Sunday, April 23, 2006

Sounds Like Abstinence Plus To Me

Via Mirror of Justice (the Catholic Legal Theory blog) comes a really interesting statement by several top Catholic officials on abortion and condom usage.
On abortion, [Cardinal Carlo Maria] Martini firmly upheld the moral teaching of the church, but acknowledged the complexity of writing it into public policy.

"It seems to me difficult [to imagine] that, in situations like ours, the state would not distinguish between acts that are punishable in a penal fashion, and acts for which a penal solution doesn't make sense," he said. "That doesn't mean a 'license to kill,' but that the state doesn't intervene in every possible case. Its efforts should be to reduce the number of abortions, to impede them with every means possible (above all after a certain period from the beginning of the pregnancy), to reduce the causes of abortion, and to take precautions so that women who decide to take this step, especially during the period when it's not illegal, do not suffer grave physical damage or have their lives placed at risk."

Martini noted that the risk of serious physical injury is especially grave in the case of clandestine abortions, and hence said that, all things considered, Italy's abortion law -- which permits abortion during the first trimester -- has had the positive effect of "contributing to the reduction and, eventually, elimination" of back-alley procedures.

In a case in which a fetus threatens the life of the mother, Martini said "moral theology has always sustained the principle of legitimate defense and of lesser evil," in order to justify a procedure that would save the life of the mother while terminating the pregnancy.

That's good rhetoric, and I think a "realistic" position that many Americans who feel ambivalent about abortion would subscribe to. But the real important stuff, from my view, comes with regard to condom usage:
Similarly, asked about the use of condoms to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, Martini responded: "Certainly the use of prophylactics can, in some situations, constitute a lesser evil," mentioning the case of a couple where one partner is infected and the other isn't.

The problem, Martini said, isn't really the ethical analysis. The problem is the PR headaches that follow whenever a church official says this out loud. To put it bluntly, anytime a senior church official says that use of a condom might be a "lesser evil" in the context of a deadly disease, the next day's headlines trumpet "Church okay with condoms," which is not the same message.

"The question is really if it's wise for religious authorities to propagandize in favor of this method of defense [from HIV/AIDS], almost implying that other morally sustainable means, including abstinence, are put on a lower level," Martini said. "The principle of a 'lesser evil,' applicable in all the cases covered by ethical doctrine, is one thing; another thing is who ought to express these judgments publicly."

In upholding the moral tolerability of condoms as a "lesser evil" in the context of HIV/AIDS, Martini joins Cardinal George Cottier, theologian of the Papal Household under John Paul II; Cardinal Godfriend Danneels of Belgium; Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, President of the Pontifical Council for Pastoral Health; Cardinal Cormac Muphy-O'Connor of Westminster, England; and Bishop Kevin Dowling of South Africa.

In 2004, the Indian bishops launched an awareness campaign about HIV/AIDS that includes information on condoms, and in 2005, a spokesperson for the Spanish bishops said that condoms might be justified in some circumstances to combat the disease.

Msgr. Angel Rodriguez Luño, an Opus Dei priest, a professor at Santa Croce University in Rome, and a consultor for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has said there's actually not much debate over the theology; most moralists, he said, believe the argument for condoms as a lesser evil is fairly clear. The question is how to explain that conclusion in a way that doesn't seem to offer a free pass for irresponsible sexual behavior.

"The problem is, anytime we try to give a nuanced response, we see headlines that say, 'Vatican approves condoms,' Rodriguez Luño told The Washington Post Jan. 23, 2005.

"The issue is more complicated than that. From a moral point of view, we cannot condone contraception. We cannot tell a classroom of 16-year-olds they should use condoms. But if we are dealing with someone or a situation in which persons are clearly going to act in harmful ways, a prostitute who is going to continue her activities, then one might say, 'Stop. But if you are not going to, at least do this.'"

First, recall the affiliation of Msgr. Luno. I'm very skeptical that Opus Dei is the evil conspiratorial organization depicted in The Davinci Code, but I think it is fair to surmise they are quite conservative. Now, look at how he says condom use shoud be dealt with: "Stop. But if you are not going to, at least do this."

Isn't that exactly what "abstinence plus" education is?

Admittedly, Luno says that we shouldn't tell a classroom of 16-year-olds that they should use condoms. But the question is how we read that former statement in relation to the latter. If X person is going to engage in potentially harmful sexual activity (as both teenage sex and prostitution qualify as), the first goal of the Church (and by extension, the schools) should be to say "stop." But if X is definitely going to continue, then the next goal should be to minimize harm, via condom use.

The trick is how to bring up condoms without endorsing them. And seeing how the media loves to slap misleading headlines on issues, I really can sympathize with the Church's plight here. But I do think that "abstinence plus" toes this line pretty well. For all the talk about Catholic dogmatism, the religion is a lot more pragmatic than many people give it credit for. And I think that intelligent liberals can very easily make common cause with this strand of Catholic thought.

1 comment:

Matt said...

"If X person is going to engage in potentially harmful sexual activity (as both teenage sex and prostitution qualify as), the first goal of the Church (and by extension, the schools) should be to say 'stop.' "

Question: are you just extending the Church's argument here, or are you personally convinced that teenage sexual activity is harmful? I realize you use the qualifier "potentially" but that doesn't really matter because all sexual activity is "potentially harmful" on physical, emotional, and social levels. Anyway, I ask this because I think its a little absurd to put all teenage sexual activity in the same "potentially harmful" box with prostitution, unprotected sex, etc. I think that, in practice, this may be true but only because teenagers are often uninformed about how to safely egnage in sex. There are also social pressures that lead to bad decisions (although I would say these are probably present for most young adults, not just teens) as well as maybe emotional repercussions (although I would argue that those would effect anyone becoming sexually active for the first time in a society where sex is saddled with so much moral, ethical, and sometimes political importance). The point is, many of the harmful aspects of teenage sexual activity can be side-stepped by more honest and open discussion. Presuming that all teenage sex is prima facie "harmful" or "unnaceptable" or whatever only reinforces the taboo that makes such discussion impossible. In "The Trouble With Normal" Michael Warner makes the case for a sexual ethic where we presume sexal actiity is acceptable until there is a material, demonstrable reason to condemn it. Within that framework, the onus is on the church/school/whomever to present a rationale for telling sexually active teenagers to "stop". I think you acknowledge that chilling discussion of sex makes it more likely to be harmful, so why impose the normative judgment that does so much of that?

Besides that, I would ask you to consider the implications of labeling teenage sexual activity as bad at face value from a queer perspective. For straight students, church-goers, and whoever else, sexuality doesn't really become an issue as far as identity is concerned. Straight people identify as straight, they are expected and assumed to be straight, they are bombarded with images of straight people and straight sex, and its all very comforting because one's identity is legitimized by culture on all fronts and naturalized entirely. By contrast, for young people coming to terms with their sexual orientation there is not this same familiarty, security, or re-inforcement. For many, sexual experimentation is an important part of forging an identity as a queer person. So on the level of identity, I think that categorically discouraging teenage sexual activity is harder on queer youth because coming to terms with sexual identity might involve acquiring experience for some. Not to mention the whole idea of "Wait for Marriage!" abstinence ed. seems a little silly when one is legally prohbitted from ever being married.

So, for the issues of open discussion and identity formation, I take objection to the idea that the Church/school should in fact tell students to, "Stop". A realistic discussion of the risks and responsibilites of sexual activity is fine, but lets skip the puritanical preface.

PS: As I said, I'm not sure if you actually endorse the Abstinence + model of sex ed. If not, this is a pretty pointless post, but maybe some reader will find it enlightening.