Said another way, the "official" church is now saying that relative to certain situations, non-procreative sex is recommended, is a responsible thing to do.
The Associated Press is calling it a "seismic shift," an acknowledgment that "the church's long-held anti-birth control stance against condoms doesn't justify putting lives at risk." The Guardian of London notes that this acknowledgment creates "a doctrinal dilemma for hardliners."
And why is this, you may ask. Well, you won't hear it from the "hardliners" but the pope's recent comments on the "lesser evil" of condoms clearly indicate that he is embracing a form of relativism. He's basically saying that the degree of morality of non-procreative sex acts (in this case, sex involving condoms) is relative to these acts particular situation or context.
Now, for most people, the weighing of pros and cons relative to the context of a given moral decision is a no-brainer. And when it comes to moral decisions relating to social issues such as nuclear arms and labor standards, it's also a no-brainer for the pope and the clerical caste of the Roman Catholic Church. Not so, however, for issues relating to sexuality.
Today's news, therefore, is a major breakthrough in terms of the clerical caste's thinking and articulation of sexual morality. The absolute norms of the past are no longer quite so absolute. After all, we've gone from Non-procreative sex is always wrong to It's not as wrong when you're protecting your partner (male or female) from disease. I don't know about you, but I think it's clear that when it comes to the complex reality of human sexual relations, this movement away from rigid absolutism is a good and healthy thing.
As I'm sure most of my readers would know, the official church teaches that for a sex act to be morally good it must take place within a heterosexual marriage and at all times be open to procreation. Thus no condoms or other forms of contraception, no oral sex, no anal sex, no masturbation. It's a very acts-focused and thus reductionist way of viewing human sexuality. But that's where the "official" church is situated at this time – even as the church as people of God has recognized and is living a more integrated vision of the role and purposes of sex in human life.
But with today's news it seems the clerical caste of the church, headed by the pope, may be taking some baby steps in catching up!
I mean, think about it: the pope is finally beginning to acknowledge the complexity of sexuality and sexual relationships. He also seems to be open to applying "situational ethics" to this complex reality. In the past he would have dismissed this as "relativism," something that he labeled as evil. So, in this sense, we're definitely witnessing a certain development in spiritual maturity on the part of the pope and hopefully, by extension, the entire clerical caste of the church.
I've always appreciated theologian Daniel Helminiak's take on relativism. When I interviewed him in 2006 he noted that:
If [relativism] means that there is no objective truth, that one opinion is as valid as any other, then . . . relativism needs to be discredited. . . . [But] if relativism simply means that we all have different perspectives and no one person has the whole picture, then, yes, such relativism is acceptable; it is needed. But call it perspectivism (à la Bernard Lonergan), not relativism and avoid ambiguous terminology in this matter. Of course, what I say here depends on the supposition that we are able to know correctly and able to approach the truth and often to capture it.
Still uncomfortable with the word "relativism"? Well, what about the Catholic moral theological term "gradualism"? Here's how Martin Pedergast explains this term in the context of the pope's latest statements on condom use.
What is not in doubt in any of his comments, including those on the need to ponder sexual ethics issues more deeply, is that the pope seems to be endorsing the principle of Catholic moral theology known as "gradualism".
Heavily criticised by John Paul II (in his 1993 encyclical letter, Veritatis Splendor) this approach recognises that moral decision making is a step-by-step process. Progressive Catholic theologians, including bishops and cardinals, have applied this principle to a range of sexual ethics questions, including HIV issues, civil law and abortion, and sexual orientation law reform. Who knows, perhaps this might open the door even to a direct papal dialogue with the victims of abuse, people living with HIV, and God's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered daughters and sons?
Which brings me to another important point: don't think for a moment that today's news about the church's lower-grade disapproval status for certain cases of non-procreative sex doesn't have implications for other moral issues and decisions in the realm of sexuality. To say otherwise would be the height of intellectual dishonesty.
What's an example of a wider implication? Well, if we're going to be honest, then the "lesser evil" argument (as I've noted previously) could just as easily be applied to the issue of homosexuality. For instance, given the statistics on LGBT persons, homo-negative attitudes, substance abuse, and suicide, a gay man could legitimately argue that it’s a “lesser evil” for him to seek and build a loving, sexual relationship with another man than be in a lonely, potentially depressed state wherein he would be prone to self harm through alcohol abuse, promiscuity and/or suicide.
Again, this would be a development, albeit minor in the view of most LGBT people, in the way that the official church thinks and talks about gay people's lives and relationships. I suppose we should politely applaud the pope's baby steps in developing a more mature and realistic way of thinking about such things, but in reality, most Catholics are already light years ahead of him. For example: 62% of Catholics believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society, while 69% favor the legalization of those basic rights accorded to married heterosexual couples for gays and lesbians in long-term committed relationships.
Finally, there are some people who view the whole “lesser evil” argument as deeply flawed. After all, the Vatican’s deliberations and pontifications on many of the sexual matters to which the argument could (and should) be applied stem from the dubious belief that the essential purpose of sex is procreation.
Such a contention, Helminiak observes, emphasizes “the generically animal (biological), rather than the distinctively human (interpersonal)” dimension of human sexuality. In addition, the “sex = procreation” argument ignores contemporary research and personal experience with regards human sexual relationships.
With all this in mind, I look forward to seeing how Catholics across the spectrum respond to the pope's embracing of an undoubtedly relativistic way of thinking and speaking about condom use.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Pope's Latest Condom Remarks
Thoughts on Relativism
The Vatican Considers the "Lesser of Two Evils"
Sons of the Church: The Witnessing of Gay Catholic Men: A Discussion Guide
Time for a Church for Grown-Ups
Recommended Off-site Links:
The Pope's Shift on Condoms is No Surprise – Martin Pedergast (The Guardian, November 23, 2010).
The Faithful Cardinal Burke Not on Benedict's Wave Length? Oh, My – Colleen Kochivar-Baker (Enlightened Catholicism, November 23, 2010).
Condoms, Catholicism and Casuistry – Ross Douthat (The New York Times, November 23, 2010).
Pope Gives Thumbs Up to Condoms. Can That Be Right? – Mindy Townsend (GayRights.org, November 24, 2010).