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There’s a category of moral obligations that occur in funny circumstances. Given that you are doing a certain immoral thing, there are nevertheless obligations that you have. The pope has recently conceded (finally) that there are such obligations involving condom use. It’s wrong to be a male prostitute, but it’s “a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility” if the prostitute uses a condom. In other words, if you’re going to be immoral, you do have the moral obligation of wearing a condom. You shouldn’t be doing the initial immoral thing to begin with, but if you’re going to do it you still have another obligation to be responsible and wear a condom, or else you fail at a further obligation.

The fullest quote I’ve seen is, “There may be justified individual cases, for example when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be ... a first bit of responsibility, to re-develop the understanding that not everything is permitted and that one may not do everything one wishes.”

Perhaps we could call this sort of thing a secondary moral obligation, one you don’t have unless you’re doing something you have a moral obligation not to do.Since some secondary moral obligations might be immoral themselves were it not for the primary moral obligation, there really is an interesting character to them. That’s certainly how the pope’s view in this case works. Condom use is normally immoral, according to his view. But given certain immoral actions, you then have a secondary moral obligation to perform that normally-immoral act of using a condom.

I want to say something about Andrew Sullivan’s response, because I think Sullivan latches on to something important that most people haven’t picked up, but he’s also got it completely wrong in another respect. What Sullivan notices is that “Benedict has chosen a case where transmission of new life (barring a real miracle) is already impossible”. It’s not clear if he would say the same thing about a female prostitute, where conception might be possible. It’s quite possible that this is why he chose this example. I’m not sure. Does the recognition of secondary moral obligations only occur when the stakes of the effects of risky sex are greater than the stakes of contraception, and the latter still appear in cases of heterosexual non-marital sex?

I suspect Sullivan is wrong about this, though, and the pope would still invoke what I’m calling a secondary moral obligation in cases where there’s high risk of STDs with immoral sex of any sort, but Sullivan has given a possible distinction that might come into play. I credit him for spotting that possibility, but I’m wondering if he has any evidence other than the fact that he chose this example when he could have chosen another (which is no more than speculation, actually).

I have to criticize Sullivan’s understanding of the larger issue. I don’t think he gets the point being made. He describes this statement is taking one form of gay sex as being more moral than another. That strikes me as at least very misleading, if more moral means anything other than less immoral. When you say something is more moral, it sounds as if there’s a continuum between things not moral and things most moral, and this is in between somewhere. That’s not what Benedict said, though. What he said is that both are immoral, but one is moreso.

What he goes on to say next, however, does seem right to me. It does follow that moral considerations of this secondary sort would apply in gay sex. If gay sex is immoral, there are some instances that are less so than others. Anonymous gay sex is more immoral than gay sex in a committed partnership. Duh. But is such a position really anathema to the Roman Catholic Church? Is Benedict likely to say that there’s no moral distinction between killing someone while robbing a bank in order to get away safely and taking sadistic delight in blowing up the entire bank with forty hostages as you go, even though none of their deaths were required for your escape?

I’d be pretty shocked if he thought such a thing. In fact, an alternate position by John Allen strikes me as more likely: “Pope Benedict XVI has signaled that in some limited cases, where the intent is to prevent the transmission of disease rather than to prevent pregnancy, the use of condoms might be morally justified.” So the issue is intent, as is unsurprising. Pope Paul VI’s statement on sexual morality allowed for some cases where an act that would normally be immoral might in certain contexts be justified given that the intent is not to prevent conception but to save a life. The case of a married couple with one spouse HIV-positive seems to be another, and I know of several instances of Catholic bishops and even a cardinal endorsing condom use in such a case (and the entire Phillipines conference of bishops even made a public statement to that effect).

So is Sullivan’s conclusion that the pope is now opened up to a gray-scale of morality rather than black and white morality? Hardly. There’s still a fact about what you ought to do and what you ought not to do. The gradations are not between right and wrong, where it’s factually uncertain which things are which (or even worse that there are no facts about where the line lies). I’ve seen nothing to indicate anything other than a sharp line between right and wrong in Benedict’s moral thinking. It’s just that there are degrees in how wrong something can be. Out of the things that are simply wrong, some have a greater degree of wrongness to them than others. Using a condom to have gay sex in a committed same-sex legal marriage is, on the Catholic view, simply wrong, even if it’s not as bad as having unprotected sex with a male prostitute in a one-time encounter.

Given what the pope’s position is, it’s interesting to see the headlines news outlets are giving to the pronouncement (and I’m just looking at what’s on the top of the Google listings). Yahoo’s is pretty good: Pope says some condom use ‘first step’ of morality. CBN seems to be using the same headline. ABC is also in this category, as is Catholic Herald.

Politics Daily, on the other hand, gets it entirely wrong: “Pope OKs Condoms in Some Cases, Such As Prostitutes Avoiding HIV”. That doesn’t get the point at all. It’s not that he’s OKing it for them. It’s that he can see it as a movement from being thoroughly immoral to being a little less immoral, all the while insisting that they should be doing none of it to begin with. You have the same problem with the New York Times: Pope Says Condoms to Stop AIDS May Be Acceptable. NPR has the same problem with different language: Pope Says Condoms Can Be Used in Some Cases. Al Jazeera has an initial headline that’s fine, but then they have a sub-headline that’s as bad as any of these. First: Pope softens stand on condoms. Then the summary immediately below says he considers it acceptable in some cases. Others in this category include the New York PostCNN, and the Huffington Post. The Daily Beast is perhaps the worst: Pope Partly Endorses Condoms.

FOX News is only a little better: Pope: Condom Use Can Be Justified in Some Cases. The reason I think that’s a little better is because it’s actually true, whereas the NYT and Politics Today headlines are simply false. The pope has not said that it’s OK or acceptable to use condoms to stop AIDS, just that it’s less immoral than engaging in such behavior without a condom. I think it’s technically correct to say, however, that it can be justified in some cases, if the view is that you incur a moral obligation to use a condom in such circumstances by engaging in the immoral behavior. But it’s pretty misleading. It suggests that this is all right, even if it doesn’t go as far as the others in asserting that. MSNBC has a similar headline, with “OK” instead of “Justified”. That strikes me as better than saying he OKs it or that it may be acceptable, but I think calling it justified is a little better.

[cross-posted at Parableman]

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