Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Pope Embraces an Acceptable Form of Relativism

Earlier today I spoke on the phone with a reporter from The Star Tribune. She wanted to know my thoughts on the breaking story this morning of the pope's declaration that people – regardless of gender or sexual orientation – can use condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV. Apparently, it's a "lesser sin" to do this than infect one's partner with HIV or, in the case of a heterosexual couple, avert a possible pregnancy.

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.

Baby steps

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?

Wider implications

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).


Anonymous said...

Not that the Pope actually said any of the sort, but never mind!

colkoch said...

Michael there is a post now on America Magazine which features Fr.Ronheimer--OD no less--which takes this idea of lesser evil exactly where you have taken it.

"But what of promiscuous people, sexually active homosexuals, and prostitutes? What the Catholic Church teaches them is simply that they should not be promiscuous, but faithful to one single sexual partner;..."

The other aspect of Fr. Lombardi's clarifications has been the continual emphasis on sexuality in terms of relationship. I think I might actually be stirring up a little hope that this is the first step in a sexual morality based in relationship and not predominately reductionist biology.

Unknown said...

One mortal sin is not that much better than two mortal sins, Michael.

It will give people a longer time to develop remorse and repentance. That is a good thing.

brian gerard said...

Very well put, MIchael. Also, it is good to know that the local media are finally recognizing your value as an astute, open and smart commentator.

Mareczku said...

More excellent comments here Michael.

Joe said...

According to the BBC, the Vatican have now enlarged B16's remark to say that prophylactic use of condoms is an act of moral responsibility. Vincent Twomey does not seem to think so; from today's Irish Times:

Madam, – Confusion has been caused by one sentence taken from the Pope’s latest, book-length interview with a German journalist. This confusion was caused not by the media but by the incompetence of those entrusted with the translation of the German text into Italian. Contrary to widespread reports in the media based on the Italian translation, the Pope did not say (in the original interview) that using condoms may sometimes be justified to stop the spread of Aids (World News, November 22nd).

What did he say? After pointing out that, in the approach to dealing with Aids, the fixation on the condom implies a trivialisation of sex, against which we must fight, the Pope added (in the American translation which is an accurate rendering of the German text): “There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralisation, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way towards 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 HIV infection. That can only really lie in a humanization of sexuality.” In Italian, the opening phrase was translated as: “Vi possono essere singoli casi giustificati . . .” (“certain cases may be justified”). The term “justified” is misleading, since it means that the act (using a condom) thereby takes on a positive moral quality, which it has not got. It is still a gravely sinful act. There is no mention of using the condom to stop the spread of Aids.

The Pope goes on to affirm explicitly that this is not a real or moral solution to the problem, but “in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”

All the Pope is saying is that, for an individual living a life of sexual abandon (prostitution), the use of a condom might, just might, set off a process of self-reflection in that person which might lead to a more responsible attitude to the use of his sexuality. This is not a case of “justifying” the use of a condom.

Claims that the church has changed her teaching are unfounded. – Yours, etc,


Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology,

Divine Word Missionaries,


Co Kildare.

Madam, – Pope Benedict has taken his first tentative step on a very slippery slope.

Condoms might now be defensible as the “preferable lesser evil”, we are told (Editorial, November 23rd). Having conceded this point, the Pope must now surely recognise that not using condoms is a sin, where the HIV or HepB status of the partners is unknown. This is because to risk being infected or infecting another with a life-threatening virus is to be reckless with one’s own health and the health of one’s partner – surely a deeply sinful act.

What Pope Benedict is advocating is none other than the “harm-reduction” logic which has undoubtedly saved many lives since the emergence of HIV as a major health risk.

In taking this step, Joseph Ratzinger has surprised us all. Who would ever have thought that it would fall to him, of all people, to drag the Catholic church into the 20th century? – Yours, etc,


Tweed Street,




Mark said...

Colleen, you say "reductionist biology" like its a bad thing. Relationship-realized-in-biology is how you and I were born. I thank God for "reductionist biology" and its many fruits, you & me included.

Gerald said...

"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."

Spiritual maturity? Sounds like all things (even the Magisterium, no less, and the witness of the Church for 2,000 years) are judged according to the extent to which they conform to the feelings of Michael J. Bayly, a self-identified "gay" Australian living in Minnesota in the early 21st century.

Benedict XVI has been at this thing for 65 years. "Spiritual maturity" is not among the things he lacks, as anyone who has met him or has read one of his books knows.

colkoch said...

Agreed Marky, but relationship realized in community is how we are raised. The reductionist biological position stops at birth where parental responsibility really begins at birth, not conception.

I maintain that parental responsibility is equally as important to an individual as the fact their parents got the biology right. Adhering to a sexual morality which forces one into having more children than parents can provide for is utterly irresponsible and ultimately cruel.

How many budding Einsteins have died from starvation, war, and preventable disease is as valid a question as the Pope's recent musings about how many Einsteins have been lost to humanity because of abortion or contraception. You always hear the one, but rarely hear the other. We need to hear both.

Mark said...

"How many budding Einsteins have died from starvation, war, and preventable disease?"

Mother Teresa rightly observed that a capital sin of the industrialized West is a crucial lack of true charity - something that condoms neither inhibit or grant.

Joe said...

"Benedict XVI has been at this thing for 65 years. "Spiritual maturity" is not among the things he lacks, as anyone who has met him or has read one of his books knows."

Well, as one who both met him and read him, I would not perhaps put it in terms of spiritual maturity, but I would think he has made grave mistakes due to a reactionary outlook, and that he sometimes gets around to correcting the mistakes (albeit in the case of condoms, far too late).

Paula said...

Hasn't the logic in this discussion got tangled up? I don't see that the Church's position has changed at all. Morality is all about acts. On the subject of marriage only for hetersexuals: no change. On the subject of sex acts outside of marriage: no change. How about sex acts within heterosexual marriage that prohibit conception: no change. A rubber in itself is a morally neutral thing, not an act. It depends on what you use it for. If, while doing a morally bad sex act, you use a condom to prevent AIDS, that is a good act. It doesn't turn the morally bad act good, it just adds a morally good act to a bad one.
The "relativism" is not new either. Hasn't the morality of an act in Catholic teaching always been relative to gravity, reflection,consent, and intention? Am I wrong? I wonder if the pope will come out with a correction and dash everyone's hopes.