Wishful Thinking, Objective Morality and Condoms

In the Comments box of my previous post about the Holy Father’s remarks about condoms, a friend remarked that some people are interpreting those remarks as justifying the use of condoms if one has a “good intention”. I originally replied in the Comment box, but I think this is such an important point that I want to put it out front here.

This is a very complex question because it implicates two levels of moral teaching — the objective morality of certain acts, and the subjective culpability of the actor.

It is clear in Catholic teaching that a good intention alone cannot morally justify an evil act. The most important factor in evaluating the objective morality of an action is the “moral object” — the nature of the conduct. The “good intentions” of the actor cannot turn an evil act into a good one.  For a fuller explanation of this, see the Catechism, sections 1750 and following.

So, within a marriage, the use of a contraceptive device like a condom is always inherently wrong, because it changes the objective nature of the sexual act from an authentic marital act into something that is contrary to the nature of human sexuality (since it is no longer open to fertility).  Outside of marriage, any sexual act is always objectively morally wrong.  So in either case, no “good intention” can justify the performance of such acts.

In fact, an appeal to “good intentions” may actually encourage people to engage in morally wrong (and physically dangerous) activity.  Condoms do not provide guaranteed protection against the transmission of disease, and a reliance on condoms is even less effective the more one engages in sexually risky behavior.  Sex outside of marriage is also sinful and has a deeply (even mortally) negative impact on the state of one’s soul.  No amount of wishful thinking about good intentions can protect someone from those effects.

Nor can an appeal to “double effect” reasoning change this conclusion.  To qualify for that, that the action has to be either morally good or neutral; the bad effect cannot be directly intended; the good result cannot be a direct result of the bad effect; and the good result must be proportionate to the bad effect.  The use of a condom in a marriage doesn’t satisfy this test; it always remains morally wrong, because it changes the nature of the sexual act.  Even if, for the sake of argument, the use of a condom outside of marriage to prevent disease transmission were considered morally neutral or good, it still can’t change the objectively wrong nature of the underlying act of sex outside of marriage.

It seems to me that no matter how you analyze it, we wind up back at the point the Holy Father made — the use of the condom is not a “real or moral solution” to the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Having said that, however, you also have to consider that the Holy Father was not just talking about the objective morality of the act, but also the subjective culpability of an individual who engages in it. In the case that the Holy Father cited, the use of a condom by a prostitute, the objective nature of the act is unchanged, and is always evil (a sexual act outside of marriage).  However, the individual’s culpability for that act may be lessened by the intention to reduce the risk of disease transmission. I would also note that the subjective culpability of a prostitute may be lessened by many other factors (coercion, addictions, compulsive behavior, legacies of past abuses, social structures of sin, etc.).

So the question is, can a Catholic pastor or institution affirmatively advise a person in that situation to use a condom to prevent disease — to say, in effect, “be good, but if you can’t be good be safe”?  I can’t see how one could justify that.  If a pastor were to do so, he would be actively encouraging or excusing immoral and risky behavior.  It is a better approach — the “real and moral solution”, as the Holy Father says — to continue to proclaim publicly the teaching of the Church to all, and encourage all to conform their lives to the objective moral law and the nature of sexuality.  Any discussion of a person’s use of a condom under particular circumstances, their personal culpability, and how they are proceeding along the gradual path to conversion, is best left to pastoral counseling or the Confessional.

In short, none of what the Holy Father said gives any support to the wishful thinking approach that would justify using a condom in marriage, that would lessen the objective evil of any sexual act outside of marriage, or that would encourage the widespread use of condoms, regardless of the alleged nobility of one’s intentions.

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