Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Fine distinctions


In response to 'Condoms discussion returns to traditional moral norms', published Volume 16, issue 4:

In this comment, I will seek to explain the traditional rationale behind the argument from the lesser evil. This approach has the advantage that it can show how counseling the use of condoms can be morally acceptable, without in any way challenging the doctrine forbidding contraception. It is thus more likely to be acceptable to Church authorities. It is a very old argument; it goes back to a text of St. Augustine and was accepted by many, but not all moral theologians for centuries.

The argument would be relevant in a situation where a person who carries the virus is determined to engage in intercourse and cannot be persuaded otherwise. The counselor has two options; say nothing and simply allow that person to go ahead and endanger the life of his partner or counsel the use of a condom so as to protect the life of the partner.

A recent Tablet editorial claimed that, according to Humanae Vitae, “There is no leeway for arguments about a lesser evil.” This is not correct. Humanae Vitae states, “Neither is it valid to argue, as a justification for sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive, that a lesser evil is to be preferred to a greater one, . . .” (n. 14). But, in the case under discussion, counseling the use of a condom as the lesser evil does not entail the counselor’s justifying deliberately contraceptive intercourse or justifying the use of the condom as a means of contraception.

To justify an action is to commend that action as right and as a good thing to do. The counselor does not commend the use of a condom as a means of contraception, but as a means of blocking the transmission of the HIV virus. These may seem to be rather fine distinctions, but we sometimes need such distinctions to find our way through complex human situations.

Brian Johnstone, C.SS.R.
Alfonsian Accademy



submit a comment

Existing comments

all situations are grey not black and white.humanity is complex and requires wisdom and non-judgement.it is christ-like and buddhist to be detached and show wisdom regarding others.

rose heard | 09 September 2006  

The assumption made by Fr Johnstone here is that condom use is impermissible only when accompanied by a contraceptive intent. But condom use is also wrong because it always (if "successful") prevents true sexual intercourse taking place and replaces that act with one that is counterfeit, or pseudosex. Only when the semen is deposited in the vagina, they say, is an act of intercourse truly accomplished.

What surprises me is that Fr Johnstone has written brilliantly and very helpfully elsewhere on the importance of seeing sexual intercourse as an authentic giving and receiving ("The Truth about Homosexuality: A Reply To Gareth Moore"), but does not acknowledge that in condomistic intercourse, the donation and reception of the gift of semen which characterises the authentic marital act is not present.

Hugh Henry | 27 February 2007  

it is a very clear and simple solution. Never thought about it in this way. thanks Fr. Brian

Emmanuel Sant | 17 April 2007  

It is ironic that a religion which defines abortion as murder because it
extinguishes ahuman life has nothing to say about 18+ year-olds who join any
military organisation which, ipso facto, is dedcated to mass destruction
of human life -- and even organises ceremonies to sanctify such practices.

Your response will be interesting...

john | 21 June 2008  

How much are Australian taxpayers to contribute to the huge costs of "World
outh Day"?

neville | 21 June 2008  

Fr Johnston's dissection of the use of condoms being permissable in preventing disease transmission is indeed useful albeit a fine distinction in purpose. However since it also applies in the case of a person seeking to have sex with another who might be a disease carrier; is it now appropriate for parents to advise their sexually active children about the distinctions to be applied in the use of condoms?

Ken Fuller | 13 December 2008  

Similar Articles

Towards a national conversation about marriage

  • Mick Mac Andrew
  • 25 November 2009

I cannot accept that marriage is only about the recognition of people who love, however deeply, one another. The Commonwealth Government should instigate a genuine information campaign about marriage and allow all opinions to be tested against a rigorous criteria.


Bringing theology home to the academy

  • Gerard Goldman and Terry Lovat
  • 23 November 2009

It has been suggested, but surely not seriously, that the public university’s prime motive in including theology among its disciplines might be around financial benefit.