Of Condoms and Popes


Amid all the excitement about the Pope’s “game-changer” regarding condoms, I thought I might do my humble best to clarify the situation.  I’ll offer a roughly analogous moral case, but one that does not involve condoms (since, for some reason, condoms seem to be much more effective at preventing thought than conception).  Though it’s true that my analogous case involves killing, a crime far weightier than contraception, the cases are structurally similar inasmuch as the Church reckons both deeds malum in se, that is, unjustifiable regardless of further intentions or extenuating circumstances.

Let’s suppose, for starters, that a pharmaceutical company develops and markets a “euthanasia” pill.  This pill is designed specifically to induce painless death during sleep. Let’s further suppose that the the “lords spiritual” of the contemporary West begin to consider this euthanasia pill a solution to a variety of human problems—intractable suffering, overpopulation, the indignity of old age, etc.  The Vatican naturally condemns this pill tout court.  It insists that “euthanasia” pills are not “real” or “moral” solutions to human problems.  Studies eventually reveal that the easy access to the euthanasia pill—rather than enhancing the quality of life among the elderly—actually contributes to their depression, since they now feel selfish for clinging to life.  The Vatican might then point out these undesired side-effects by insisting that euthanasia pills “make the problem worse” (for the logic behind the Pope’s claim in the case of condoms, see my earlier post).  A global uproar might ensue.

Let’s further suppose that, less than two years later, a journalist asks the Pope whether there were really no basis for using the euthanasia pill—so as, for instance, to release those trapped in a (so-called) persistent vegetative state or to relieve prisoners faced with imminent torture.  The Pope might answer with a hypothetical scenario such as follows:

There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a mafia hit-man uses the euthanasia pill (as opposed to a more painful wire garrote), where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of terminal illnesses. That can really lie only in the humanization of suffering and aging.

Note that in offering this hypothetical case, the Pope would not be saying that the hit-man’s administration of euthanasia pill was a positively good act.  He is merely affirming that the desire to inflict less suffering on his victims could be—subjectively speaking—a first movement toward moralization, a first step in the realization that the victim also has dignity.  The act remains, however, murder.

Note also that, in affirming that the euthanasia pill could represent a step in the direction of moralization, the Pope would not be 1) changing the moral category of euthanasia (for which act the pill was expressly designed).  Nor would he necessarily be endorsing 2) the idea that churches or civil governments should distribute euthanasia pills to hit-men under the rubric of the “lesser evil.”  It is uncertain even whether 3) a priest in a confessional—on the basis of the Pope’s hypothetical case—should positively counsel a hit-man to use the euthanasia pill until such time as the latter can extricate himself from mafia contracts altogether.  There might still, in cases 2) and 3), be a risk of appearing to condone mafia hits.  This might, in turn, involve the Church or confessor in formal cooperation with evil.

It does seem safe to say, however, that 4) anyone who discovers that a hit-man is using euthanasia pills for his contracts (and who has no reasonable hope of dissuading him from killing altogether), is not obliged to persuade him to return to the old wire garrote method on the grounds that the euthanasia pills only compounds the disorder of his action.  Discreet silence in this regard would be—even by the strictest of moral standards—a true toleration of a “lesser evil”.

The toleration of “lesser evil” in 4) is an old principle and rather uncontroversial in Catholic moral theology. The sea-change represented by 1) would be hard to read into the Pope’s statements on condoms–especially in light of his protestations that condoms are not a “real” solution.  If the Pope meant to change the principles governing 2) and 3), such that the Church and her confessors could not only tolerate lesser evils but could even abet and counsel them, this would indeed be news.  I haven’t seen any indication in the Pope’s carefully phrased remarks, however, that he so intended.

This seems to me to the state of the question.



5 Responses to Of Condoms and Popes

  1. […] Pidel, SJ, also has relevant comments on the subject here, if you haven’t seen the post […]

  2. Pete Lake says:


    An excellent clarification and a very relevant analogy.

    I doubt, as you suggest, that if such a statement were made about euthanasia that we would be hearing about a “game-changer” in the euthanasia debate.

    God bless you and your generation of priests, for whom we are so very grateful, and we pray that more like you all here enter the Company.

  3. Mr. Crouchback says:

    Best commentary/clarification I’ve read on this matter.

  4. Father Dick Tomasek, S.J. says:

    Nice going, Aaron. I agree. Perhaps you could send a copy of this piece to our brother, James Martin, at America magazine.

  5. Marc Dillon says:

    Well said Arron. I have trained you well. I’ll drop off a copy to Rev James Martin, S.J. on your behalf. Just say the word.

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