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Morality for a broken world

By Bill Uren - posted Monday, 29 May 2006

The recent report of the Rome correspondent of the London Independent, Peter Popham, that “The Catholic Church is on the brink of a historic change of approach over condoms” will be welcome news to millions, in Africa particularly, and in other parts of the world devastated by AIDS. But it will also be welcomed by the not a few distinguished moral theologians who for about ten years have been recommending such a change. The movement has gained momentum recently with the support of half a dozen cardinals and a number of African bishops whose representations could not so easily be ignored by the Vatican.

It will be interesting, however, to see under which moral principle the Vatican subsumes the change - if indeed it does do so. It is important to remember that the 1968 Encyclical Letter of Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, only forbade the use of contraceptives in a conjugal relationship when they were used exclusively or primarily for contraceptive purposes.

One could use the contraceptive pill for other therapeutic purposes, for example, for “rebound” fertility therapy, for a female athlete wishing to prevent menstruation, and so on, provided that, as in these instances, the intention was not primarily contraceptive. It has been argued that this same line of “double effect” reasoning could be used in the case of an AIDS-infected conjugal relationship where the intention is presumably not contraceptive but life-saving.


But there are difficulties with this solution. The traditional Catholic understanding of the marriage act requires that sperm be deposited in the vagina - which the condom effectively prevents.

A second line of justification invokes the right to self-defence. A wife is justified in using defensive measures to protect her health and life when sex with her husband will threaten either or both, as is demonstrably the case in an AIDS-infected conjugal relationship. But traditionally this line of reasoning has been invoked when the husband is insistent on his marital rights. Can its application be extended to all cases of AIDS-infected conjugal relationships?

Hitherto the Vatican has argued that there is an alternative: abstinence. But perhaps there is a further line of argument, namely, that such enforced abstinence will cause the relationship to wither on the vine, and to that degree it is necessary (the “insistence” dimension) to permit condom-protected sexual relations. This is not the “ideal” morality which the church usually espouses, but it is a realistic “morality for a broken world”.

A final line of justification is the “lesser evil” argument which was recently invoked by Cardinal Martini in his conversazione with the medical professor, Ignazio Marino. While it is not a good thing to use a condom, it is better than endangering a life. This line of argument has most secular appeal. But the Vatican is uneasy with this “ends justifies the means” line of reasoning, smacking as it does of utilitarianism.

Benedict XVI is a sophisticated theologian, and is no doubt aware of all these justifications and their difficulties for the Catholic tradition. But a willingness to open the matter for discussion is a sign of his sophistication, and of his awareness of the ongoing attempts of moral theologians to find a morally acceptable Catholic solution to this human catastrophe.

It will be more than interesting to see if the Vatican can change in the face of this pandemic, and, if so, whether it can do so by invoking one or other of these justifications in such a way that continuity with traditional moral principles is preserved.

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First published in Eureka Street in Issue 1, May 16, 2006.

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About the Author

Fr Bill Uren SJ is Rector of Newman College at the University of Melbourne and a member of the Australian Health Ethics Committee.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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