Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Spelling out the principle of the lesser evil

The news today is that “the Holy See is preparing a document on the use of condoms to prevent the transmission of the HIV virus” (Catholic World News). This follows the discussion which appeared in the Italian daily La Repubblica. John Allan reported at length on this issue in this week’s Word From Rome, where he said:

Similarly, asked about the use of condoms to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, Martini responded: "Certainly the use of prophylactics can, in some situations, constitute a lesser evil," mentioning the case of a couple where one partner is infected and the other isn't.

The problem, Martini said, isn't really the ethical analysis. The problem is the PR headaches that follow whenever a church official says this out loud. To put it bluntly, anytime a senior church official says that use of a condom might be a "lesser evil" in the context of a deadly disease, the next day's headlines trumpet "Church okay with condoms," which is not the same message.

"The question is really if it's wise for religious authorities to propagandize in favor of this method of defense [from HIV/AIDS], almost implying that other morally sustainable means, including abstinence, are put on a lower level," Martini said. "The principle of a 'lesser evil,' applicable in all the cases covered by ethical doctrine, is one thing; another thing is who ought to express these judgments publicly."

I highlighted that bit above, because that is indeed spot on. I’ve never really believed that the plague proportion of HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa (etc.) is due to the Catholic prohibition of condoms, nor that it would be halted if the Church removed its “blanket ban” on condoms. Somehow it just doesn’t ring true that men who would have unprotected sex with prostitutes and then with their wives would pay much attention to what the Pope has to say on the matter. It would seem to me that the condom question for such men is more a question of a “macho” image. Or the simple fact that it is more pleasurable to have sex without a condom than with one.

[I speak from experience of my pre-Catholic days. I haven’t used one since my conversion. My very wise catechist, Anthony Fisher—now auxiliary bishop of Sydney in charge of the next WYD—pointed out the perversity of committing a sin when the sin actually reduces the pleasure of the sexual act!]

What is probably more true is that their wives and those who advise their wives will pay attention to the Church’s teaching. Here I expect that the principle of the lesser evil (as outlined by Martini above) has always been pastorally applied to individuals who have sought such pastoral advice, and I believe that such advice has been given without sin.

Maybe these days people need everything spelled out for them. But I don’t trust the media to get the spelling right, and most Catholics seem to use the media as their source of infallible pontifications these days. Here, the cautionary advice of Fr Neuhaus on the standards of religious journalism in the New York Times should be heeded:

“The New York Times is a newspaper where a reporter’s ignorance of a subject is considered a qualification. I’m not making this up. More than one person at the Times has explained to me that having someone report on a subject with which he is not familiar provides a fresh and unbiased perspective, and makes it more likely his reporting will be readily understood by non-specialists. That is not the policy on really important subjects, mind you, such as science, the Supreme Court, and same-sex marriage. But it will do for religion.”

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