The truth is still half an hour behind the slander; and nobody
can be certain when or where it will catch up with it. The
garrulity of pressmen and the eagerness of enemies had
spread the first story through the city, even before it
appeared in the first printed version....
- The Scandal of Father Brown, by G. K. Chesterton
The press has eagerly seized upon Pope Benedict's
statement, in a book to be issued on November 23,
that the use of condoms may be morally permissible
if the sole intention is "to reduce the risk of infection."
This is being interpreted as meaning that "the pontiff
will end the Catholic Church's absolute ban on the use of condoms." Such headlines
translate to opponents of the Church as meaning that the Catholic Church is backing
down on birth control and will soon give in on abortion and gay marriage.
Actually, no such change has occurred. It appears that the Pope is merely reiterating a moral principle,
called the doctrine of double effect, that has been proclaimed by Catholic theologians since medieval
times. Simply stated, the idea is that if an action has two effects, one of which is lawful and is your
sole intention, then you are not guilty with regard to the second effect, even if it would of itself be sinful.
Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica (II-II, Q64, A7), used the example of self defense. In a
paradox worthy of Chesterton, he stated that killing one's assailant is justified, provided that one does
not intend to kill him. Murder is a sin and a crime, but if a madman attacks you with a knife, you may
use your gun to shoot and even kill to prevent him killing you, provided that you do not want him to die.
If you do want him to die, in a spirit of revenge or because of prior hatred, then you are still guilty of
Another example, often used by theologians, is being trapped in a burning skyscraper. If the flames force
you to a window, can you sinlessly jump out, as several people did on 9-11 at the World Trade Center?
The Catholic answer is yes -- if your sole intention is to avoid the agony of burning. On the other hand,
if you have been contemplating suicide and you choose the window in preference to a nearby stairway,
the principle doesn't apply. The crucial test is how you would feel if, after jumping, you landed in an
unseen safety net below the window. Would you be relieved or disappointed?
This principle is restricted to cases where (a) the physical act of itself, independent of intention, is lawful,
(b) the sole intention is lawful, (c) the good effect flows directly from the act, without any bad effect
being necessary, and (d) the good effect is equal to or greater than the unintended bad effect.
The application to condoms entails some additional restrictions:
•· There can be no excuse of misjudgment due to the urgency of the moment; the availability of
a condom proves premeditation.
•· The alternative stairway is always present; it's called "abstinence."
•· The action may be evil of itself, as is the case with sodomy or extra-marital sex.
This last restriction explains the Pope's comment about male prostitutes. It's like the case of a man
with AIDS who rapes a woman but uses a condom to prevent her from becoming infected. The
rape is still a sin and a crime. But the use of a condom indicates an element of consideration for
the victim that constitutes, in the Pope's words, "a first step" on the steep upward path toward
morality. It might be compared to a man who beats up and robs a victim but then anonymously
calls 911 to send an ambulance.
These restrictions leave a little leeway for the use of condoms by a married couple when one of
them has previously contracted a sexually transmitted disease. It would present a moral dilemma
that would be hard to untangle. However, in places such as Africa, where heterosexually
transmitted AIDS has become pandemic and where most of the non-Christian population considers
extramarital sex to be permissible, the use of condoms as a desperate last resort might be morally
tolerable. But, as the Pope indicated, in the long run it may do more harm than good by promoting
In any case, whatever the Pope said in a press interview is essentially a private opinion and is not
binding on the Church. That would require an official ex cathedra statement such as a papal encyclical.
Such is my conjecture about what the Pope actually meant. I admit that I am not a theologian and have
not yet read the book in question. I am hastily writing this in the hope that, in conjunction with other
articles, it may help to nip the media's false conclusions in the bud.
But I have little hope of success. As with the Chesterton quotation above, the lie has already been
circulated and will probably persist, no matter how often Catholic officials deny it.