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The AIDS Dilemma and the Condom Conundrum. By Lambert Mbom


Every year we celebrate December 1st as World Aids day. In the wake of Pope Benedict XVI’s recent comments on condoms, it is just appropriate to venture a few comments on such a hot potato.

It would be presumptuous on my part how ever to make any claim on being an authentic interpreter of the Pope especially of such a refined intellectual as Benedict XVI and on such an abstruse subject. Neither do I seek to broach this subject with the brashness of “a self-appointed guardian of orthodoxy.”

Rather, I come to it as a pilgrim with the Roman Catholic Church as my preferred compass. I hold and cherish the teachings of Holy Mother the Church not in any cafeteria-like manner cherry picking what suits my idiosyncrasies but rather guided by the Augustinian model: I believe in order to understand or better still the Anselmian mode: I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand.

Bigoted and brainwashed, are obvious charges many are tempted to fire at me. So be it. Yet, I must say this is not a vain exercise in disputation seeking to convince any; rather, it is an account of my faith that I seek to provide here.

The urgency of this task also ensues from my pro-life ministration modulated by the defense of life from its precious moment of natural conception to natural consummation. It became clear to me quite early on that abortion is the result of a process that begins with sex. Therefore, abortion and contraception are two sides of the same coin.

Stones must be in the air flying towards me as many shout out: There comes the Pharisee. Hypocrite!

My personal weaknesses and I must confess they are many and my frequent relapses are not an indication in any way of a disagreement with the teachings of the Church but rather of that weakness of the flesh, which we all have the burden of carrying through life.

Thank God for St Paul to whom I must flee and avail of the practical safety valve when he says: For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. (Romans 7:19). It is important to note here that St Paul does not talk of the good I know but the good I want. Later on, this shall be useful with the Socratic paradox where Socrates claims that when we do evil, it is because we conceive of this evil to be something good.

In the first instance, it is incumbent on us to present the full text of the Pope’s comments. The truth is many people can only give sound bites summary of the Pope’s recent utterance on condoms. It suffices to mention that this was part of an interview with Peter Seewald published in a book entitled Light of the World: The Pope, The Church and The Signs Of The Times.

Herewith the precise words of the Pope:
On the occasion of your trip to Africa in March 2009, the Vatican’s policy on Aids once again became the target of media criticism. Twenty-five percent of all Aids victims around the world today are treated in Catholic facilities. In some countries, such as Lesotho, for example, the statistic is 40 percent. In Africa you stated that the Church’s traditional teaching has proven to be the only sure way to stop the spread of HIV. Critics, including critics from the Church’s own ranks, object that it is madness to forbid a high-risk population to use condoms.

The media coverage completely ignored the rest of the trip to Africa on account of a single statement. Someone had asked me why the Catholic Church adopts an unrealistic and ineffective position on Aids. At that point, I really felt that I was being provoked, because the Church does more than anyone else. And I stand by that claim. Because she is the only institution that assists people up close and concretely, with prevention, education, help, counsel, and accompaniment. And because she is second to none in treating so many Aids victims, especially children with Aids.

I had the chance to visit one of these wards and to speak with the patients. That was the real answer: The Church does more than anyone else, because she does not speak from the tribunal of the newspapers, but helps her brothers and sisters where they are actually suffering. In my remarks I was not making a general statement about the condom issue, but merely said, and this is what caused such great offense, that we cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms. Much more needs to be done. We must stand close to the people, we must guide and help them; and we must do this both before and after they contract the disease.

As a matter of fact, you know, people can get condoms when they want them anyway. But this just goes to show that condoms alone do not resolve the question itself. More needs to happen. Meanwhile, the secular realm itself has developed the so-called ABC Theory: Abstinence-Be Faithful-Condom, where the condom is understood only as a last resort, when the other two points fail to work. This means that the sheer fixation on the condom implies a banalization of sexuality, which, after all, is precisely the dangerous source of the attitude of no longer seeing sexuality as the expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves. This is why the fight against the banalization of sexuality is also a part of the struggle to ensure that sexuality is treated as a positive value and to enable it to have a positive effect on the whole of man’s being.

There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.

Are you saying, then, that the Catholic Church is actually not opposed in principle to the use of condoms?

She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

My Personal Reflections
Drumbeaters immediately and with a rare dexterous feat beat the leather to a rousing “kumbaya.” There was breaking news on major cable news networks headlining the fact that there had been a volte-face with respect to the Church’s teaching on condoms. There is no denying it that the Pope has been widely misinterpreted as permitting or advocating the use of condoms.

The Pope’s statement opened a Pandora’s Box. Clearly, enormous confusion is the unintended result. The ambiguity is so vacuous especially when viewed in the light of his lucidity and conciseness on other issues. The genius of the Pope’s confusion lies in the fact that attempts at clarifying what he meant have engendered more confusion.

It would appear as though this Pope thrives in controversy. His initial comments on this topic 21 months ago on his pastoral visit to Cameroon, caused a furor and put a damper on this visit. His famous comments at the 2006 Regensburg lecture that sparked a firestorm is yet another case in point.

A common thread in all these controversies is that when taken out of contexts, the Pope’s remarks always look outlandish and ludicrous. It is instructive to note here that the Pope was not speaking ex cathedra where in matters of faith and morals he is infallible.

In this instance, the Pope does not seek to solve the moral quandary of condoms in a private conversation with a journalist. Maybe it is easier to say that the Pope was not attempting a moral response but rather a pastoral one. Yet the problem persists. This kind of Gnostic dualism whereby it is wrong within moral theology and permissible pastorally is a worthy critique against such a stance.

It is fascinating however to note in passing, that the Pope seems to take the liberty to address this question through informal sessions with journalists. At best, one can describe the Church’s position on condoms as work in progress. The Pope seems with each opportunity to be putting together building blocks towards a fuller authoritative teaching on this.

First, in 2009 he clearly stated that condoms are a part of the problem rather than the solution. Here the Pope was addressing the issue of how safe condoms are? Precisely, because they are not safe and yet leave people with a false sense of security, the attending risks are enormous. Some people have used condoms and still been infected and in this case, one is one too many.
Then now, two cardinal points he stresses which have unfortunately received scant attention are the fact that condoms banalize sex and that a coherent approach to this question lies in the humanization of sexuality. It all boils down to responsibility. We shall return to these soon.
Having set forth these grand markers, the Pope now addresses an exceptional case of prostitutes and condoms. It might be useful to note here that the Pope seems to move from the “cerebral” as it were to the heart. God’s Rottweiler shows himself a “pastor”.

In so doing, I find a biblical parallel only in Christ’s teaching on divorce when after laying the doctrine, Christ was then asked: They said to him, “Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss (her)?” To which he replied, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” It is therefore an aberration to claim that this is a positive first step towards a fundamental change in the Church’s teaching.
Let us ponder anew the Pope’s words. The usage of a condom by a prostitute is a first step towards conversion; a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. It would appear as though there is a move from a hardliner zero tolerance to an inch overture for a limited circumstance.

The question that remains is, does the Pope make an exception for prostitutes only? Or, was this just an anecdotal example against which we can measure other extenuating circumstances ad libitum?

First, the presumption here is in the case where one is already infected. It appears to me that there is a journey here from condom usage to abstinence. The pope seems to be suggesting here that the individual using a condom is indicating that he seeks the partner’s good and would not want to infect the person. Rather than remain at this level, the person should come full circle and realize that given his/her predicament, it is preferable to abstain from sex. It is a first step on this journey of abstinence.

To be able to understand the problem at hand, we must make a distinction of the condom as a contraceptive and the condom as a prophylactic. The traditional line of thinking has been that following the publication in 1968 of Humanae Vitae, the Church ruled against contraception because “every sexual act must be open to procreation” and contraception clearly contravenes this. The Church’s prohibition against the condom’s original use to prevent pregnancy is a settled question.
Then with the case of disease like AIDS, the question of the condom resurfaced under the guise of a prophylactic. As a preventive measure, the intention when using a condom is not to contracept or so some argue; but one can argue that even if one’s intention is prevention, lurking at the same time is its capacity to contracept.

Yet there are instances such as with homosexuals where contraception is out of the question. Or old couples with no possibility of bearing forth children, and likewise barren couples. Will the use of condoms in these circumstances not be licit given that even if they wanted to, they cannot procreate together? The answer is unfortunately still no.

To stretch the point even further, one could ask – How about two persons infected already? Granted even if just for the sake of this argument that further infection is not possible, will their use of condoms still be wrong? The answer remains an emphatic – YES.
It is instructive to add here that the Church is not opposed to condoms because they have a less than 100% success rate. This is just a functionalistic approach. Even if the condom were 300% safe, the Church will still be opposed to its use both as a contraceptive and as a prophylactic.

In this light, it behooves me to point out here that clearly the use of condoms enunciates a formal strand of modernity succinctly expressed as efficiency trumps the good. Too often, many people measure the goodness of a thing in terms of how efficient it is. The slippery slope of mechanistic hubris – if it works then it is good is a much liked argument in favor of condoms. This betrays the dictatorship of instrumentalization that has captured many. We have become so inured to gadgets and the charm of technological advancements that what dictates the pace and holds sway is, that which answers in the affirmative to the question, does it work?

The perniciousness of the condom is seen not only in the fact that it is safe only in a quasi fashion (it is worth calculating the multiplier effect of one condom slippage per hundreds, per thousands and per millions etc) but even more fundamentally because of the anthropology undergirding it. Simply put, the condom is a lie.

Hanley and Dr. Irala are right on point when they say in November 2010 edition of Ethics and Medics that at the heart of the condom hype/propaganda is a utilitarian philosophy which asserts that the worth or value of an act is determined solely by its consequences. More pointedly it celebrates the minimalization of pain and the maximization of pleasure and enjoyment. As it applies to HIV prevention policy, the objective becomes seeking to maximize the good of sexual pleasure while minimizing the pain of AIDS.

This is the ethos of contemporary culture. Modern man painfully seeks to avoid pain of any sort. Man wants comfort at all cost. The guiding standard then becomes pleasure. Many define the Good then in terms of whatever brings the greatest pleasure to the highest number of people. This philosophy feeds the contemporary condom craze.

Implicit in the use of condoms is a certain presupposition of what the human body is. Within the ambient of the foregoing, the human body in Dr. Schindler’s terms “is seen as dumb stuff apt for manipulation and thus construction.” Since it is pleasure that man seeks, such an individual views the body as empty and naked ready to be manipulated to produce the desired results. The human body is not seen as an order of love, as having an intrinsic order and interiority and not just matter or stuff.

In fact, there is sadly a rude form of instrumentalization of the human person at the heart of this condom culture. The other is used as a thing and becomes an instrument to avail of to satisfy one’s end of pleasure. John Paul II rightly characterized this as “a civilization of things and not of persons.” The condom treats the other as what and not as who.

The “I love you” communicated in the communion not only of bodies but also of persons during sex is downgraded to “I need you…I want you”. This is what Pope Benedict rightly describes as a banalization of sex. There is no intimacy or mutuality except in the exploitation of the one by the other or both. One uses the other to serve one’s needs or at best both use each other for personal gratification. Through this condomistic sex, both partners become sex toys for each other’s pleasure.
Once again, this clearly reveals the myopia at the heart of the ethos of condoms as sex becomes recreational instead of procreational. This sheds off responsibility of any sort. The claim that by using the condom one is in fact acting responsibly rings hollow. As the English expression has it, you cannot have your cake and eat it. If you are so unsure of yourself or of each other, the most responsible thing to do is to abstain. Going on within this framework is at best mutual deception and at worst irresponsibility.

One question worth posing at this time is: holding everything constant, if one were given a condom and shown someone with HIV, would one still go to have sex with this individual?
(To be continued)

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