The pope, condoms, and the ethics of contraception.

Science, technology, and life.
Nov. 29 2010 8:53 AM

Moral Sex

The pope, condoms, and the ethics of contraception.

Pope Benedict. Click image to expand.

Forty-two years ago, in the face of the sexual revolution, the Catholic Church rejected artificial birth control. Its definitive encyclical, Humanae Vitae, presented the issue as a choice between morality and technology. The church's message, according to Pope Paul VI, was that man must not "betray his personal responsibilities by putting all his faith in technical expedients."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Today, in his reflections on condoms and HIV, Pope Benedict XVI sees a more complex relationship between technology and responsibility. Condom use, he acknowledges, can be a manifestation of conscience. And down this road lies a more difficult truth: Contraception isn't what Pope Paul thought it was. It's more than a technical expedient. It can and should be a moral practice.

Humanae Vitae saw contraception as a gateway to license and chaos. It "could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards," Pope Paul warned. He worried that

a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.

In this sense, the Catholic case against contraception was really a case for respecting sex. It rested not only on the "procreative significance" of intercourse but also on the act's "unitive significance"—its role in bonding the partners—and on values that implicitly reached beyond marriage: reverence, care, affection, love.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the man who would become Pope Benedict, defended these values in a 1996 interview with journalist Peter Seewald. The problem with contraception, he argued, was that

we cannot resolve great moral problems simply with techniques, with chemistry, but must solve them morally, with a life-style. It is, I think—independently now of contraception—one of our great perils that we want to master even the human condition with technology, that we have forgotten that there are primordial human problems that are not susceptible of technological solutions but that demand a certain life-style and life decisions …

As pope, Benedict extended this critique of technology to HIV. "You can't resolve it with the distribution of condoms," he said last year on a trip to Africa. "On the contrary, it increases the problem." Instead, he called for "a humanization of sexuality, a human, spiritual renewal which brings with it a new way of behaving."

Now Benedict has released another series of interviews with Seewald. Again, he insists that

we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms. Much more needs to be done. We must stand close to the people, we must guide and help them … [T]he sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves.

The common thread in these arguments against contraception and condom use, going all the way back to Humanae Vitae, is a notion of technology divorced from ethics. It's a critique not of condoms per se, but of fixation on distribution and technique. You can't just hand out rubbers and expect to solve AIDS or teen pregnancy. You have to change behavior. And that requires a sense of responsibility.

But technology can be used for moral ends. You can wear a condom not to bang your neighbor's wife but to protect your life partner from disease. And this is what makes Benedict's latest reflections noteworthy. He not only concedes the point; he articulates its significance.

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, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality. … [I]n 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.

This isn't an endorsement of condoms. It's more than that. It's an explication of the morality of condom use. It's an analysis of how prophylactic sexual conduct can honor the principles—responsibility, care for one's partner, enduring moral standards—in whose name Humanae Vitae denounced contraception.

Benedict's concession applies only to disease prevention. But it shakes the foundations of the church's injunction against contraception. Humanae Vitae didn't object to birth control per se. On the contrary, it invited couples to "take advantage of the natural cycles immanent in the reproductive system and engage in marital intercourse only during those times that are infertile." As Ross Douthat notes, it's hard for many Catholics to understand why the church forbids condom use but "permits me to rigorously chart my temperature and/or measure my cervical mucus every day in an effort to avoid conception." So the pope falls back on Humanae Vitae's broader distinction: "Natural" birth control is a practice, whereas "artificial" birth control is just a technical expedient. The rhythm method, he reasons, is "not just a method but a way of life." In this respect, it's "fundamentally different from when I take the pill without binding myself interiorly to another person, so that I can jump into bed with a random acquaintance."

The pope really needs to get out more. Millions of people take the pill, wear IUDs, or use condoms as a way of life. They do so to bind themselves to another person, not to jump into bed with random acquaintances. They hope to spare their partners not only disease, but the creation of a new life they aren't prepared to bring into the world. This is the opposite of exploitation. It's an act of care, responsibility, and reverence.

Humanae Vitae was right about love. It was wrong about contraception, but that error can be corrected. It might take decades or centuries, but Benedict's reflections are a good start. They're a first step in the direction of a moralization, a more human way of living sexuality.

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