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.
Somewhat 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.
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