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James Heffernan

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Memo To Catholic Conservatives: Two Great Saints Stand Behind the Pope's Statement on Condoms

Posted: 11/30/10 06:38 PM ET

Catholic conservatives in America are now wringing their hands.

From their reaction to the Pope's latest comment on condoms, you might have thought that he had just questioned the existence of God. But all he did was clarify the church's opposition to the use of condoms.

In the course of a book-length interview with a German journalist named Peter Seewald, the Pope declared that condoms alone cannot stop the AIDS epidemic. But he also said, "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..." This statement was itself clarified by a Vatican spokesman named Father Federico Lombardi, who said that the Pope's words apply not just to gay sex workers but to anyone having sex -- male, female or transsexual. Using a condom to prevent the transmission of AIDS, said Father Lombardi, is "a first step of taking responsibility, of avoiding passing a grave risk onto another."

In response, Catholic conservatives see only a mess of confusion. John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, says he can't accept Lombardi's interpretation of the pope's words. Germain Grisez, a prominent moral theologian who advises bishops, says it is "pernicious" to promote the use of condoms as a means of checking the spread of AIDS. And Jean Giroux, executive director of Human Life International America, which promotes Catholic teaching on contraception and abortion, says he needs more clarification from the Vatican.

But if Mr. Giroux and his fellow conservatives would simply review the history of Catholic teaching on double effect as well as on tolerance of lesser evils, they would find ample support for the pope's statement.

In the 13th-century Summa Theologica, perhaps the greatest of all treatises on Roman Catholic doctrine, Saint Thomas Aquinas says that one may lawfully kill an assailant in self-defense. In such cases, says Aquinas, one's action has a double effect: killing another and saving one's own life. "Therefore, this act" he says, "since one's intention is to save one's own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in being as far as possible" (ST II-II, Qu. 64, Art 7). Now, fast-forward to our own time. If Aquinas says it is "NOT unlawful" to kill in self-defense, could he possibly say it IS unlawful to use a condom in self-defense, as a means of protecting oneself against fatal infection, or one's partner from such infection?

The answer is clearly no. So in sanctioning the use of condoms to check the spread of AIDS, the pope is fully consistent with the magisterial teachings of Saint Thomas Aquinas. But in the eyes of Catholic conservatives, Benedict has just put us on the slippery slope to moral relativism and secular values or, according to one Catholic blogger, opened a Pandora's box of new evils. Oh my. Even when the pope himself is at the wheel, Catholic conservatives cannot bear the slightest detour from what they take to be the high road of absolute truth.

Well, then, my dear moral absolutists, I have some questions: Just how do you justify your tolerance for the repeated killing of civilians -- men, women and children -- by American airstrikes in Afghanistan? If all human life is sacred and all killing is wrong, how you can stomach the taking of innocent human life under any circumstances, anywhere in the world? If you deplore the Pope's tolerance for contraception, and if you also think the church should excommunicate all Catholic politicians who oppose re-criminalizing abortion, why do you not also think the church should excommunicate any Catholic politician who tolerates the killing of civilians in Afghanistan, who isn't out there on the hustings demanding that such killings be criminalized? To that question you can have only one answer: Killing Afghan civilians is "not unlawful" if it is merely an unintended side effect of our main object -- killing the Taliban. Whether that itself is morally "lawful" or can justify the killing of civilians (and I'd be more than willing to argue the opposite), it's the only way you can answer my question.

Once again now, what was that you said about the slippery slope? Whether you know it or not, you've been living on it for years.

So why do you fault the pope for recognizing that not all values are absolute, for supposedly abandoning or compromising the traditions of the Roman Catholic church? In fact the pope has implicitly invoked not only the Aquinian doctrine of double effect but also the principle of the lesser evil, as Vatican officials have explicitly said.

First enunciated by Saint Augustine in the fifth century, this principle was re-affirmed by Aquinas precisely to explain why prostitution should be legalized. Make no mistake: Both saints detested the immorality of prostitution. Aquinas found it unequivocally evil because it violates natural law and fails to provide for the care of offspring. He called it a "sin committed directly against human life" and therefore a "mortal sin" binding the soul to spiritual death.

But guess what? He also thought civil authorities should tolerate it. And for backup on this point, he quoted Augustine. "In human government," Aquinas wrote, "those who are in authority rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain evils be incurred: thus Augustine says [De Ordine 2:4]: 'If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust.'" (Summa Theologica 2-2.10.11).

Unlike the Catholic conservatives of our own time, who think they are upholding Catholic tradition by clinging to moral absolutes, Aquinas and Augustine clearly recognized that we must tolerate -- and even legalize -- lesser evils to prevent greater ones. Given this principle, could they possibly have faulted the pope for sanctioning the use of condoms to check the spread of AIDS? Just as importantly, both saints understood the difference between sin and crime, between divine law and human law. Since human law aims not to promote eternal salvation but to ensure temporal order, it cannot, says Aquinas, "forbid all vicious acts" (Summa Theologica 1-2.96.3).

To see the difference between sin and crime is also to see the difference between supporting a sinful act and opposing the criminalization of it. Do the so-called "pro-life" groups believe that we should criminalize the killing of innocent civilians -- including children -- in bombing attacks on our enemies? If not, why do they claim that any politician who does not want to criminalize abortion "supports" it? And what would happen if we suddenly decided to criminalize the exercise of a right that for almost 40 years has been treated as constitutional? Instead of ensuring "temporal order," as human law should, re-criminalizing abortion would bring legal chaos.

So let's be clear. When conservative Catholics, including Catholic bishops such as Charles Chaput of Denver, attack progressive Catholic politicians for opposing the criminalization of abortion, or for advocating the distribution of condoms to combat the spread of AIDS, they are not upholding the traditions of the Roman Catholic church. They are turning their backs on principles first enunciated by St. Augustine in the early fifth century, re-stated in the 13th century by St. Thomas Aquinas and now re-affirmed in our own time by Pope Benedict XVI.

When conservative Catholics idolize the golden calf of moral absolutism, they forsake the teachings of the saints.