Benedict XVI, quoted on the possible justification of condom use in an upcoming book by German journalist Peter Seewald: "Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and The Signs Of The Times," as excerpted in today’s L’Osservatore Romano:
“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, a first assumption of responsibility.”
Boy, is this likely to grow legs! The AP has the story, and the Boston Globe is spinning it with the headline: “Pope: condoms can be justified in some cases”.
No doubt, this comment will be welcomed by many on the left as a kind of Trojan Horse (couldn’t resist!) introducing contraceptive mentality into the Church’s moral reasoning, beginning with an interpretation that asserts the comment “condones” condom use in some situations. But by the same logic, we could also say that the pope is condoning male prostitution, at least in some circumstances.
Of course, neither claim would be true. What Benedict said is not very remarkable at all. He is merely indicating that evil comes in degrees of complexity, and one may find the path toward the good entails several steps of reasonable yet still deeply flawed standing, before reaching something that could be identified as an objective moral good.
This may appear to be an acceptance of the concept of embracing a lesser evil, but it really proposes just the opposite: the embrace of a lesser good. There is an important distinction in the subjective sphere between choosing a recognized evil – no matter how “lesser” – and choosing to mitigate evil, even according to a consequentialist calculus. Nonetheless, the limits of subjective understanding do not provide a license for suppressing the reflective critique of objective reality, especially in the realm of moral truth. The contraceptive use of condoms is still objectively immoral, as is prostitution – male or otherwise.
Despite what folks are bound to encounter ad nauseum in the mainstream press over the coming days (not to mention from the dissident wing within Catholicism), Church teaching has not changed. One can always hold out hope that the coming kerfuffle will prove to be an occasion for many to come to see the Church’s moral doctrine to be not so much a set of prohibitions as a guide to genuine personal and communal fulfillment, both now and forever.
For a perspective on Benedict’s teaching on condoms in Africa commendably lacking in hysterical short-sightedness, see medical anthropologist Edward C. Green’s much-discussed WaPo article from March 2009.