Prostitution in the towns is like the cesspool in the palace: take away the cesspool and the palace will become an unclean and evil-smelling place. - St. Thomas Aquinas
Last week, there was some controversy over comments about prostitutes made by the Pope in a book-length published interview series, but the issue was clarified in a statement released by the Vatican on Tuesday (November 23rd). The following is paraphrased from an AP release:
In a book released last week, Pope Benedict XVI said that condom use by people such as male prostitutes was a lesser evil since it indicated they were taking a step toward a more moral and responsible sexuality by aiming to protect their partners from a deadly infection. His comments implied that he was referring primarily to homosexual sex, when condoms aren’t being used as a form of contraception, which the Vatican opposes. But questions immediately arose about the Pope’s intent because the Italian translation of the book used the feminine for prostitute, whereas the original German used the masculine.
The Vatican spokesman, the Reverend Federico Lombardi, told reporters Tuesday that he asked the Pope whether he intended his comments to only apply to male prostitutes. Benedict replied that it really didn’t matter, that the important thing was the person in question took into consideration the life of the other, Lombardi said. “I personally asked the Pope if there was a serious, important problem in the choice of the masculine over the feminine,” Lombardi said. “He told me no. The problem is this… It’s the first step of taking responsibility, of taking into consideration the risk of the life of another with whom you have a relationship…this is if you’re a woman, a man, or a transsexual. We’re at the same point,” Lombardi said.
The Pope is not justifying or condoning gay sex or heterosexual sex outside of a marriage, and elsewhere in the book he reaffirms the Vatican opposition to homosexual acts and artificial contraception and reaffirms the inviolability of marriage between man and woman. But by broadening the condom comments to also apply to women, the Pope is saying that condom use in heterosexual relations is the lesser evil than passing HIV onto a partner – a significant shift for a pope who just last year said condoms only worsen the AIDS problem.
While the concept of lesser evils has long been a tenet of moral theology, the Pope’s book Light of the World — a series of interviews with a German journalist — was the first time any pope has ever publicly applied the theory to the scenario of condom use as a way to fight HIV transmission. The comments have generated heated debate, mostly positive in places like Africa which has been devastated by AIDS and where the church has been criticized for its opposition to condom use.
If you would like some insider commentary on the story, you might try this column by a Jesuit priest; it’s one of the few informed public opinions I’ve seen expressed on the issue since the story first broke last week. Everyone else seemed to be more interested in using the initial statement as an excuse to either run around spouting silly anti-Catholic opinions or to praise Pope Benedict for moving the Church forward, when in fact neither is correct. What the critics forget is that the Catholic Church is a monolithic, two-millennium old institution which is (unless I’m very much mistaken) the oldest continuous, centrally-directed international organization on Earth; one of the reasons it has lasted so long is that it changes only very slowly and methodically, but in our instant-gratification culture that is automatically considered a bad thing. On the other hand, those who praise the Pope for changing with the times are really barking up the wrong tree; the Pope’s comments were only the end result of a long, slow process of doctrinal change which begun soon after AIDS was identified, and the Church’s de facto tolerance of prostitutes goes back to its earliest days.
St. Augustine wrote, “Suppress prostitution, and capricious lusts will overthrow society.” This position was not unusual in his day; though priests and theologians were dealing in the ephemeral matters of soul and morality, most of them were also practical men who, unlike most modern legalistic idealists, recognized that human beings are imperfect and incapable of total adherence to any code of behavior. So rather than setting up impossible standards which many if not most people would often fail to meet (as we do today), the Church fathers recognized the need for safety valves which would allow people to blow off steam and thereby avoid great wrongs and mortal sins by tolerating lesser wrongs and venial sins. Unlike the later Protestant preachers who blasted even the smallest deviations from what they saw as “Godliness”, the Catholics encouraged temperate celebrations, turned a blind eye to vices like drinking and accepted prostitution as a lesser evil than rape and the seduction of otherwise-virtuous wives and daughters. In the earliest times even priests were allowed concubines (called focarii, “hearth-girls), and until the 13th century whores were largely free to ply their trade everywhere in Christendom. Even after that time, prostitution was still largely legal, but the position of the Church (and most governments) turned to tolerating the profession but attempting to redeem as many whores as possible by teaching them the “error of their ways”, sometimes forcibly by confining them to convents or “Magdalene homes”.
The reader must not make the mistake of believing that whores themselves were socially accepted in early Christian times; far from it. They were condemned as sinners and sermons frequently warned men to stay away from them. But because they served a necessary social function the Church basically advocated leaving their punishment to God and allowing them to serve as repositories for male sin; the quote from Aquinas which forms today’s epigram illustrates the attitude quite graphically. The Church’s view of whores was thus exactly the same as the modern policy of “harm reduction” followed by the Netherlands and other cultures more enlightened than ours, which recognizes that the harm created by suppressing vices is usually greater than those created by allowing them. By tolerating heroin use, for example, a government does not say that heroin is a wonderful thing which everyone should indulge in; rather, it recognizes that since people are going to do it anyway it’s better to give them clean needles and make sure the drug is relatively pure so addicts aren’t dropping dead in the gutter and spreading bloodborne diseases on their way there.
The Pope’s new comments on prostitutes merely follow this same longstanding philosophy in the Church. Though Catholic dogma considers condom use a sin because condoms interfere with conception, prostitutes are already sinners and their use of condoms can therefore be permitted in order to prevent the greater evil of AIDS. Just as the medieval Church condemned prostitutes yet allowed them to “live in sin” in order to prevent the greater evils of rape and fornication in the population as a whole, so Pope Benedict condemns prostitutes (especially homosexual ones) and yet advocates they use condoms so as to prevent the greater evil of AIDS in the general population. For anyone familiar with Church history and procedure, this development was completely unsurprising either in its essence or in the amount of time it took to arrive. But having said that, I must also say that I think it’s pretty sad that an ancient and hierarchical institution noted neither for its liberality nor its worldliness should be able to embrace the humane and realistic principle of harm reduction while a modern, pluralistic and ostensibly democratic nation with a long history of being in the forefront of civil rights seems bound and determined to oppose it.