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The Pope and Prophylactics

by Joseph A. Neumann POSTED: Tuesday, November 23, 2010
Introduction by Michael J. Matt  

Remnant Editor’s Note: Please be aware that the following treats of sensitive matters and should not be read by children. With regard to Pope Benedict's  recently leaked statement on condoms and moral responsibility, we’ve decided to withhold comprehensive commentary until we’ve had the opportunity to read and consider it in the larger context of the interview by Peter Seewald, “Light of the World”. The fact that the increasingly irresponsible L’Osservatore Romano elected to release these particular excerpts from the interview is regrettable, to say the least, but certainly not out of character with the sensationalist editorial policy of the Vatican’s “new and improved” newspaper. As the following article points out, and contrary to what media are claiming with predictable enthusiasm, the Holy Father has not condoned condom use.

Still, the manner in which his statement is worded is admittedly confusing, especially at first glance, which is yet another reason why granting these lengthy papal interviews should perhaps be avoided, as time and again they produce little more than cannon fodder against the Church by  “gotcha journalists”.  It would thus be short-sighted for us to attach blame for this latest scandal solely to the media. From what we’ve seen thus far, it appears that an overly nuanced papal statement of the obvious—i.e., that even during the commission of an intrinsically evil act, a person can observe a modicum of restraint which advertently acknowledges the moral law—has  become the source of yet another international scandal at a time when the Church can least afford it.

Nevertheless, for the good of the Church as well as the confidence of the faithful, the truth of the matter must be defended even if the prudence of the Holy Father’s words can be questioned: The Holy Father has not okayed the use of condoms. It would appear, however, that he has perhaps made a prudential error in failing to foresee how his words would be seized upon and dutifully twisted by militantly Christophobic media. The Holy Father can certainly err in choosing words to illustrate a particular point. From what we’ve read, it would seem that Pope Benedict spoke too candidly on an issue requiring a grasp of moral theology which the mainstream press as well as the majority of modern Catholics no longer possess. And this, alas, is his responsibility. Nevertheless, L'Osservatore Romano certainly exacerbated the problem, and its editors should be fired. And, for that matter, whatever Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi is talking about by way of a supposed clarification is anyone's guess. Hopefully, a coherent statement from the Vatican on this matter is still forthcoming.

In the meantime, the following is a brief explanation for why the Church can never change her position on this matter and why Pope Benedict, in point of fact, did not do so in this case.  Michael J. Matt

Many media are reporting that Pope Benedict XVI said that it is morally permissible for a man to use a prophylactic in certain circumstances. After reading the Pope's alleged words in English, it seems to me that the Pope did not say that it is morally permissible for a man to use a prophylactic.

Here are the relevant quotes:  “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. . .[1]

So, what is the Pope saying?

Only this: When a prostitute uses a prophylactic, it is possible that even he is beginning to acknowledge some modicum of moral responsibility inasmuch as he intends not to infect another human being with a virus. Nowhere does the Holy Father assert, however, that it is morally permissible to use a prophylactic.

In fact, after another question from the interviewer the Pope says the following in regard to the Church’s teaching on the matter:  “She [the Church] of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution. . .”[2]

In other words, the Pope is saying that the Church does not regard the use of a condom as moral. Simply put, it is not morally permissible for a man to use a prophylactic.

Here is what Holy Mother Church teaches. She bases her teachings on the natural law.

One moral principle is this: One is not permitted to perform an act while rejecting the end for which the act is ordered.

It is immoral for a man to use a prophylactic in order to prevent the transmission of seed in order to prevent conception from occurring. Why? Because God ordered that sexual intercourse ought to take place between husband and wife and be open to the possibility of making a new man.  For a man to use a prophylactic during sexual intercourse is similar to the sin of Onan.

In Genesis 38: 8 - 10, we read:  "(8)Juda, therefore said to Onan his son: Go in to thy brother's wife and marry her, that thou mayst raise seed to thy brother. He knowing that the children should not be his, when he went in to his brother's wife, spilled his seed upon the ground, lest children should be born in his brother's name.  And therefore the Lord slew him, because he did a detestable thing."

Now, in regard to a man using a prophylactic to prevent the spread of a virus like HIV, although it is good to not wish to infect another, it is not morally permissible to use a prophylactic to accomplish this end.

Why not? Because by using a prophylactic, the man necessarily excludes the transmission of seed as mentioned above.

Some Further Thoughts

1.  When a man and a woman become husband and wife, they give to each other rights over their bodies.

2.  Whenever the husband reasonably asks his wife to pay the marriage debt (that is, engage in sexual intercourse), she ought to consent.  Likewise, when the wife reasonably asks the husband to pay the marriage debt, he ought to consent.

3.  It is morally permissible for the couple to both agree to abstain from sexual intercourse for a time, e.g. to dedicate themselves to praying, as Saint Paul tells us.

Furthermore, there are cases in history where saints were married; however, they never engaged in sexual intercourse.  One thinks of Saint Joseph and Our Lady, for example. However, if the abstaining is an occasion of sin to either the husband or the wife or both, then they ought to engage in sexual intercourse.

4.  If there is a serious reason, then the husband and/or the wife are not obligated to engage in sexual intercourse, e.g. if the husband and/or the wife contracted HIV after marriage, e.g. through a blood transfusion, then they ought to abstain from sexual intercourse permanently.

5.  If an unmarried man has HIV, then he may not receive the Sacrament of Matrimony.  Likewise, if an unmarried woman has HIV, then she may not receive the Sacrament of Matrimony.

Why not? Because the primary end of Matrimony is the procreation and education of children, and if the newly married couple were to perform the conjugal act, then the infected spouse would likely infect the uninfected spouse which would likely result in the eventual death of the spouse.  In other words, the uninfected spouse would risk death in order to engage in sexual intercourse.

Finally, to summarize:

1.  Is it morally permissible for a husband infected with HIV to use a prophylactic before sexual intercourse with his wife to prevent the transmission of HIV to her?  No.

2.  Is it morally permissible for a husband to use a prophylactic before sexual intercourse with his wife who is infected with HIV in order to prevent the transmission of HIV to him?  No.

And on a related matter, in which there is some confusion:

3.  Is it morally permissible for a husband to use a prophylactic with one or more pinholes in it while engaging in sexual intercourse with his wife in order to obtain semen for fertility testing? No.

Ad Mentem Sancti Thomae Aquinatis

[1] Smith, Janet. “Pope Benedict on Condoms ‘In Light of the World.’” The Catholic World Report (2010).  Accessed November 22, 2010.

[2] Ibid.

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