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Condoms and the “Marital Act”.

I got home late last night to find the news sites ablaze with reports that Pope Benedict has conceded that there could be some justification for the use of condoms “in certain cases”. Most reports see this (very slight) shift as significant: the Daily Telegraph headline calls it “historic”. Others are less convinced, noting that the example he gives is very specific, that of a male (homosexual) prostitute, for whom contraception is clearly a non- starter in the first place. This  does not seem to leave much for female prostitutes, for whom the same concern for avoiding the spread of infection would simultaneously prevent the transmission of life.

Condom Permitted?

Nevertheless, there is hope to be found in this extremely limited concession. I agree with Andrew Sullivan:

Yes, I know Benedict is talking of a prostitute; but once you introduce a spectrum of moral choices for the homosexual, you have to discuss a morality for homosexuals. Previously, it was simply: whatever you do is so vile none of can be moral. Now, it appears to be: even in a sexual encounter between a prostitute and his john there is a spectrum of moral conduct.

And so Pandora’s box opens. If it represents a “moralization” when a male prostitute wears a condom, would it be another step in his moralization to give up prostitution for a non-mercenary sexual and emotional relationship? In such a relationship, would it be more moral for such a man to disclose his HIV status or not? If he does, would it not be more moral for him to wear a condom in sex than not?

We all know the answer to these questions. They’re obvious. The new thing here is that the Church has stumbled backward into acknowledging that gay men exist, that within our lives as gay men, there are constant gradations of moral choices; and so Catholic teaching must apply to us in the gray areas of moral and sexual choices and nuances.

I go further than Sullivan, though.  There is significance here for all Catholics. Once you recognize degrees of morality in different situations for gay men, how can you ignore the degrees of morality in other sexual situations? Once you introduce a spectrum of moral choices for the homosexual, you must in fairness do the same for heterosexuals. How, in short can you continue to ignore the context in which genital acts take place?

I do not propose to comment further on these remarks on condoms. They were made in the context of a book-length interview, from which most reports have excerpted just a few sentences. When assessing Pope Benedict’s thinking, I find it much safer to look for a fuller report, giving the complete context. I will delay further comment until I have found more complete reporting – or perhaps read the full book. I do however want to offer a reflection prompted in part by another quote from this interview, and in part by a bizarre column in the Catholic Herald, which asked “Is French Kissing a Mortal Sin?”

In discussing condoms and Aids, the Pope

…explains that this is not the true and proper way to defeat HIV. Instead what is necessary is the humanization of sexuality.

… concentrating on the use of the condom only serves to trivialize sexuality.

This trivialization leads many people to no longer see sex as an expression of love, but as a self-administered drug. The fight against the banalization of sexuality is part of a great effort to change this view to a more positive one.

I agree that sexuality has been trivialized, banalized by popular culture, which introduces sexuality into so many public places and commercial uses. Even our modern language does this – we “have” sex, just as we might “have” dessert or a drink. But I submit that the Catholic church itself shares culpability. It too has trivialized sexuality, from the opposite direction, by restricting discussion to genital acts.

This was strikingly brought home to me by a column I saw yesterday on kissing. The writer quoted (in Latin) from Pope Alexander VII, and translated that as if a couple kiss in a manner “designed to inflame the passions” (or similar words), this was a mortal sin. The comments that followed, almost all from rule-book Catholics, totally ignored this qualifier and weighed in with absolute judgements and quotations from books of moral theology to confirm that yes, for unmarried persons, French kissing is indeed sinful. The only doubts for most of these people appeared to be of degree: was the sin mortal, or only venial?

Are these people mad? Do they not realise that kissing, even to this degree, is not always simple self -gratification, but may be an expression of love? Are we really to take seriously the idea that for committed, loving couples intending to marry, the deepest physical expression of that love they may permit themselves is a peck on the cheek, or some cautious hand-holding, for fear that anything more may “excite the passions”, and lead them into darkest temptation? So, the comments continued, French kissing must always be avoided, except as a prelude to “the marital act”, within conjugal limits (and  open to conception).

Of course, that is not what the pope had written.  There is an important distinction between “designed to inflame passions” and “which may inflame passions”.  What about in a manner “designed to express love”? Where does that fit into the rule-book? The problem of course, is that rule-books are ill-equipped to deal with concepts of context and intent. This is why Pope Benedict’s very limited concession on condoms in certain circumstances is so significant – it opens the door to discussion on context.

Let us reflect further on these “marital acts”. What are they? In Catholic jargon, they are simply a euphemism for (hetero) sexual intercourse. This usage trivializes sexuality, quite as much as popular culture does, by limiting it. As any person who has experienced a real sexual relationship will know, sexuality is much more than simple inserting a penis into a vagina. It includes sexual foreplay and afterplay, and also an entire way of relating between two people, in or out of bed. It includes pecks on the cheek, holding hands, and simply being aware of another’s real presence in our lives.

To understand the sterility of limiting “the marital act” to a single genital action, I want to sketch out two simple scenarios. For simplicity, I limit these to the somewhat mythical “traditional” family structure, Mom at home raising three or four young kids, Pop at work as breadwinner.

Family A:

Both parents have had trying, difficult days. Pop has been under pressure at work from impossible demands from his boss, unhappy clients, and computer systems that are underperforming. Still, he perseveres, and by working late, completes his responsibilities for the day. Mom has had difficulties of her own, with numerous unwanted interruptions at the door and on the telephone, one sick child, and others who have brought rowdy friends home to play. Perhaps the washing machine has been acting up. Still, she has  ensured that the children have been well fed and cared for, received proper personal love and attention, and had homework supervised. She has completed all the housework she needs to do, has dinner ready – and Pop is late.

When he gets in, she puts aside her irritation. They kiss, Pop greets and hugs the children and the family sits down for a meal together. After dinner, both parents share in clearing away, and with the children’s evening routine. Pop also pays personal attention to the children, and checks on progress at school, and enquires about their day, in and out of school. Kids have bedtime stories and evening prayers. Once they are asleep, Mom and Pop have some time alone together, sharing their frustrations and difficulties of the day, helping each other to get over these and release the tensions and stress. There may be some time for personal leisure activities, or they may do something together: a jigsaw puzzle perhaps, or just watching TV, enjoying each other’s company. Later, they go to bed.  A couple of times a week, they may enjoy each other sexually. They make love. They fuck.

In all of this, is only the last a “marital act”? Why is only the physical action which may lead to baby-making a “marital act”, and not also the nurturing and care that go into turning babies into strong, confident children who are capable of growing into independent, responsible adults? Why not the mutual love and support that enables the couple to survive the rigours and trials of their lives? What of the labour and sacrifices that go into running the home for the rest of the family, or into making the money to support it. Are these not marital acts?

Family B:

Both parents have also had difficult, trying days. But in this case, Mom has left the children to a childminder. Her trials were endured while shopping.  When she gets home, she leaves the children to their own devices while she watches her favourite soaps, then pops a frozen meal into the microwave. Pop meanwhile has dealt with his frustration by nipping off to a pub after work, to unwind with his mates. They persuade him to join them for dinner at some strip-joint or girlie bar, where they spend the evening. He eventually gets home late, where Mom is waiting, surly and angry. There’s a flaming row about the spoilt dinner, overheard by the children, who retreat alone to their bedrooms. The parents eventually go to bed too, but without proper reconciliation. Pop, aroused by the memory of the strippers he’s been watching, still wants sex. He makes his intentions plain, and Mom, mindful of her “conjugal duty”, supplies. They do not make love. They do not fuck. He fucks her – this is strictly one way.

Is this a “marital act”? It is after all, strictly within the Catholic rule book – within marriage, and open to the physical creation of babies. But what are the prospects that the children that ensue will receive the proper love and nurturing that they will receive?

The two situations are obviously poles apart, but standard Catholic vocabulary does not recognize it. Instead, by narrowly focussing on “licit” genital acts (sexual intercourse, within marriage, open to procreation, and others leading to such acts), and opposing them with a universal condemnation of all others, traditional Catholic discussion of sexuality eliminates all consideration of context from sexuality. It trivializes it.

Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna has made an important observation concerning “homosexual” persons. It is time, he says, that the Church should start to place more emphasis on the quality of the relationships than on the simple homosexual acts. This observation also has relevance for sexuality more generally. Instead of focussing exclusively on “acts”, marital or otherwise, we need to consider more deeply the quality of the relationships behind them – that is, the context in which the acts take place.

Perhaps Benedict’s very cautious introduction of context to a discussion on condoms will now contribute to a more nuanced, contextual Catholic understanding of human sexuality – and away from the trivialization of sexuality that he so deplores.




7 Responses

  1. I think in the original comments a prostitute was mentioned but not the sex of the prostitute. Male was added in the translation.

  2. In reference to my last post, please read, Enlightened Catholicism, Pope Benedict and Condoms, Part III. This clarifies things further.

    • Thanks for the tip off, Mark. This gets more and more interesting and hopeful. I’ll be digging deeper myself.

    • The gender of the prostitute is of some importance here, if he specified males only. The German noun used is gender – neutral: but Deutsche Welt seems to think that male only was implied. As they note, fir the full significance, we will have to wait for the full passage to become available.

      em>Die Passage zur Prostitution könnte mehr als explosiv sein. So scheint Benedikt sich hier auf männliche Prostituierte zu beziehen und damit auf den Homo-Sex, den es nach Ansicht der Kirche gar nicht geben dürfte. Für eine endgültige Aufklärung der Formulierung gilt es abzuwarten, bis das Buch am Dienstag präsentiert wird.

  3. Terence,

    Let me put a different spin on it. All the anti-Vatican folks needed something like this to realize that the Church’s teaching throught the Vatican is not nearly as harsh as they had convinced themselves that it must be.

    • David, I suggest you read Fr. Martin’s take on this issue at America Magazine:

      It has been extremely harsh on people in third world countries, especially those people who rely on Catholic Charities like Caritas International for medical services. Caritas was prevented from offering condoms by the Vatican and hugely castigated by American neo con Catholics for even considering such a policy.

      Here in the US, the USCCB’s efforts have been very pro active in maintaining the no condom/HIV policy globally. In 2008, they successfully used their lobbying power to remove family planning from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

      Provisions in the final PEPFAR bill not only allowed faith-based groups to abstain from distributing condoms, but also to refrain from providing referrals to agencies that do.

      No David, this re evaluation of Benedict’s doesn’t move me one little bit. It should have been done thirty years ago, long before Benedict caused untold embarrassment for himself and his teaching authority with his insane comments while in Africa.

    • Colleen,

      People in Third World countries are free to get condoms from other relief agencies. It is not as if the Church is preventing people from getting care. Rather, the Church, as matter of policy, has chosen to limit its medical services to those services than it deems within the Church’s teaching.

      Further, the lack of condoms is not causing the AIDS epidemic, nor is distributing condoms the solution. The solution lies in less sex, especially with multiple partners.

      Benedict’s statements are not a change of doctrine, although it does seem to represent a change of policy. The clarifications were probably long overdue judging by the comments of many commentators who were apparently confused, and still appear confused.

      Further, judging from many of the commentators, no one really follows the rules anyhow. If people followed the Church’s teachings on sex, there would be very little AIDS. I seriously doubt that there are very many people who are following the Church’s teachings condoms if they aren’t following the Church’s teachings on sex. It seems to me to be more of an excuse to attack the Church than it is an empirical reality.

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