Thursday, May 11, 2006

Rejecting the “Lesser Evil”

Last month the BBC reported a “senior Roman Catholic official” as saying that the Vatican was “preparing to publish a statement on the use of condoms by people who have AIDS.” The BBC noted that Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan had told La Repubblica newspaper that Pope Benedict XVI asked the Vatican's council for health care to study the issue. It was also noted that “the Vatican has long maintained that abstinence is the best way to tackle HIV/AIDS.”

Also last month, a retired archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, backed the use of condoms for married couples to prevent AIDS transmission. Martini said that in couples where one partner had HIV/AIDS, the use of condoms was “a lesser evil.”

Yet it wasn’t long before the Vatican released a statement saying that its position has not changed – and will not change soon. The European version of Time magazine reported that “[Vatican] officials flatly dismiss reports that the Vatican is about to release a document that will condone any condom use — even in cases in which one spouse has HIV.” The Time article also noted Barragán’s backtracking on the matter, quoting him as saying that his office was producing only an internal “study” of the issue. Another official was quoted as saying that “there's no sign at all that a document is set to come out.”

Before the Vatican threw its bucket of cold water on the warming prospect of common sense and compassion being reflected in its sexual theology, John Allen explored the notion of “lesser evil” in an article in the May 5 issue of the US-based National Catholic Reporter.

“If the [expected Vatican] document simply asserts that a condom is a ‘lesser evil,’” wrote Allen, “experts say it would do little more than ratify what is already a broad consensus among Catholic moral theologians. Traditionally, confessors and pastors have long been permitted to counsel a ‘lesser evil’ to prevent greater harm . . . As applied to condoms, the ‘lesser evil’ argument [says that] if there’s a danger of HIV infection, a married couple should abstain from sex altogether. If they can’t be persuaded to do so, however, it’s better that they use the condom rather than endangering life.”

Such an argument could, of course, be applied to the issue of homosexuality. For example, given the statistics on GLBT persons, 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 than be in a lonely, potentially depressed state wherein he would be prone to self harm through alcohol abuse and/or suicide.

Of course, many people view the whole “lesser evil” argument deeply flawed. After all, the Vatican’s deliberations and pontifications on many of the sexual matters to which the argument could be applied, stem from the dubious belief that “sex = procreation.” Such a contention, theologian Daniel Helminiak notes, 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.

Helminiak, and others, argue (the rather obvious reality) that in Church practice, procreation is not essential to sex. “Stoic philosophy,” Helminiak writes, “held that conception of offspring is the only ethically acceptable reason for having sex. Especially through St. Augustine, early Christianity incorporated this notion, and some churches invoke it to condemn homosexual acts. Yet many Christian denominations allow the use of contraceptives and marry couples who plan to remain childless, and all [including the Catholic Church] allow marriage and sex between known sterile couples or between couples beyond childbearing age. Even the Catholic Church has recently emphasized the emotional bonding and loving sharing that are central to sexual intimacy and, while forbidding use of ‘artificial contraceptives,’ does allow the use of the ‘rhythm method’ to deliberately avoid conception – which distinction is questionable. Evidently, the churches do not really believe that the essential purpose of sexual sharing is procreation. Religious insistence on procreation is disingenuous.”

And thus so too are notions of “the lesser evil” when contemplating and discussing non-procreative sex between loving couples - gay or straight.

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