Monday, January 3, 2011

Hustlers and Condoms and Popes -- Oh My!

Most people are aware of the current controversy surrounding the Pope's (extremely mild) statement that in the case of a male prostitute with HIV, the use of a prophylactic might be a sign of moral growth. Naturally, this has produced all sorts of outrage and speculation. The secular press has declared that the Pope cares more about male prostitutes than married women. Conservative Catholics are terrified that this is going to cause massive scandal. Liberal Catholics are hailing it as the long-awaited loosening of the Church's position on contraception.
It's interesting, because the problem is one that I've looked at in the past, before it was a major controversy, and I was somewhat scandalized by the fact that Catholic bodies, such as the US Council of Bishops, stubbornly refused to publicly permit Catholic medical authorities to recommend the use of condoms in the case of HIV infected (or potentially HIV infected) gay men who are committed to continuing in a homosexual lifestyle. From a moral point of view, the issue has always seemed to me to be a no-brainer: condoms are not permitted in the case of a normal sexual intercourse because they are contraceptive. In the case of homosexual sex, a condom simply is not a contraceptive device. It's only purpose is to prevent the transmission of a potentially fatal disease, and as such there should be absolutely no moral controversy whatever surrounding its use.
It's interesting to see, however, how this has played out. I, and perhaps Benedict as well, seem to have been unduly optimistic about the world's ability to deal with this sort of issue in a rational and mature way. Instead of saying, "Oh, yes, that is morally consistent, and makes sense, and follows from the rest of Catholic teaching," the world has taken this as an opportunity to fly off into various fits of fanciful speculation.
Granted, the fact that the prophylactic use of condoms is not only justifiable, but is arguably a grave moral obligation in the case of HIV positive persons who are engaging in sexual acts which could not possibly lead to conception, does raise some interesting questions. Naturally, people are going to speculate about these. The problem is what gets overlooked in all of the hubbub, which is the fact that the Pope has made a fairly courageous statement: one that is totally orthodox, and which at the same time demonstrates a fully human and compassionate response to the problem of HIV in gay communities. To me, at least, the desire to prevent putative "scandal" is less important than the desire to save lives. Obviously, as Benedict stresses, condoms are not a solution to the problem of AIDS. The true moral obligation resting on anyone who has HIV, is to curb their sexual desires in order to protect the lives of others. But realistically, people who are facing a long-standing sexual addiction are not likely to succeed in suddenly going cold-turkey the moment they gain the most psychologically devastating news of their lives. Denial, hopelessness, moral despair, anger, and extreme loneliness are all common, normal reactions to an HIV diagnosis. The Pope is absolutely right: for someone in this position, the decision to move from a state of total moral denial and culpable recklessness, to adopt at least some measure of responsibility for their actions and the consequences thereof, is a sign of greater moral and emotional maturity. It's not a complete solution, it's not a full embrace of the moral obligation to respect for life and chastity, but it is a move in the right direction.
And I'm glad that someone in the Church had the courage to say so.

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