Monday, May 25, 2009

More on Condoms, Sex and the Human Person and Culture

Several weeks ago, I posted a reflection on the ineffectiveness of condoms in preventing the spread of AIDS in Africa (see Mirror of Justice: Harvard's Dr. Green on the Pope, Aids, and Condoms in Africa). What caught my eye about the original report was the agreement on the matter between Pope Benedict XVI and Harvard scientist and AIDS researcher, Dr. Edward Green.

Somewhat to my surprise (and delight) Dr Green left a comment on my post asking me to say a bit more on what I see as the anthropological contradiction at the heart of most safer sex education programs. So this week, I will in fact try and say a bit more about this.

Specifically, in the main most safer sex advocates would assume that the person is (or should be) free of any external constrains on his or her behavior. At the same time their educational outreach is predicated on the notion that shared or cultural norms (in the current case, the use of a condom) ought to intervene between desire and action; indeed the public health norms of the program should determine the person's behavior rather than the person's own desires. Or to put the matter differently, the person should desire for him or herself what public health officials desire for him/her. In either case what safer sex and condom education advances and seeks justifies for public health reasons is the virtue of chastity even if they do not advance the as it is usually understood in the Christian tradition.

However noble the goals, safer sex and condom education programs are (I would suggest) contain an inherent anthropological contradiction. While understood in clearly different ways, both the Christian tradition and safer sex educators are advocating for some form of chastity. But while the Christian advocate for chastity argues from within a concrete tradition that sees tradition itself as having a normative and even determinative role for human behavior, in the main those advocating for safer sex practices reject the notion that personal behavior should be shaped by tradition.

Within traditional societies I think it likely safer sex education advocates would be perceived as an attempting to replace the traditional culture with a culture grounded in contemporary scientific theories of physical health. Let me please be clear, I am not rejecting the findings of modern science, far from it. But if I may risk the ironic use of an idiom, safer sex advocates have thrown the baby out with the bath water. In their zeal to protect the health of those at risk of HIV/AIDS they have neglected to see the disconnection between their public health goals and their neglect—and at times open hostility—to the anthropological fact that the human person is foundationally a traditional being. The irony of this becomes all the more biting when we realize that sexual activity is in and of itself a more or less natural symbol of the fact of my human being not a being-in-itself, but a being-with-others.

More tomorrow.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory