Sunday, November 26, 2006

Vatican Considers the "Lesser of Two Evils"

There’s talk once again of a shift in thinking on the part of the Vatican with regards to condom use.

John Cooper of the Guardian of London, for instance, writes that, “the Roman Catholic church has taken the first step towards what could be a historic shift away from its total ban on the use of condoms”.

Elaborating, Cooper notes that, “Pope Benedict XVI's ‘health minister’ is understood to be urging him to accept that in restricted circumstances – specifically the prevention of AIDS – barrier contraception is the lesser of two evils. The recommendations, which have not been made public, still have to be reviewed by the traditionally conservative Vatican department responsible for safeguarding theological orthodoxy, and then by the Pope himself, before any decision is made.”

I’ve discussed this issue previously, noting that the “lesser evil” argument was insightfully explored by John Allen in the May 5 issue of the U.S.-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.”

As I’ve previously observed, such an argument could 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 as 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 the essential purpose of sex is 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 “lesser evil” when contemplating and discussing non-procreative sex between loving couples - gay or straight.

See also the previous Wild Reed post, Those Europeans are at it Again.

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