The Pope is now accused of supporting condoms. The dirty little secret is that he really supports something much more scandalous. To a modern mind, a condom is little more that a piece of rubber, sex is little more than a means to pleasure, and the only question is to use or not to use. The scandal is that Benedict XVI goes beyond the categories of the modern mind. He believes in a human view of sexuality as opposed to a merely mammalian view.
When asked about using condoms against AIDS for high risk populations, Pope Benedict does not respond yes or no. The source of the problem is deeper: what view of sexuality do you have? Posing the question as simply “condoms: yes or no” implies an inhuman vision of sexuality. Even when he says condoms might be useful in some cases, it is not because they necessarily prevent AIDS, but because they will lead people closer to a human view of sexuality.
The question does not involve those living a human view of sexuality. In a fully human view of sexuality the question of separating the mutual self-giving of the spouses would not surface. A prostitute, man or woman, gay or straight, is living far from a human view of sexuality. Sexual acts without any meaning are totally inhuman. If prostitutes were to realize the possibility of disease transmission (some meaning if even a very basic one), it could lead them towards a human view of sexuality where the act expresses spousal love rather than leaving a void. The Pope is addressing exactly this banalization of sexuality which strips it not just of transcendent meaning but of all meaning.
The Pope is a man of ideas; he addresses himself more to a mindset than to a specific person. He is speaking to a Planned Parenthood activist handing out condoms in Africa but this is not all. He appears to address a materialist attitude that sees us humans simply as “more evolved predators” (according to a recent National Geographic article). About ten years ago, Bloodhound Gang expressed this attitude in a #1 hit song “you and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals.” And they conclude their thought in the next line with the logical consequence: “So let’s do it as they do on the Discovery Channel.” If A then B; it makes perfect sense. The problem is that A is false; we are mammals but something else beyond as well. Staying on the level of mammals, condoms are the way to slow the spread of AIDS – sexual urges can be controlled no better than hair growth or blood flow so at least prevent disease transmission as a side effect of such brief rendezvous. The Pope has another perspective.
The difference between other mammals and humans is that we can love. It would be ridiculous to talk about a dog being adulterous, or worrying about the moral consequences of having your dog spayed or neutered. Why? Because a dog cannot control his urges – if a put a male dog in a room with a female dog in heat, the male dog can’t resist; if I put a 30 oz. steak before a starving dog, he is going to munch on it. True, you can train a dog not to eat food in front of him, but only when he isn’t famished, and only from outside (with your action) and not inside (his own action). When a dog copulates, he is only fulfilling his natural desire; when a married man expresses conjugal love, he goes far beyond this. To love is to will the good of the other above one’s own good. This implies the ability to control your urges; one cannot seek the good of another above his own if he cannot control his own desires. For example, if a man gambles away his pay check the night he gets it, he can’t provide for his family. Controlling your desires means controlling who you sleep with so that it is an act of love not mere satisfaction of lust. The crux of the difference between humans and other mammals is we can love.
Benedict XVI is calling our society to live above our animal urges. He, however, is realistic in expecting this to happen by stages rather than in some momentary divine illumination. For someone in a state of total moral depravity, he said using a condom “can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.” To assume responsibility for our actions means that they are not the result of our passions alone but of our choice. Following from this, he hopes this would lead “toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants.” The hope is that slowly a person would move to a more human view, and eventually to a fully human view of marital conjugal love.
The Church’s teaching on contraception regards acts of conjugal love not all acts of copulation. The Catechism puts the teaching against contraception within the section of marital love and avoids mentioning it in sections dealing with other sexual sins. Contraception is a sin because it takes away the intrinsic language of the conjugal act, which is complete self-giving to another; such language is absent in illicit sexual acts. In the specific act referred to (a prostitute using a condom), the subjective act (what the person chooses in their own mind) is probably one of preventing disease not of contraception. Their act is already devoid of self-giving love and subjectively contraceptive as a child would not be welcome. (Objectively, most acts of prostitution are probably already contraceptive though “the pill” or the type of sexual act performed.) Even though the analysis here is based on subjective acts, the objective evil of prostitution and contraception in marriage remains; picking either, even for subjectively good reasons, is a grave evil. The Pope has not changed one iota of Church teaching.
A merely mammalian view will never stem the spread of HIV. Pope Benedict proposes that the solution “can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.” Love only exists in such a view – here man free to choose with whom, when, and how. If his view is followed, the Discovery Channel sex-song can be replaced by a true love song: “You and me sweetie are way more than mammals, so let’s do it in true marital love.”
Matthew P. Schneider, LC is a religious brother and seminarian with the Legionaries of Christ. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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