On Condoms – More Dostoevsky, Less Catechesis

Deal W. Hudson
November 29, 2010

Catholics are obsessed with rules about what can and cannot be done. Contraception, abortion, women in the priesthood, even kneeling for the Eucharist are often subjects of controversy whenever Catholics discuss their faith.

Thus, when Pope Benedict XVI made his now-famous comment in Light of the World about condoms, it was inevitable that his utterance would be treated as a new rule. The media is reporting that Catholics may now use condoms during sexual intercourse to avoid transferring HIV.

There is, of course, no new rule about condom use: The Church still teaches that contraception during intercourse between a man and woman is forbidden, even in the case where one or the other is HIV positive.

What Benedict actually said is much more interesting than what is being wrongly reported by the media. The Holy Father was probing into an imagined individual’s moral psychology, rather than rehearsing a new item in the next edition of the Catechism.

The context of the condom comment was his response to a question about how to fight the spread of AIDS in Africa. The Holy Father described how the “fixation” on condoms has led to the “banalization” of sexuality, where it is no longer viewed as an “expression of love, but only a sort of drug that people administer to themselves.”

Up to this point in the conversation with Peter Seewald, the pope is simply reiterating the Church’s teaching as stated, for example, in Humanae Vitae.

But then another thought occurred to one-time professor Benedict – a situation in which the use of a condom might be considered a moral act.

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.

The Holy Father imagines the moment when a prostitute while conducting business, becomes concerned about the physical well-being of his or her customer – wanting to keep that person from being infected by a deadly disease.

Reflections on the moral psychology of a prostitute are not what you normally expect from a pontiff. Benedict’s imagining that, even in the midst of such degrading labor, a person can become aware of the moral dimension of sexuality seems to belong more to the substance of a Dostoevsky novel than the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Benedict’s observation is much more interesting, more morally probative, than what has enthralled the media for more than a week. It’s grounded in the Catholic anthropology of the human person’s natural desire for God, the good, and happiness.

There’s no aggregate of sinful habits or base acts that can remove this desire completely. As a result, it’s a human propensity that can find expression at any moment and in any circumstance. Conversion, so to speak, is a perennial possibility.

If Benedict had further developed his observation about the imagined prostitute, he might have come to the conclusion he was no longer talking about condoms as understood by the Church. Condom use is banned for Catholics because it is a means of contraception. When a condom is put to other uses, however – whether as a balloon or a medical device to inhibit infection – it is no longer functioning as a condom.

Some will say this is just a play on words; but for Catholics who have been brought up to identify condoms with contraception, it’s important to insist upon the distinction.

Once we move past the obsession with the rule about contraceptives, Catholics and non-Catholics alike may notice that Benedict was giving a message of hope to those involved, whether by choice or circumstance, in degrading and dehumanizing actions.

The pope is reminding all of us that, regardless of how far we fall or how much we fail, we remain God’s children, and our desire for Him can never be extinguished.

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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