Pope Benedict has stirred up another storm of controversy over a few, apparently offhand, remarks on the use of condoms. He made a mild point that use of condoms by gay prostitutes could be seen as a sign of spiritual progress, as it indicated they were thinking of the welfare of others. It’s not entirely clear whether the remarks apply to male/female intercourse as well, and everyone seems agreed that it does not, in itself, constitute a radical break from the received Roman Catholic dogma that opposes all forms of artificial contraception.
There are a few points here that we should take note of from a Buddhist perspective. The first is that for Buddhism, sex is not simply for procreation, but is for both procreation and pleasure. It is universally accepted in Buddhist teachings that people have sex for pleasure, and that this is a normal part of life, except for those few who have taken up the path of celibacy (“nomosexuals”!) There is, accordingly, no basis in Buddhist ethics for making pronouncements on what kinds of sex acts should be allowed or prohibited, or to denigrate different forms of sexuality – gay, bi, and so on – or to insist that contraception is an ethical issue.
The ethical issue, rather, revolves around trust, love, and hurt. As long as what you do is honest and does not harm anyone, it is not an ethical issue. And monastics shouldn’t be poking their noses into people’s bedrooms!
In the case of condoms, we don’t just have celibate religious telling people how to have sex – which just gets weirder the more you think about it – but they are telling people to follow practices that cause untold suffering and death. The death toll from Aids is horrific, and while it may be falling slightly, there are still nearly 2 million dying each year. The deaths themselves only tell a part of the picture; the number of Aids-related orphans is estimated at 16.6 million.
That’s a lot of human beings, and a lot of suffering.
The Roman Church is a powerful and influential body in Africa, where the brunt of Aids-related suffering is borne, and they have a clear and pressing moral duty to help stem this suffering. The current dogma, an insistence on abstinence and restraint, is rejected by secular authorities on the issue as an effective policy. The science is clear: condoms help prevent the spread of HIV.
The most frustrating thing about this unnecessary moral outrage is that it is barely even a legitimate Roman Catholic dogma. There is, of course, nothing specific in the Bible on these issues, and in 1966 a papal commission on birth control voted 30 to 5 that the opposition to birth control be relaxed. They were overruled by Pope Paul VI. It should come as no surprise that most Catholics are too sensible to let these rules actually affect their choices; and yet it is typically in the developing world, where Aids is the greatest threat, that the Church’s opinion will be taken most literally.
In some interesting interviews with African Catholics on this issue, they repeatedly raised the opposition between science and religion: they accept that science justifies the use of condoms, but religion does not. Officially, of course, the Church disagrees, arguing that it has science on its side. But it seems that few are convinced.
From a Buddhist point of view, science should never be seen in opposition to religion. Science provides us with information and perspectives that enable us to make more informed, effective, and ethical decisions. The problem is not the schism between science and religion, but in the manner in which religion is undertaken.
Despite the abundant riches of wisdom, insight, reflection, and spiritual depth within the Catholic tradition, it is still possible for so many intelligent and sincere men (I would guess that women have had no hand in formulating this dogma) to hold to such an obviously harmful teaching. Religion, of whatever form, has the potential to free us and lead us to a deeper and wider life. Yet it does not do so automatically. It is up to us to ensure that our religious sensibilities do not blind us to suffering and lead us towards darkness.