A False Choice

The mischievous debate over condoms

In 1987, a committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published The Many Faces of AIDS. The document adopted a mixed message on condom use, ostensibly upholding Church teaching against it while at the same time endorsing “educational efforts” that could “include accurate information about prophylactic devices or other practices proposed by some medical experts as potential means of preventing AIDS.”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and now Pope Benedict XVI, opposed that document. In a pointed letter, he warned “against engaging in compromises which may even give the impression of trying to condone practices which are immoral, for example, technical instructions in the use of prophylactic devices.”

He drew the US bishops’ attention to an article in L’Osservatore Romano that condemned condom use without equivocation: “I quote, ‘To seek a solution to the problem of infection by promoting the use of prophylactics would be to embark on a way not only insufficiently reliable from the technical point of view, but also and above all unacceptable from the moral aspect. Such a proposal for ‘safe’ or at least ‘safer’ sex—as they say—ignores the real cause of the problem, namely, the permissiveness which, in the area of sex as in that related to other abuses, corrodes the moral fiber of the people.”

During his 2007 visit to the US, he sounded this warning again, lamenting as “particularly disturbing…the reduction of the precious and delicate area of education in sexuality to management of ‘risk,’ bereft of any reference to the beauty of conjugal love.”

And then, most recently in the interview-book Light of the World, he repeated that condom use is not a “moral solution.”

Yet the Catholic left claims confidently that the Church’s position on condom use has “changed.” Dissenters continue to point to the passage from Light of the World in which Benedict offers a narrow and nuanced observation about an intention behind (but not the act of) condom use and speculates that the flicker of consideration for another person’s safety contained within that intention might in some cases grow into a greater sense of morality: “[The Church] 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.”

Clifford Longley of the Tablet in the United Kingdom saw in this “small concession” a shift that could collapse “the whole edifice of Catholic teaching on contraception.” Such breathless interpretations revealed far more about the authors’ moral thinking than the Pope’s. For these situational ethicists, a good intention can make an intrinsically bad act good. But Pope Benedict had said nothing of the kind. Were that his meaning, he would not have begun by saying that condom use is not a “moral solution.”

The construction that the Catholic left has tried to put on Benedict’s highly qualified remark represents little more than raw opportunism and mischief-making. There is no change in Church teaching. True, some in the Church have made it easier for the Catholic left to create the impression of change by presenting the Pope’s remarks as novel and revolutionary. “It was the first time Pope Benedict—or any pope—has said publicly that condom use may be acceptable in some cases,” declared a report in the US bishops’ Catholic News Service. (But even the former CBS newsman Dan Rather didn’t fall for this hype and disinformation, saying that “Benedict had no intention of issuing a new edict on condom use” and that his hypothetical aside wasn’t meant to “encourage immorality.”)

Whether people should sin mortally with a condom or without one is a false choice, to which the Church’s answer is “neither.” Much of the public discussion about the Pope’s remarks revolved around that false choice, as if it is the mission of the Church to instruct the world on how to sin safely and strategically. By trying to bait the Church into saying that a particular expression of sin is “better” than another, the world’s elite hopes to normalize and universalize that sin.

What looks on the surface like a nuanced academic discussion is actually part of a long propaganda campaign outside and inside the Church to harness the authority of the Magisterium for the advancement of “responsible” hedonism. If anything, the controversy illustrated how little things have changed in the Church in one respect: the same tension between a dissenting, worldly morality and orthodoxy on display in the Catholic left’s Many Faces of AIDS and Joseph Ratzinger’s response to it exists today.

And what he said then holds just as true now. The Church, he reminded the bishops, should not send a mixed message to the public on condom use, but provide a “defense of the dignity of human sexuality which can only be realized within the context of moral law.”

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