Is It Intrinsically Evil for Spouses to Use Condoms to Prevent HIV?
On July 10, 2004 the noted philosopher/theologian Martin Rhonheimer published an article in the London Tablet, “The truth about condoms,” in which he argued that spouses could legitimately use condoms as a means of preventing the transmission of HIV.” He argued that such use need not be contraceptive, insofar as the moral object specifying their choice was not necessarily to contracept. I wrote a letter to the editors of the Tablet to reply to Rhonheimer’s essay but it was never printed. I sent Rhonheimer an email in which I included a copy of the letter I had sent to the Tablet. In that letter I maintained that condomistic sex between married persons was not the marital act but a perverted sexual act. In fact in my email I said that the act was a perverted sexual act because a free choice was made “to ejaculate deliberately into a rubber and insert the rubber-covered penis into a vagina,” an act similar to masturbation. In replying to my email Rhonheimer declared: “What really is chosen when a person uses a condom to prevent infection is in my view is not ‘to ejaculate etc…’ but a marital act.” He went on to say that since this act includes no contraceptive choice we can, if we consider the intentional activity involved, conclude that “the unitive and procreative meaning of the act are not separated.” It should be noted that several Cardinals agree with Rhonheimer, among them, Carlo Cardinal Martini, emeritus Archbishop of Milan, Godfrey Cardinal Daneels of Belgium, and Georges Cardinal Cottier, O.P. former theologian to the papacy. It should also be noted that in a talk in June 2005 to African bishops Pope Benedict XVI himself said that the only “fail-safe” way to prevent transmission of HIV/AIDS was abstinence. His exact words are the following: “The Catholic Church has always been at the forefront both in prevention and in treatment of this illness. The traditional teaching of the Church has proven to be the only failsafe way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. For this reason, ‘the companionship, joy, happiness and peace which Christian marriage and fidelity provide, and the safeguard which chastity gives, must be continuously presented to the faithful, particularly the young’" (Ecclesia in Africa, 116).
What amazed me is that the position presented by Rhonheimer in 2004 had been set forth in 1987 in booklet published by the Catholic Truth Society of England by James Alison, O.P. under the title Catholics and AIDS: Questions and Answers. In fact I had, in June 1988, published an essay in the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Newsletter in which I noted that several theologians argued that the use of condoms for such a purpose is not contraceptive, because the intent of those who use condoms is not to prevent conception but rather to avoid the transmission of a deadly disease. I agreed that such use may not be contraceptive because the object freely chosen need not be to impede procreation. For instance, assume that the husband of an aged married couple contracted HIV through a blood transfusion. His wife was known to be past the age of childbearing so that there would be no reason to use a condom for contraceptive purposes. Why waste money to impede procreation when one realizes that although the behavior in question is the kind of bodily union through which life can be transmitted (it is a procreative kind of act) for factors independent of the agents’ behavior (e.g., sterility) conception will not occur. But, I argued, “condomistic intercourse is, of itself, an ‘unnatural’ or perverted sexual act, and cannot be regarded as a true act of marriage. In my 1988 essay I noted that the Catholic tradition repudiated condomistic intercourse not only because it was usually chosen as a way of contracepting but also because it was against nature. Older theologians judged that in such intercourse the male's semen was deposited in a vas indebitum or "undue vessel" Although this language is not in favor today, the judgment it embodied is, I was convinced, true. When spouses choose to use condoms they change the act they perform from one of true marital union (the marriage act) into a different kind of act. The "language of their bodies," as Pope John Paul II would say, is changed. “In the marital act their bodies speak the language of a mutual giving and receiving, the language of an unreserved and oblative gift. Condomistic intercourse does not speak this language; it mutilates the language of the body, and the act chosen is more similar to masturbation than it is to the true marital act.”
I agree with Rhonheimer that couples using condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS may not be intending to impede procreation, and thus their chosen act is not an act of contraception. Here I appeal to the teaching of St. Thomas and Pope John Paul II to support this matter. Some acts, as acts of nature may be contraceptive, but as St. Thomas and John Paul II make clear, as moral human acts receive their moral species from the act freely chosen by an agent. St. Thomas expresses this briefly in many texts, e.g., in Summa theologiae 2-2, 64, 7, where he declares: “actus autem morales recipient speciem secundum id quod intenditur, non autem ab eo quod est praeter intentionem” [English trans. “Moral acts receive their species according to what is intended and not from what lies outside the scope of one’s intention].A particularly important Thomistic text on this matter, making it crystal clear that the primary moral specification of an act is rooted in the object freely chosen, is the following: Will can be considered in two ways: (1) as intention (secundum quod est intendens), insofar as it bears on an ultimate end; and (2) as choice (secundum quod est eligens), insofar as it bears on a proximate object ordered to that ultimate end. If (1) will is considered in the first way (as intending) the will’s badness suffices to make the act bad, for whatever is done for a bad end is bad. But the goodness of the intending will is not sufficient to make the act good because the act may be bad in itself (actus potest esse de se malus) an act which in no way can be made good. But (2) if the will is considered insofar as it is choosing (Si autem consideretur voluntas secundum quod est eligens) then it is universally true that from the goodness of the will the act is said to be good and from the badness of the will it is said to be bad.
John Paul II made the same point in Veritatis splendor 78. There he declared: The morality of the human act depends primarily and fundamentally on the ”object” rationally chosen by the deliberate will (emphasis in original)….In order to grasp the object of the act which specifies that act morally, it is therefore necessary to place oneself in the perspective of the acting person (emphasis in original). The object of the act of willing is in fact a freely chosen kind of behavior (emphasis added). To the extent that it is in conformity with the order of reason it is the cause of the goodness of the will; it perfects us morally, and disposes us to recognize our ultimate end in the perfect good, primordial love. By the object of a given moral act, then, one cannot mean a process or an event of the merely physical order, to be assessed on the basis of its ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world. Rather, that object is the proximate end of a deliberate decision [=choice] which determines the act of willing on the part of the acting person (emphasis added here. I do so because in this text what Aquinas called the “natural species” of the act, as distinct from its “moral species” John Paul II calls “a process or event of the physical order, to be assessed on is ability to bring about a given state of affairs in the outside world”).
Be that as it may, I now recognize that many couples who use condoms to prevent transmission of HIV/AIDS also intend to contracept. After all, many of these couples are young and fear that if a child were conceived it would be exposed to the threat of a dread disease, and hence they would intend both to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS and the transmission of life. But the major reason why such use of a condom is always seriously evil is the following: if spouses who wish to have intercourse use a condom to prevent HIV transmission, their choice is not to engage in the marital act because their freely chosen act is not unitive—that is, it does not realize, express, and allow spouses to experience their unity as a married couple. To be unitive the act chosen by the spouses must have at least two properties: (1) It must be voluntary, done "humano vere modo"; (2) it must be “actum per se aptum ad prolis generationem, ad quem natura sua ordinatur matrimonium, et quo coniuges fiunt una caro” [English trans. “An act per se apt for generating life, to which marriage is by its very nature ordered”]. The Latin phrase, “per se aptum ad prolis generationem,” can be described as “sexual behavior that, if other necessary conditions are present (e.g., the fertility of both man and woman), would result in conception.” From this it follows that if spouses who are going to have intercourse use a condom to prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS, the act is always objectively wrong because they are choosing to engage in behavior that would not result in conception if other necessary conditions were present.
The reason why proceeding with a condom cannot realize one-flesh unity is that one-flesh unity is the oneness of the couple as the different but complementary subjects of the same act, one that can be rightly called a “reproductive” or “procreative” kind of act. Here I need to repeat something affirmed earlier in this paper, namely, that the act consummating marriage is one in which husband and wife, literally becoming “one flesh,” form one procreative unit. It is, in short, a procreative or reproductive type act, and remains this kind of act even if the spouses, because of non-behavioral factors over which they have no control, for example, the temporary or permanent sterility of one of the other, are not able to generate human life in it. Their act remains the kind of bodily act “apt” for generating human life. It is in fact the only kind of bodily act through which human life can be given, for it is only in this kind of act that a man and a woman can exercise their procreative powers; they cannot exercise those powers, as they can their digestive, respiratory, and cognitive powers, as individual men and women, but only as a “mating couple,” in an act in which they in truth do become “one flesh.”
In summary, use of condoms to prevent transmission of a disease is intrinsically evil because the object freely chosen that specifies the moral nature of the act is not the marital act, an act in which husband and wife give and receive one another and become literally “one flesh,” but a different kind of act, one that in no way unites them but rather changes utterly the “language of the body.”
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