The pope, condoms, and the ethics of contraception.
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."
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.
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."
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.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.