The thing about the rubber – Why the argument about condoms is misleading
I am sure that I’m not the only priest who wonders about the Catholic Church’s vehement opposition to condoms and artificial contraceptives in general. Sometimes is seems almost as though the salvation of humanity hinges on a piece of latex. The reason the Church rejects condoms so fiercely is complex. I will try to explain it in plain and simple terms. And I can already hear scholarly theologians tearing through this chapter, but I’ll give it a try regardless.
To begin with, one needs to understand why the Church has such a problem with the subject of condoms itself.
Firstly, condoms are linked to sexuality, a subject that, as we know, has a stormy relationship with religion, going back to Judaism, the ancestor of Christianity. Yes, even the Jewish scribes of antiquity grappled with that “problem”, and over the course of history they have arrived at very different conclusions. Anyone who has read the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament will know how uninhibited and sensual Judaism could be. But because temple prostitutes were a symbol of paganism, some forms of sexuality were always deemed sinful.
The Apostle Paul merged the various influences exhibiting themselves in the early Church with ideas from Greek philosophy, and many Church Fathers followed his lead. This resulted in a prudery which sees even marital sex not as a manifestation of love, but as an ignoble necessity. St Augustine amplified this notion. In his day, debates were held about whether sexual relations could be permissible if it was accompanied by passion. As a former follower of Manichæism, which taught the inherent sinfulness of the body, Augustine linked the principle of original sin to the properties of sexuality. Thomas of Aquinas modified and expanded on the concept. At the end of his life, it is said, the great thinker found that after the experience of God all his work seemed like straw, and ordered his secretary to burn it all. It wasn’t, and a few alterations aside, the theology of sexual morality in the Catholic Church has remained the same: sexual love is fine, but only exclusively within marriage. The Church narrows down all sexuality to marital intercourse, at the pain of sin. Benedikt XIV tries to reflect in “Deus caritas est” partly about it, quoting amongst others Friedrich Nietzsches perception that religion has poised eros.
There has been an inopportune fixation on sex and all the potential for sin associated with it. Prayer books provide a striking example of that attitude, especially those published before the Second Vatican Council, but also afterwards. I remember well the words and expressions in the Beichtspiegel – the pamphlet intended to aid one’s recollection prior to Confession – which unintentionally encouraged adolescent fantasies.
Ironically, it was celibate theologians who contemplated the nature of human urges.
And their mantra was, “The Church is never wrong.” As time progressed, it did not matter that human thought and behaviour had changed and that research into sexuality had produced new findings. Longer life expectancy extended the length of marriages by decades. The earlier onset of puberty and the older age at which people married expanded the length of pre-marital abstinence. And couples had fewer children, as it was no longer necessary to have many children as insurance for old age. The Church and its thinkers paid no mind to these profound changes.
It’s God’s will, say the theologians, bound by the stipulation of chastity. I wonder if it really is God’s will. Is God really that excited by the topic of sexuality? In the face of pitiless injustices in the world, does He really have the time to be troubled about the sex lives of a billion people, never mind a little piece of rubber? Is it really His will that the Church should act less like a global messenger of the Good News than like an intolerant watchdog of morality?
Love and do as you want, St Augustine once said. To him, that was the radical substance of Christ’s message. This virtually anarchic assertion, which refers merely to God’s love, puts fear not only into the tyrants of this world, but also into many a Church leader. What might happen, they ask, if we actually went along with that idea? I think that we would actually come closer to meeting the intentions of Jesus, the Way and Truth and Life.
Even if there were no HIV/Aids and the question of protection against infection, the condom question would still need to be thoroughly revised. It just doesn’t suffice to resort to “balancing of interests” and ask whether we can tolerate the “lesser evil” or equivocate over what married couples may or may not do.
The answer could be so easy, though. The condom is, like any object, in itself neither good nor bad. It is only the use of an object that is good or bad. If the object is used to save lives, it is good. Period. This conclusion should apply within marriage and outside, because how can we justify the death of people even if they do not live up to our Church’s strict moral code? Shouldn’t the teenager who sleeps with his girlfriend protect himself – and her? It’s a question of life and death, literally. In that light, long discussions about whether the authorisation of condoms might lead to an increase in promiscuity are irrelevant. Indeed, the debate has already been settled. Studies show unambiguously that the use of prophylactics has no influence on the numbers of sexual partners or frequency of sexual acts. Isn’t it right that empirical studies – facts – should be integrated in the study of moral theology?
But then there is also a concern that obedience to the Church’s teaching authority might take a knock if moral theology is altered. I can well understand the misgivings in the Roman curia. It’s in a Catch-22 situation. A precedent might be set, a crack in the vigilantly fortified wall of tradition – and nobody wants to bear that responsibility. And yet, the teachings of the Church have in many respects changed dramatically over the past two millennia. The Church’s teachings may, should and must develop. It must do so for the good of the people, and for the sake of our loving God.
I am quite aware that many bishops are heartily sick of the discussion about condoms. But maybe they should listen more closely. At stake here is a perception – stated and unstated – among a great many Christians who think the Church’s line of argument is incorrect and therefore damaging to its credibility. The questions from critical believers who want the Church to take human suffering more seriously always strike me as cries of the heart. We are in a crisis that is more important than a piece of rubber.
Translation from the book:
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Hardcover: 207 pages – Publisher: Kiepenheuer & Witsch GmbH (August 31, 2007)
Language: German – ISBN-10: 3462039253 – ISBN-13: 978-3462039252
Gott – Aids – Afrika
Paperback – Bastei – Luebbe –
Language: German – ISBN-10: 3404606159 – ISBN-13: 978-3404606153