Catholic Culture Podcasts
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The Pope, the Condom, and the Elephant

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 22, 2010

We’ve been paying close attention to the reports of Pope Benedict’s comments regarding the use of condoms in certain special circumstances (see What the Pope really said about condom use). Among sound Catholic commentators, Janet Smith and Jimmy Akin were the first to weigh in, and they’ve both made important points. But nobody has responded effectively to the elephant in the room, perhaps because even most Catholic commentators are just a little bit afraid the elephant is real. Let me explain.

It is true, as Jimmy Akin says, that the Pope’s remarks were not an exercise of his teaching authority. But to bring that up is to admit at least a mild fear that what he said somehow calls into question the clear and consistent teaching of the Church against contraception.

It is also true that, as Janet Smith notices immediately, the Pope’s prime example for a possible acceptable or humanly positive use of condoms appeared to be a homosexual example, in which no contraception is involved. And as Smith also stresses, the Pope did note that the promotion of condom use to reduce the spread of AIDS is not regarded by the Church as a “moral” solution. But Smith seems just a little hasty in jumping on this rather than on the succeeding clause (which begins “but, in this or that case….”). Am I only imagining a temptation to “spin” the Pope’s remarks lest they somehow undermine the previous clear teaching of the Church?

In other words, Jimmy Akin does an excellent job of showing the limits of the Pope’s comments. Janet Smith does an excellent job of showing by analogy what the Pope was trying to express. Both did a far better job than the Vatican’s own Press Office Director, Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, who tried to explain away the uproar by asserting the Pope was merely repeating commonly held Catholic ideas—without troubling to shed any light on these ideas whatsoever. But from the best to the worst, Catholic commentators seem to be rather deliberately ignoring the elephant in the room, as if to look at it directly could somehow endanger the Church.

So let’s stare it straight in the eye. The elephant in the room is the conviction that if Pope Benedict acknowledges the possible moral good of using a condom in one situation, then he is fundamentally weakening or retreating from the Church’s teaching that contraception is intrinsically evil. This conviction is a great and gleeful hope among those who uphold contraception, but it is also an intense fear among those who have perceived the evil of contraception all along. The elephant, then, is this huge, gigantic, enormous conviction—whether welcome or unwelcome—that the Pope has put the Church’s teaching on contraception in jeopardy.

But this elephant exists only in the minds of those, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who do not fully understand the Church’s teaching on contraception.

Note this well. The Church’s teaching on contraception is that contraception is intrinsically evil when used to frustrate the procreative purpose of the marital act. In anticipation of exactly the sort of confusion we are witnessing today, I addressed this issue nearly four years ago in Contraception: Why It’s Wrong. The point to remember is that contraception is intrinsically evil only within marriage. Outside of marriage, sexual intercourse itself is intrinsically evil; outside of marriage, there is no marital act that must be kept open to life and love; outside of marriage, the morality of contraception must be determined on other grounds, namely extrinsic grounds.

This is exactly the kind of moral analysis the Pope was doing in the discussion which is now so much in the news. When, with respect to the distribution of condoms to reduce the risk of AIDS, the Pope says the Church “of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in 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”, he is doing exactly the sort of extrinsic moral analysis required for this case. He does not say, “Wait, stop right here, contraception is intrinsically immoral, there can be no further discussion.” He does not say this because that thinking applies only within marriage. Rather, he says we need to look at the circumstances, the moral context, and the moral trajectory.

The vast majority of Churchman have rejected the idea of fighting AIDS with condoms because the public promotion of condoms tends to dehumanize sexual relations, emphasizing only the selfish pleasure to be gained, and bypassing altogether the responsibility called for in a truly human vision of sexuality. The Pope alludes to this when he mentions “a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality”. It is possible that in some specific cases, the use of a condom might be a step in the right direction (think of a rapist, for example). But Pope Benedict and most other Churchmen over the years have seen that the public promotion of condoms takes us in exactly the wrong direction overall, so that our last state is worse than our first. It further cheapens sexuality, and in so doing undermines the very values which alone can solve the AIDS problem—and along with it the more fundamental problems which AIDS represents.

But none of this has any bearing on the Church’s traditional teaching against contraception in marriage. Indeed, no matter what position the Pope or any other moralist may take on the use of condoms in particular situations which are already fundamentally disordered—situations in which sexual activity is already intrinsically immoral—that position cannot affect the Church’s teaching on the use of condoms in sexual acts which are otherwise properly ordered and moral—that is, within marriage. In each and every properly ordered and therefore moral sexual act (that is, in each and every marital act), deliberate contraception remains intrinsically immoral.

There are many other aspects of this story that need to be addressed (see Phil Lawler's In Depth Analysis The Vatican Newspaper has betrayed the Pope). But the purity of Catholic doctrine is not one of them. Unfortunately, there really is an elephant in the room, and this elephant does dominate the vision of both secularists and Catholics—if they do not properly understand the Church’s teaching on contraception. But the moment they do, the elephant disappears. Look it in the eye, and it is gone.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Nov. 26, 2010 4:12 PM ET USA

    Interestingly, there has been a flurry of condom use in rapes, and it has nothing to do with sparing the victim anything. Condoms have been used increasingly to prevent leaving traces of DNA on the victim. If anything, this adds to the gravity of an already gravely sinful act. The elephant actually is: There is NO GOOD WAY TO DO A BAD THING.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Nov. 24, 2010 3:30 PM ET USA

    amica99m1474: If what you say is true, a rapist would be morally obligated to commit rape without wearing a condom, even if he wished to gain his sexual pleasure without causing his victim the long-term problem of making her pregnant. Note, in this context, that the Church has never taught that contraception is intrinsically evil outside of marriage.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Nov. 24, 2010 9:00 AM ET USA

    Thanks, Dr. Mirus. As all of the moral commentators have pointed out, the intrinsic evil of contraception lies in the separation of the procreative from the unitive aspect of the conjugal embrace within the confines of the marital bond. Outside of this bond, contraception is of a moral species similar to the fornication or adultery that would take place in an extramarital embrace: it de-legitimizes the conjugal act.

  • Posted by: - Nov. 24, 2010 2:40 AM ET USA

    Only one aspect of this worries me: Someone may take the Pop's comments to advocate for funding condom distribution programs for active homosexuals. I think His Holiness has already spoken on this and condemned it, but don't count on the media to comprehend. Too many are too eager for any excuse for why they can provide public funding for immoral acts.

  • Posted by: - Nov. 24, 2010 12:54 AM ET USA

    The inherent wrong of using condoms is not limited to the marital relationship. Contraception would be wrong in the case of fornication and would add a grave evil to the already gravely evil act. I think you have the wrong elephant, and I wish I could tell you what I think is really the elephant but I can't do it in 150 characters so I have to stop here.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Nov. 23, 2010 9:21 PM ET USA

    AgnesDay: There can be multiple factors at work with moral implications. For example, you can't mitigate the immorality of rape by wearing a condom, yet a rapist might choose to avoid impregnating his victims, so that a condom would in that instance be a step toward some semblance of responsibility. That's all the Pope was saying.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Nov. 23, 2010 5:02 PM ET USA

    I'm still puzzled. Is it somehow less immoral (or more moral) to murder someone without causing him pain? If so, the example given by the Holy Father might make more sense. You cannot mitigate the immorality of an intrinsically immoral act, even though you may have the intention of doing so. Wearing a condom for immoral sexual acts cannot be seen as mitigation of the evil involved. I'm still confused.

  • Posted by: wojo425627 - Nov. 23, 2010 1:47 PM ET USA

    I am glad you wrote this. Both as a clarifier of this issue and as a clearer explanation of your earlier article in which I believe you refer to contraception outside of marriage as a morally neutral thing. And which I think you said in parenthesis "rightly". I wanted some clarification on that point. Thank you.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Nov. 23, 2010 11:33 AM ET USA

    Thank you again, Dr. Mirus, for a clear and consise analysis.