...But better than nothing, Benedict seems to be saying in an extensive clarification issued today by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:
Some commentators have interpreted the words of Benedict XVI according to the so-called theory of the "lesser evil". This theory is, however, susceptible to proportionalistic misinterpretation (cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Veritatis splendor, n. 75-77). An action which is objectively evil, even if a lesser evil, can never be licitly willed. The Holy Father did not say as some people have claimed that prostitution with the use of a condom can be chosen as a lesser evil. The Church teaches that prostitution is immoral and should be shunned. However, those involved in prostitution who are HIV positive and who seek to diminish the risk of contagion by the use of a condom may be taking the first step in respecting the life of another even if the evil of prostitution remains in all its gravity. This understanding is in full conformity with the moral theological tradition of the Church.
The Vatican statement follows an ongoing debate among ethicists and moral theologians, many on the conservative side of the spectrum, who were battling among themselves over what the pope really meant and whether he was wrong or right or just misguided.I think this clarification -- which will itself be chewed over no doubt -- pretty clearly gives the nod to Father Martin Rhonheimer, an Opus Dei priest whose Tablet article in 2004 really spurred the debate.Rhonheimer's recent interview with Our Sunday Visitor and Austen Ivereigh's analysis at America's blog (from whence I first learned of the new Vatican statement) seem to presage quite accurately this latest Vatican explainer.A couple of thoughts: The pope clearly wants to state that his remarks did not signal a change on church teaching on contraception, which seemed clear from the start, though there were apparently some initial misconstruals.He also says that "to use condoms to avoid an unwanted pregnancy is completely arbitrary and is in no way justified either by his words or in his thought" and that his remarks were not meant to refer to "conjugal morality." But it seems inevitable that the AIDS example could have some resonance there given that deadly and dangerous situations can also arise in the marital context. (Humanae Vitae in fact states that a contraceptive used for wholly other intentions could be licit.) There seems no way to escape the weight of intention to some degree, it seems.Also, Benedict has always been hinky -- as have many ethicists, I believe -- about the use of the term "the lesser evil," fearing it could lead to proportionalism (bad) or simply divert attention from the relational aspect of the whole problem, which is where the focus should be. And yet the lesser evil does seem to be inherent here, if only by another name.John Allen's take, just in -- a sample:
In effect, the doctrinal congregation's concern appears to be that calling condom use a "lesser evil" could suggest it's morally legitimate, something that can be chosen with a clear conscience. Instead, the congregation appears to be saying, the use of a condom in certain circumstances may be "less evil" than some alternatives, but it still falls short of the moral ideal.

David Gibson is the director of Fordham’s Center on Religion & Culture.

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