The Pope’s remarks about condom use are a striking example of the reasoning behind harm reduction.
MANILA, Philippines—Some church members in Southeast Asia’s largest Roman Catholic nation praised Pope Benedict XVI for saying condom use might be justified in some cases, though Filipino bishops stressed Sunday the church leader still opposes contraceptives.
Speaking to a German journalist whose book was excerpted in a Vatican newspaper Saturday, the pontiff reiterated that condoms are not a moral solution for stopping AIDS. But he added that in some cases, such as for male prostitutes, their use could represent a first step in assuming moral responsibility “in the intention of reducing the risk of infection.”
‘A first step’. I don’t think the Pope intends it that way, but this is a breach in the wall of absolutism.
Harm reduction strategies, such as clean needle distribution for injecting drug addicts and condom distribution were created as a response to a deadly epidemic, and are intended to prevent people at risk from getting infected and infecting others. Needle exchange sites distribute information on drug treatment and make referrals to treatment centers– unfortunately the referral is usually to a waiting list. But the ethics of harm reduction is to buy time for people who will one day find a way out of the self destructive behaviours they engage in. There’s always the risk of becoming an enabler. Programs of harm reduction have to be carefully constructed and monitored.
Zero tolerance, imprisonment and ex-communication are other ongoing strategies that can’t claim more success. I think that life is messy, and purity has killed more people and ruined more lives than sin. We’re only human. When we aim for perfection we more often land on arrogance.
Defining condom use as a sin, and then saying that this rule can be broken to prevent a worse harm– HIV infection, is a humane answer to the imperfection of our circumstances, and our human limitations when debating right and wrong.
The Pope made it clear that Catholics are still forbidden to use condoms for contraception.
When the Catholic Church is ready to consider the real lives of women, then theologians will find their way to an ethics that respects the moral agency of women and men in deciding when to take on the awesome responsibility of parenthood. Using a condom or other method of birth control is an act of love for yourself and your family, and an acknowledgement of our power as rational and technologically blessed human beings and the responsibility that comes with it. Teaching young men to respect their power as potential fathers would do more good than teaching them to disrespect women.
Anyway, it doesn’t take Kmareka precognitive powers to see that the Vatican will soon be ‘clarifying’ this perfectly clear, and reasonable statement by the Pope. But there’s a whole suffering world of dis-empowered people behind the wall of dogma, and the Pope allowed a breach. It’s going to take a boatload of theological double talk to patch it over.