Are condoms always contraceptive? Father Rhonheimer gets creative

Christopher Blosser has an excellent round-up of the debate going on in Catholic circles triggered by His Holiness’ recent remarks on the use of condoms by gay prostitutes to prevent disease.  Swiss theologian Father Martin Rhonheimer has taken advantage of the pope’s unfortunate statements to claim official support for his own speculations–namely, that the prophylactic use of condoms (i.e. to present disease transmission) is not contraceptive at all.

According to Catholic moral theology, as articulated by Aquinas and others, the morality of an act depends on three things:  the agent’s intention (does he mean to do good or evil?), the circumstances (are there foreseeable side effects that would outweigh the good intention?)  and the object (the nature of the act itself; is it intrinsically evil?).  For an act to be moral, it must pass all three tests.  Catholic doctrine infallibly states (and natural law confirms) that contraception–the deliberate frustration of the conjugal act’s generative end–is intrinsically evil.  It would seem, therefore, that one should not engage in contraceptive acts even if one’s purpose is to prevent infecting a spouse, rather than to prevent a conception.  Father Rhonheimer disagrees.  He claims that an act of intercourse with a condom is not a contraceptive act at all unless it is intended as such.  Therefore, prophylactic condom use does not fall under the Church’s ban on contraception, although it may (or may not) still be immoral for other reasons.  Father Rhonheimer also uses his unique understanding of “object” to engage in other flights of fancy.  For example, what any of us would call “masturbation” isn’t so if it’s done to extract semen for infertility testing.

Professors Janet Smith and Stephen Long (see articles in the attached round-up) have pointed out the obvious problems with Rhonheimer’s thinking.  It eviscerates Catholic moral theology by reducing “object” to a restatement of “intention”.  Catholic moral theology is reduced to intentionalism, there are no intrinsically good or evil acts, and anything can be justified by good intentions.  As Long puts it

Of course, this is intentionalism. It is to argue that because one intends prophylaxis, therefore such condom use is not contraceptive. This is precisely the effort to define “direct” and “indirect” with respect to moral action by reference solely to intention while excluding essential reference to the nature of that which is chosen. Yet the putatively good effect achieved through condom use–that of preventing dissemination of disease–is in heterosexual intercourse achieved only by means of the evil effect of a contraceptive blocking of the transmission of procreative matter. Fr. Rhonheimer does not wish to call this “contraception” because for him, not the nature of the act, but rather, exclusively the intention of the agent, determines whether contraception occurs. The integral nature and per se effects of one’s chosen action are thus not held to be imputable to one, but only one’s “intention”. The knight, wiping the blood off his sword, says: “I didn’t really kill a child–I merely helped to prevent dynastic civil war”. Of course, the dead regal child is not by this fact resurrected.
Father Rhonheimer replies to Janet Smith in Our Sunday Visitor.  Tellingly, he makes no attempt to answer her substantiative, philosophical points.  Instead, he starts out by accusing her of libel.  He goes on for some time bitching in a most unmanly way about his wounded reputation.  Then he appeals to his authority as an author of books on moral theology, claiming to be outraged that anyone would accuse an expert like him of an error like intentionalism.  Again, he says nothing substantial to rebut the charge–his thought is so subtle that it can’t be explained in a magazine article on the subject.  Finally, he appeals negatively to the authority of the Church.  He has not yet been condemned; therefore, his writings are consistent with orthodoxy!
Rhonheimer’s piss-poor self-defense has convinced me even more than the reasoning of his accusers.  This man’s books should be condemned.  He should be given the choice of recanting or being charged with heresy.  Not the first time the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has been asleep at the wheel, I’m afraid.

3 Responses

  1. Yet the putatively good effect achieved through condom use–that of preventing dissemination of disease–is in heterosexual intercourse achieved only by means of the evil effect of a contraceptive blocking of the transmission of procreative matter.

    This sentence is hard to de-code, but it seems wrong to me. An STD can be transmitted without any transmission of procreative matter. Sex is abrasive and can lead to STD transmission through blood-to-blood or blood-to-mucous-membrane contact, even if the man does not ejaculate. So, a condom may prevent the transmission of an STD not via its blocking of transmission of procreative matter but by its blocking of transmission of blood.

    I am not, of course, arguing that condom use (in the usual sense) is ever licit or even that it is ever not intrinsically evil, but I am unsure about the truth of the quoted sentence. Presumably there is some slightly more subtle argument like “achieved only by means of the blocking-fluids-action of condoms which blocking-fluids-action inevitably leads to a contraceptive blocking of the transmission of procreative matter.” Or, is this what Long’s sentence actually means, and I am just misreading it?

  2. Hi Bill,

    I think your latter reading is what he means, although having read your comment, I now see that he could have spoken more precisely. Blocking semen is an intrinsic consequence of wearing a condom, in that, if semen is not blocked, one has failed to do the act that was intended.

    Suppose, one might ask, it were possible to invent some kind of membrane that would allow sperm cells to pass through, but not HIV viruses. Would it be sinful for a man to use such a device? The act would then not be contraceptive in effect. One might only object that it is symbolically contraceptive, in that it would look exactly like a contraceptive act. I think issues of appearance like that do matter, but I don’t know if they would tip the scales in this case.

  3. Father Rhonheimer’s views seem to come close to the view of double-effect, so mercilessly satirised by that great philosopher of action and intention, G E M Anscombe

    “At the same time, the principle has been repeatedly abused from the seventeenth century up till now. The causes lie in the history of philosophy. From the seventeenth century till now what may be called Cartesian psychology has dominated the thought of philosophers and theologians. According to this psychology, an intention was an interior act of the mind which could be produced at will. Now if intention is all important–as it is–in determining the goodness or badness of an action, then, on this theory of what intention is, a marvellous way offered itself of making any action lawful. You only had to ‘direct your intention’ in a suitable way. In practice, this means making a little speech to yourself: “What I mean to be doing is. . .”

    This perverse doctrine has occasioned repeated condemnations by the Holy See from the seventeenth century to the present day. Some examples will suffice to show how the thing goes. Typical doctrines from the seventeenth century were that it is all right for a servant to hold the ladder for his criminous master so long as he is merely avoiding the sack by doing so; or that a man might wish for and rejoice at his parent’s death so long as what he had in mind was the gain to himself; or that it is not simony to offer money, not as a price for the spiritual benefit, but only as an inducement to give it…

    It is nonsense to pretend that you do not intend to do what is the means you take to your chosen end. Otherwise, there is absolutely no substance to the Pauline teaching that we may not do evil that good may come.”

    Miss Anscombe called it “double-thinking about double-effect,” and I think she was right.

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