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.