The Pope, The Condom, And The Elephant

By Jeffrey A. Mirus

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 Churchmen 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 AnalysisThe 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.
Dr. Jeffrey A. Mirus is the president of He has been a leader in Catholic education and the dissemination of Catholic information for over 30 years. He has cofounded a Catholic college (Christendom College), authored and published numerous scholarly books, pioneered Catholic internet services, and founded a nonprofit corporation (Trinity Communications) to advance the Catholic faith through education and the media. In addition to his apostolic and career accomplishments, Dr. Mirus is the father of six children. He and his wife, Barbara, currently reside in Northern Virginia.
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