Pope’s holey U-turn

2010-12-01 11:06

Is the pope Catholic? The whole world broke out the champagne the weekend before Thanksgiving when the news came that Pope Benedict XVI had approved the use of condoms in certain circumstances to prevent the transmission of HIV. In Light of the World, a new collection of interviews with the German journalist Peter Seewald, the pope says: “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanisation of sexuality.”

That’s quite a turnaround from last year when the pope, on a visit to Africa, claimed that condoms were ineffective and indeed only fuelled the epidemic.

Liberal Catholics are understandably jubilant. Catholics for Choice head Jon O’Brien says: “The takeaway is that the pope admits that condoms prevent Aids. Catholic health organisations, which receive millions and millions of dollars to fight Aids, can now say it’s OK to use condoms. That’s incredibly significant.”

Or maybe not. On November 22, papal spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi denied that the pope had said anything that “reforms or changes” church teaching.

If so, church teaching is even weirder than I thought: gay men, because they are already committing a sin, can protect themselves from a fatal disease, but an infected husband cannot use a condom to protect his HIV-negative wife. For the HIV-discordant married couple, sex is not a sin, contraception is.

As Sacred Heart Major Seminary professor Janet Smith put it in The Catholic World Report: “We must note that what is intrinsically wrong in a homosexual sexual act in which a condom is used is not the moral wrong of contraception but the homosexual act itself. In the case of homosexual sexual activity, a condom does not act as a contraceptive.”

There’s a logic here, but it’s the loopy follow-the-dots kind of logic. Perhaps the pope didn’t mean to specify that the prostitute had to be a man. In German “ein prostituierter” is grammatically masculine but can also be the default gender neutral, the way in certain contexts the English “man” can mean humans of either sex. (Adding to the confusion, in the Italian translation the word is feminine, “una prostituta”.)

In fact, according to the Associated Press, the pope means both sexes.

Lombardi says: “I personally asked the pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine. He told me ‘no’.

“The problem is this: it’s the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship.”

But that really opens the floodgates, because that female prostitute is not just using a rubber to prevent disease like her male counterpart; she is protecting herself – or technically, her client is protecting her – from pregnancy.

And contraception is a sin no matter the consequences of conception. It hasn’t mattered that a woman who got pregnant could be beaten or thrown out of her home, that she could lose her job, or that the sex might be rape by a partner or a stranger.

Well, actually, in the 1960s nuns in Congo were permitted to use birth control pills to protect themselves from impregnation by rapist soldiers. Ordinary women, even in wartime, are out of luck.

Nor has it mattered that a woman might be injured or die if she conceives. After all, like Aids, pregnancy and childbirth can be dangerous.

In the developing world, maternal mortality rates are themselves an epidemic. According to the World Health Organisation, about 350 000 girls and women die in pregnancy or childbirth yearly.

The church has been adamant that women have no right to protect themselves from conception except by periodic abstinence, which requires a cooperative partner and has a real-life failure rate of 25%.

The doctrine of the secondary effect, whereby a Catholic may perform an immoral act if its primary effect is moral, permits a doctor to give a dying patient painkillers that may hasten death: the primary purpose is relief of suffering, not euthanasia.

By the same logic, the church has always allowed for “just wars” and the deaths of innocents that inevitably take place in them. But, with the exception of those nuns in Congo, this reasoning is rejected when it comes to birth control.

Now that the pope has said people of both sexes can use condoms to protect themselves from a fatal sexual disease, can he not also, by the same logic, say women can protect themselves from the dangers of pregnancy?

» This article appeared in the US weekly journal, The Nation

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