The Edge Effect

Friday, May 05, 2006

Pontifical Prophylactics

Although I have strayed from the Catholic church, I still have a good deal of respect for it on many counts. Yeah, I know it isn't perfect and it would be an understatement to say I don't care for the new pope. But having so many serious Catholics in my family (three of my aunts are or were nuns), I can see an awful lot of good in the Church. Especially in historical perspective. Traditionally, the Vatican has held very strong positions for social justice, especially concerning poverty and peace. In the past decade, they seem to have thrown the white dove under the bus in order to pursue their strict pro-life and anti-gay agenda, needless to say this is a big part of the reason I don't identify as Catholic anymore.

So this week I saw a link to a story about the Vatican potentially OKing condoms. It isn't the great stride toward a more reasonable agenda that I was hoping for, but this article is a really interesting read. Apparently condoms will be OK only in the very specific circumstance of a married couple, one of whom already has AIDS.

I can't really congratulate the Church for it's moral clarity on this one, denying the legitimacy of condoms in this case would be truly draconian. And draconian aptly describes the Catholic policy on condoms for the past quarter of a century. While AIDS was ravaging developing nations (and developed ones too), the Church refused to promote barrier-method contraceptives because that would not have been "pro-life" enough. One has to ask how many lives ended early because of the transmission of HIV.

Even if this move is a bit more than a day late and a dollar short, the article has some interesting tidbits. The decision to allow condoms in this circumstance rests on two theological principles of which I was not fully aware. The first is the principle of self defense. It makes sense, but I didn't realize that the Church had an official policy stating that normally-sinful actions (all the way up to murder) are allowed if they are done in self-defense. In this case, the sinful act of using contraception is allowed if done by a spouse protecting herself (interestingly the article gendered this all the way through) from the sexual advances of an infected partner.

The second principle invoked in this decision is the principle of "the lesser of two evils." I had no idea that this was an official principle either. You've gotta love the example provided in the article - apparently priests frequently counsel mobsters to beat up their erstwhile associates rather than killing them. In the condom case denying a potential life is considered a lesser evil than knowingly infecting a partner with HIV.

I'm glad that's all cleared up.