Why I Think James Keenan, S.J. Is Wrong About Humanae Vitae and the Prophylactic Use of Condoms

Boston College moral theologian James Keenan, S.J.’s “Life Lessons: How I teach ‘Humanae Vitae’”, is, on the whole, a good exposition of Bl. Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on birth control and how he goes about teaching it to undergraduates. For 25 years, he says in this February 3, 2014, America magazine article, he has “upheld” its teaching. That is good to hear in this age of dissent, especially so with respect to such a widely dissented-over document as Humanae vitae. But his piece is not totally sound in my opinion.

My main beef with his article is his support for condom use in the case of discordant H.I.V.-positive married couples. First off, he favors the use of condoms for those with the virus who are infertile. It may be argued that their use is not “contraceptive” (at least subjectively, on the level of intention), since it’s the transmission of the disease they hope to prevent and there is no good of fecundity present, so to speak, for them to contracept/impede. But objectively, it seems to me, when we look at the matter from the standpoint of the language of the body, the condom nonetheless closes the act to procreation (even in couples who are infertile), as well interferes with the unitive good of marriage. In other words, one can argue that the condom distorts the very nature of the marital act as a bodily icon of their marriage covenant. This covenant bespeaks a language that is both life-giving and love-giving—apart from any subjective intentions, motives, desires, and so on, the husband and wife may have.

condomSomewhat more troubling, however, is the fact that Fr. Keenan also thinks that paragraph 15 of Humanae vitae—that makes a distinction, based on the principle of double effect (PDE), between direct and indirect sterilization—“may be applied to those discordant married couples who may be fertile.” He argues that “Humanae vitae does not prohibit the discordant couple from engaging in sexual intimacy while using a condom solely to prevent the transmission of the virus and not in any deliberately contraceptive way.” But again, I think this ignores the fact that the marital act is, by its very nature, both procreative and unitive (as he has affirmed). Thus, one can act contrary to its nature not only by contracepting (i.e., violating the procreative good understood here as the good of human- life-in-its-transmission), but also by engaging in the marital act in such a way that the unitive good is violated (e.g., by fantasizing about another person, by forcing intercourse on one’s spouse, and yes, by using a condom).

So, whether spouses are or are not contracepting in these cases of the prophylactic use of condoms–although fertile couples are doing so, objectively speaking–both fertile and infertile couples are acting objectively contrary to the person-to-person conjugal act that unites them as spouses in a profoundly bodily way. To say otherwise is to claim that a penis-to-pouch act (excuse the image, but that’s what it is!) can be an authentic marital act, capable of uniting the couple in a bodily “one-flesh” kind of way. But it just isn’t and so it can’t.

Let me make one last point in order to anticipate an objection. Some may object that this perspective focuses too much on the physical reality, that is, on how the marital act is performed (using a barrier method), and not enough on the personal reality, that is, the fact that the couple is intending only the good (to prohibit spreading the virus to the other spouse) and they accept, but do not intend the evil consequence of using a condom (to render themselves infertile; at least in the case of a fertile couple). This argument, which appeals in a way, to the PDE, fails I believe, on account of the fact that we are not talking about one act with two effects, but two acts. This is important because the PDE applies only when we are dealing with one act that has two effects, one good and one bad (And that act must be morally good in itself or neutral as well as meet several other criteria).

To perform an act that is contraceptive, one engages in two acts, not one. In the case of a couple using a condom to prevent a disease, you still have the two acts, even if the intention or end is different. The first act is the choice to engage in the marital act. The second act is the choice to use the prophylactic to impede the spread of the disease, which, again, also blocks the unitive good, clearly a personal reality. In this case, it wouldn’t matter whether the couple is fertile or infertile; the PDE simply would not be applicable. Nor, let it be noted, would it be applicable to the case of a couple using a condom to contracept.

In the end, I appreciate Fr. Keenan’s pastoral concern to provide married couples faced with this tragic situation a way out that (he argues) is morally upright. But I don’t think that these couples should follow his advice for the reasons I have given. In brief, my counsel is abstinence in these cases, however difficult it may be for them. This option is both medically and morally sound. Through pastoral support and much prayer, I believe this “cross” can be made much lighter to bear for these spouses.

Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D. is a Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit, MI), where he has taught for over 23 years. He is co-editor of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition: Contemporary Perspectives (The Catholic University of America Press, 2004), as well as author of What’s a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions that Matter (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013) and numerous articles in scholarly and popular journals.
Articles by Mark:

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  • Squorrox


    After 27 years of married life, my wife got the dreaded HIV+ diagnosis. I am negative. We have had to work things out since that day three years ago. I fully endorse every word you have written in this article, although I haven’t read Fr. Keenan’s work. The only quibble I have is whether the term “abstinence” should be replaced with “continence”.

    • Mark Latkovic

      Thanks for your comment. I am very sorry to hear this. Prayers for your wife and for you! I hope all will be okay…

      • Squorrox

        Thank you for your kind comment and thank you for the prayers. They really help! My son is intending to get married next year and I’ve told him about the seriousness of the marriage vows – “in sickness and in health”.

  • Elijah fan

    Should you be giving authoritative counsel to infertile couples as a non priest. Strange to me. I agree with Fr. Keenan and suspect Pope Emeritus and a Cardinal in Africa do too though Benedict retreated in a hurry after his condom comment and follow up days later when asked about female prostitutes for whom he also affirmed condom use. The language of the body does not have relevance to the known infertile couple….besides not having a technically high authority level. TOB is a series of lectures. Church figures often seem cavalier about I Corinthians 7:5 in this area. Scripture is not an afterthought but in Catholic hands, it often is…the new Popes on the new death penalty view never…and I mean never cite Rom.13:4. ” Cruel and unnecessary” JPII in St. Louis about something God mandated multiple times in the OT and affirmed in Rom.13:4.
    Aquinas noted that Mary had no concupiscence after Christ’s birth and Joseph was probably old so the Josephite solution seems to have been an extreme that was misnamed at minimum.

    • Susan Schudt

      To say that Benedict affirmed condom use is to completely misrepresent his comments. He wasn’t even talking about it with regard to the principle of double effect but as a sign of conversion. It is a completely different situation.

      The Catholic Church considers Sacred Scripture to be the Word of God. In conjunction with I Cor 7:5, you should consider Ephesians 5, and in particular, 5:25. Paul does not contradict himself; his theology of marriage has developed. What husband or wife loves a spouse by putting them in danger of death or disease? Indeed, this is what the TOB is about, that the intention and action of love is sacrificial, as Christ loves the Church. The language of the body certainly has relevance to a known infertile couple. Indeed, to be continent for the greater good of another is a loving act.

      To diminish the TOB to a series of lectures is to not have read it, nor to have read Sacred Scripture (Genesis, Tobit, Song of Songs, Psalms, Gospels, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Revelation, to be specific.) Any teaching from the Pope that is in accordance with 2000 year history of teaching on Faith and Morals, as well as consistent with Sacred Scripture has the highest authority level. The TOB cannot be dismissed as a series of lectures.

      Certainly with sufficient pastoral counseling, strengthened by the Sacraments, the Josephite marriage is an appropriate solution.

      Regarding the death penalty – that is irrelevant.

      • Elijah fan

        There is no danger of death with using two condoms perfectly. That’s why Benedict saw it as something to be done in the cases he was addressing. He probably read studies to that effect and of success rates in southeast asia rather than the failures in Africa.
        I read the entire Bible..cover to cover ..thanks…and the entire Summa Theologica minus the objections and several arcane topics. The death penalty topic goes very relevantly to the often light involvement of Catholic leaders with scripture…as does Aquinas’ discounting of scriptures involving taking interest of foreigners by the Jews and strategical lying in war vis a vis Jehu ( he avoided Judith and Solomon). That is: since Aquinas favored Aristotle on both lying and usury, the relevant scriptures were dismissed when they contradicted Aristotle’s concept of natural law….Jehu lying because he later sinned through idolatry/ Jews taking interest because God allowed them divorce also. In 1830 the Vatican sent out word that those taking moderate interest were not to be disturbed. I’m thinking they like me were convinced that God permitted interest taking to the Jews as a due act not like divorce. You and I paid interest on our homes….galore in the first years.
        I gather you also took the oath to submit your intellect to the non infallible. State it if so. If the UN figures on murder are correct, Latin America has a murder rate 16 times greater than largely death penalty East Asia…the lowest murder rate of world regions but unlike Europe ( no death penalty) East Asia has a billion poor like largely no death penalty Latin America. Phillipines has 8 times the murder rate of China which means in 2013,
        China’s system of justice transplanted into Phillipines for murder alone….would have saved 7000 Phillipine lives roughly. China is unwittingly obeying Romans 13:4 and saving lives even though she is killing through abortion by disobeying the 5 th commandment….at the rate that New York City aborts also (which has no death penalty in NY).

        • Mark Latkovic

          All this from my one article on condoms? Well, okay… lol

      • Mark Latkovic

        Thanks Susan. I like responding to ppl with real names! I write something and have my name, pic, and other identifying info and then I often end up responding to faceless and nameless individuals…

    • me, myself & I r all here

      Might be good to go off & do some learning, besides pouring out some old antiquated bile as “fact.”

      • Elijah fan

        Have you considered a career in haiku?

        • Mark Latkovic

          I’m a fan of haiku and write them myself. But I’m staying out of this battle. 🙂

          • Elijah fan


  • Howard Kainz

    With a diagnosis of prostate cancer, and an implant of radioactive iodine seeds, the physician will recommend using condoms for intercourse for several weeks afterwards, to avoid transmitting any seed to the spouse. Would you consider that reasonable, or in the “gray” area?

    • Ronk

      No. And I would be very surpised if someone in that situation was well enough to take part in the conjugal act.

      • Mark Latkovic


  • Ronk

    A further reason which I’m surprised you didn’t mention, is that condoms are less (often much less) than 100% effective in prventing the transmission of HIV/AIDS (and other sexually transmitted diseases). It could hardly be an act of love to willingly expose one’s wife (or husband) to the risk of contracting a deadly disease. Not to mention exposing their children, if any, to the risk of prematurely being orphaned of not only one but both parents. Abstinence from the conjugal act is the only moral and loving option in such cases.

    • Mark Latkovic

      Of course, I know that & I agree! But you can only do so much in one article! 🙂

  • Nicholas Danne

    Isn’t it contradictory to posit a “language” of the body in abstraction from “intention, motive, and desire”? Surely the marital language is not that of whales and wolves, but involves intellect and will. Thus I think the inviolable connection is attacked more significantly by the mind than by the body. The basic good that renders contracepting intelligible is the possible person opposed; the basic good that renders prophylactic barriers intelligible is health. None of this precludes barrier-method coitus from being 100% successful coitus, especially if it’s the behavior claimed to be impossible for homosexuals.

    Maybe prophylactics are always bad for a marriage because they tend to bend the mind to prophylactics’ dominantly contraceptive/promiscuous use in the culture, but I don’t understand how they render the act unsuccessful.

    • Mark Latkovic

      You can’t separate our minds from our bodies. That’s why the marital language of human beings is not that of “whales and wolves.” (Do they marry?). We’re not dualists…The language of the body involves intellect, will, and body. There’s no positing of a language “in abstraction” from our intentions and choices. When spouses use a condom, there is a barrier placed between them, between their body-persons; that’s why we call them “barrier methods.”

  • Catholic Dan

    I’m sorry: This is a serious discussion, but I couldn’t not comment on the irony of the fact that Dr. Latkovic has an STD.

    • Mark Latkovic

      It’s an old joke, but someone has to be the butt of it and it might as well be me! I’ve used it many times myself, saying I got mine in Washington, DC. (where I studied & received my doctorate).

  • Veritas

    With current anti-retro viral medications, there is increasing evidence of a very low rate of transmission when viral loads are successfully kept very low. A condom in this case is a secondary preventive measure that can further increase safety. While abstinence is the surest way to avoid transmission, these risks can be limited.
    The moral balance, it would seem to me, must be weighing the morality of the risk of transmission, a measurable quantity, versus the moral “objectionability” of condom use by the infertile.
    Abstinence in itself is a form of denial of the unitive act… Does not this need to be considered

    • Mark Latkovic

      Abstinence may be a “denial” of the “unitive act,” but it’s not an act that violates the unitive meaning of marital intercourse. There’s a big difference between not doing some good (e.g., abstaining) and doing something that attacks a good (e.g., using contraception). You wouldn’t say that your choice to respond to my article instead of writing a novel was a “denial” of the good of you writing a novel.

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