin. Now, in standard Catholic ethics, this would imply that such acts are morally right. This since traditional Catholic ethics is built on the structure of the Ten Commandments, according to which you act wrongly if you act against these rules, but permissible if you avoid doing so. In other words, there are only two moral categories as regards actions: either they are right or they are wrong. But what the Pope says does not seem to be this. What he says is that, while using condoms for preventing HIV is morally acceptable, morally speaking, it would be even better if..... Well, here it becomes a bit unclear, but let's be charitable, shall we! There is, according to the Pope, a something (not very well explained) that would be an even better approach to combining the facts of human sexuality and the HIV pandemic than using condoms. This something would be very or fully morally right, while using condoms is not. At the same time, however using condoms for preventing HIV is not wrong. In effect, the Pope seems to be saying that there is a moral category in between (very or fully) right and wrong. In fact, he seems to suggest some sort of continuous scale of moral elevation on which a person can travel some distance between wrongful action and morally (very and fully) right action!

Theoretically, this novelty (in the Catholic context) could be unpacked in many ways familiar to moral philosophers for the simple reason that secular ethical theory has been developing ideas of this sort for centuries. If the appearance of the Pope's statements hold up to scrutiny and becomes official teaching for real, this would imply quite a lot of work for catholic moral theologians. Nevertheless, should that be the case, I would be the first to welcome them out of the medieval hazes they have been inhabiting for quite some time!