Pope Benedict, Fr. Rhonheimer, Janet Smith and Steven Long – The "Condom Conundrum" Continues

Granted that there is much more in Light of the World, Pope Benedict’s latest book length interview with Peter Seewald. (The Benedict Fan Club has in fact an ongoing compilation of reviews and discussions of the book addressing various topics other than prophylactics. Nevertheless, the great condom controversy surrounding the Pope’s remarks (and interpretation thereof) goes on. A few weeks ago I had noted that Catholic responses are coalescing into two particular camps: . Those who interpret the Pope’s words as affirming the use of condoms in “exceptional” circumstances — and those who say he meant nothing of the sort.. George Weigel picks up on this internal debate in “The Pope, the Church, and the Condom: Clarifying the State of the Question” (First Things‘ “On The Square” 12/17/10):

While the media furor remained, in the main, vulgar (with one prominent Catholic commentator from the port side declaring the Pope’s statements in Light of the World and Father Lombardi’s attempted clarification a “game-changer,” as if these questions involved the sort of games academics and journalists play), one serious debate did break out in the Catholic blogosphere. It centered around the Swiss theologian Martin Rhonheimer, a priest of Opus Dei, who in 2004 had speculated that the use of the condom to prevent HIV/AIDS infection, when motivated by a prophylactic intention, might not fall under the Church’s settled opposition to contraception.

Some (including Fr. Rhonheimer) found echoes of those speculations in the Pope’s book and Fr. Lombardi’s statements. Others, including Dr. Steven Long, found real trouble brewing. As Long put it in an exceptionally thoughtful blog posting, Rhonheimer’s position, no matter how intelligently argued, is intentionalism.

Weigel offers a good summarization of where things stand today, and I whole heartedly agree with his recommendation that “it would seem opportune for an indisputably authoritative voice, capable of speaking in the name of the Church, to publish a substantial clarification of the issues that have surfaced over the past month.”

Here is a compilation of recent posts and developments in the debate:

  • From Luke Gormally, Marriage and the Prophylactic Use of Condoms National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly. Winter 2005, pp. 735-749. (“The background to this article is a friendly e-mail exchange I had with Fr. Martin Rhonheimer in the late summer of 2004, following an article he published in the July 10, 2004, issue of The Tablet).
  • 12/01/10: Friendly Fire on Benedict XVI. And a Condom’s to Blame – According to Sandro Magister, “the pope’s openness to the use of condoms is provoking lively reactions from some fervent ‘Ratzingerians'” — including Fr. Joseph Fessio, head of the Pope’s North American publishing house Ignatius Press. (Magister himself is of the position that Benedict’s remarks reveal an “openness” to the use of condoms in exceptional circumstances).
  • 12/04/10: Church and Condoms. The “No” of the Diehards – Sandro Magister publishes a statement from the Bishops episcopal conference of Kenya asserting that “that the position of the Catholic Church as regards the use of condoms, both as a means of contraception and as a means of addressing the grave issue of HIV/AIDS infection has not changed, and [its use] remains as always unacceptable.” In addition, he publishes a responses from Dr. Joseph Fessio, Dr. Steven Long, and Christine de Marcellus Vollmer of the Pontifical Academy for Life — all of whom take umbrage at Magister’s characterization of their remarks as “friendly fire” against the Pope.
  • 12/11/10: On the Condom and AIDS, the Pope Has Come Down from the Cathedra – Sandro Magister publishes an exclusive statement from (and interview with) Martin Rhonheimer of Switzerland(professor at Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, the Roman university of Opus Dei). It is worth reading in full as he distinguishes his own position on the matter:

    The Church’s teaching about contraception is not a teaching about “condoms”, but about the true meaning and sense of sexuality and marital love. The question of contraception is different from the question of prophylactic condom use. Contraception as declared to be intrinsically evil is described by “Humanae vitae” n. 14 (restated in the Catechisms of the Catholic Church n. 2370) as an action which “whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes [Latin “intendat”], whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.” Contraception is not simply an action which in fact impedes procreation, but an action impeding procreation which is precisely carried out with a contraceptive intent. (The factual impeding of conception is not sufficient for an act to be, in a moral sense, an act of contraception; this is why using anti-ovulatory pills for regulating a woman’s cycle for medical reasons is not contraception in the moral sense).

    But does it follow that one should positively advise to use condoms for merely prophylactic purposes? People who are not willing to change their way of life and who use condoms to prevent infection of themselves or others seem to me to have at least conserved a certain sense of responsibility – as Pope Benedict himself said [in Light of the World]. But we cannot say they “should do so” or are “morally obliged” to do so, as Cardinal Danneels seemed to suggest. Pope Benedict underlines this when he makes clear that this is not a “moral solution”. That is why it is also wrong to assert principles in this case such as “lesser evil”, which holds that in order to avoid a greater evil a lesser evil may be chosen if there is a proportionate reason. This moral methodology, known as “proportionalism”, is not a teaching of the Church, and was rejected by Pope John Paul II in his 1993 encyclical “Veritatis splendor” – with which Pope Benedict XVI is in full agreement.

    In his interview, Rhonheimer reiterates four points about the Pope’s teaching:

    1. “It in no way changes Church doctrine on contraception; what he said rather confirms this doctrine as taught by Humanae Vitae.”
    2. “His statement does not declare condom use to be morally unproblematic or generally permitted, even for prophylactic purposes. … What is justified, rather, is the judgment that this can be considered to be a ‘first step’ and ‘a first assumption of responsibility.’ Benedict certainly did not want to establish a moral norm justifying exceptions.”
    3. “[W]hat Pope Benedict says does not refer to married people: He spoke only about situations which are in themselves intrinsically disordered.”
    4. “[T]he pope does not advocate the distribution of condoms, which he believes leads to the ‘banalization’ of sexuality.”
  • 12/18/10: Professor Luke Gormally, a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life and director emeritus of the London-based Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics, pens an open letter to Fr. Martin Rhonheimer (reprinted by Sandro Magister, Chiesa).
  • 12/18/10: A Public Letter to Sandro Magister by Dr. Steven Long (End of the Modern World):

    I print it here because its content is pertinent to the confusion being propounded first by Fr. Rhonheimer, and now by one of his chief critics, Luke Gormally. Evidently the two share one common significant error: that the absence of a public condemnation by the CDF is the same as a public vindication issued by the CDF. Certainly there is need for clarification, as George Weigel has pointed out. But the CDF has never declared the position of Rhonheimer in his famed Tablet article to be wholly unproblematic, much less publicly endorsed it. My further question: should not this significant observation which is a simple matter of fact be acknowledged as such by the parties to the conversation?

  • 12/19/10: Ethicist: Pope intended condom use/AIDS reflectionOur Sunday Visitor‘s John Norton interviews Fr. Rhonheimer, in which — regarding his widely-cited article in the Tablet, he states:

    After publishing that article in July 2004 and becoming aware that, unexpectedly for me, it was being heavily criticized by some moral theologians faithful to the Magisterium, I sent the article to the CDF, and was subsequently informed that they had no problem with it. I suppose that Cardinal Ratzinger came to know that article. I don’t recall ever having discussed the topic with him. I assume, however, that the Holy Father was informed about my views, and know that the CDF certainly followed the subsequent debate in scholarly journals. I don’t know, therefore, whether the then Cardinal Ratzinger was supportive of what I wrote in the Tablet article.

    Rhonheimer goes on to criticize what he sees as two erroneous views: 1) that the use of the condom can be adequately described as a “lesser evil” and even a moral duty; 2) that condoms were intrinsically evil and their use could never be justified. He responds to various criticisms of his Tablet article and the development of his position since then.

    What seems to me to be clear after the Holy Father’s statement on condoms is that the question of prophylactic condom use and the moral question of contraception, as a doctrine about marital love, are to be distinguished. To use a condom for prophylactic reasons is not contraception; if it intrinsically deprives marital acts of their procreative meaning, this is not because it embodies a contraceptive choice. If a condom is used by people engaging in intrinsically immoral behavior, such as prostitutes, it might even be, as the pope has now asserted, a first assumption of responsibility and a step towards humanization of sexuality. To see things in this differentiated way, I think, is an important clarification.

    The debate in Our Sunday Visitor (12/19/10) continues with:

  • Rumor that there is No Problem with Fr. Rhonheimer’s work, heard by: Fr. Rhonheimer!!! Steven Long protests:

    Whatever a private consultor or associate of the CDF may have confided to Fr. Rhonheimer, surely it is not a formal judgment of the CDF to the effect that the Tablet article from 2004 is wholly unproblematic. Further, for Fr. Rhonheimer to suggest this is to suggest that the Church as such has made its judgments and found his teaching to be unproblematic. Such a judgment requires evidence, and the CDF has made no such public holding, nor does a private remark of someone associated with the CDF constitute evidence.

    Long also comments on Rhonheimer’s view that prophylactic use of condoms in heterosexual intercourse need not be contraceptive:

    Of course, this is intentionalism. It is to argue that because one intends prophylaxis, therefore such condom use is not contraceptive. This is precisely the effort to define “direct” and “indirect” with respect to moral action by reference solely to intention while excluding essential reference to the nature of that which is chosen. Yet the putatively good effect achieved through condom use–that of preventing dissemination of disease–is in heterosexual intercourse achieved only by means of the evil effect of a contraceptive blocking of the transmission of procreative matter. Fr. Rhonheimer does not wish to call this “contraception” because for him, not the nature of the act, but rather, exclusively the intention of the agent, determines whether contraception occurs.

  • 12/22/10: Following the official Note on the trivilization of sexuality. Regarding certain interpretations of Light of the World, Sandro Magister issues another column: Professor Rhonheimer Writes. And the Holy Office Agrees, in which Fr. Rhonheimer pens a “reply to the open letter of Luke Gormally” of the Pontifical Academy for Life — also published by Magister 12/18/10).

    Fr. Rhonheimer first addresses the charge laid against him that he gave the impression that his position was endorsed by the CDF (“I never suggested that my article had been officially examined or its content been formally approved by the Congregation”). With respect to the criticism of Dr. Janet Smith (Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit MI), George Weigel and others, he maintains that they “have sought to give a particular interpretation of the Pope’s remarks which in my view is forced and unsustainable [and] clearly considered the Pope to be mistaken.”

    The remainder of his letter he mounts a lengthy rebuttal to Luke Gormally, Steven Long and George Weigel’s critique of his (alleged?) position:

    What I said has nothing to do with “intentionalism,” as some claim without having studied – or by clearly misrepresenting – my writings about this subject. Steven A. Long, for example, who has repeated this charge against me on http://www.chiesa as well as his blog, despite being repeatedly shown by me and others that he was wrong in blaming me for this, and that he gravely misrepresented my views on “object” and “intention.” George Weigel now echoes Long’s charges without apparently having studied my work on this topic; he writes as if my views were the end of Catholic presence in health care institutions. Relying on Steven Long, Weigel makes the following wild assertion on his “First Things” blog: “If the Rhonheimer approach were adopted, [Long] cautioned, that would ‘signal the end of any distinctive Catholic presence in hospitals, or in the bio-medical conversations of the day, because intentionalism is frankly a doctrine that can justify anything…’.” This comes near to slander and is a most regrettable misconstrual of my arguments. These are not methods used in debates but in political campaigns designed to force change through the application of pressure – in this case, by raising the spectre of the Church losing its distinctive witness. Long and Weigel’s remarks are corrosive of the collegiality and mutual respect that should characterize Catholic intellectual life; that they have been published by people with which I am connected in a friendly way causes me both perplexity and additional distress.

    My position on the questions is very far from “intentionalism”: it is the fruit of an analysis of the nature of human acts in studies written during the last 25 years.

    Sandro Magister claims the CDF’s statement as vindication of Fr. Rhonheimer:

    “The note agrees completely with Rhonheimer’s positions … Those who – like Luke Gormally of the Pontifical Academy for Life … were urging the congregation to make a statement that would definitively settle the discussion and quell the “confusion” produced by the pope’s words, cannot help but be disappointed.”

  • Rhonheimer Cries “Slander” Through Media Megaphone – Response by Dr. Steven Long:

    In his recent letter published by Magister (Dec. 22), Rhonheimer protests that my sense of the nature and implications of his position “comes near to slander”. It would be better for Fr. Rhonheimer to answer the question: does the object of the moral act include the integral nature and per se effects of the act, or is it purely a function of intention? I think his position reduces to the latter, and that this is intentionalism. He does not like the imputation and cries “slander”. I further think that the practical effect of his analysis, were it to be embraced, would indeed be the death of Catholic witness with respect to bio-medical issues, the Catholic presence in hospitals, etc., all lost under the endless obscurations of the nature of what is done in behalf of exclusive preoccupation with intention. The answer to this is again the imputation of slander. But that is beneath the dignity of a speculative exchange. I have even written that I do not think he “intends” to hold an intentionalist teaching, although I do believe that his analysis is intentionalist. What Fr. Rhonheimer is functionally claiming is a monopoly of the right to criticize his own position–which is a solipsistic proposition–on pain of the imputation of “slander”. He speaks of unfolding his views over 25 years. So have many others. This does not suffice to gain one immunity from criticism, especially when one attempts to occupy the bully pulpit of the popular media there to lobby for “breaking the ice” of the Church’s prior traditional understanding. Of course, acceptance of one’s views is not in proportion to the length of time it has taken to develop them. What is objectively slanderous is Fr. Rhonheimer’s imputation of slander to those who criticize him. It would be refreshing to see answers to those criticisms that do not presuppose what they purport to prove.

A Select English Language Bibliography for Understanding the Benedict XVI/Condom Debate , compiled by Joe Trabbic (End of the Modern World). “This is a very select (i.e., incomplete) bibliography, arranged in chronological order, to help those interested in understanding the Benedict XVI/condom debate, which, despite the note issued yesterday by the Holy Office, may still (for better or worse) have life left in it.”
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