The Dark Side of Determinism: The Pope, Condoms, and Moral Discourse

Posted on November 25, 2010


Pope Benedict XVI


The first blog in a series on human freedom examines what the media reaction to the Pope’s recent comments says about the state of moral discourse in contemporary society.

One of the most-reported news stories this last weekend dealt with the Pope’s now famous comments on condoms. The Pope said, in a book-length interview entitled The Light of the World:

‘[The Catholic Church] does not regard [condom use] as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.’

There is nothing new here, of course. The Catholic Church regards condom use as immoral. Everybody knew this. Yet this does not mean that she regards all who use condoms as irremediable psychopaths: some may have good intentions. This is simply a statement of fact. Some women who have abortions may have good intentions, such as a desire to prevent suffering in the case of a child likely to be born with severe disabilities, but the Catholic Church still regards it as gravely wrong to take the life of the innocent unborn, regardless of intentions. Again, everyone is aware of this stance. Even in the extreme example given – that of a male prostitute – the Pope evidently does not regard a condom as a ‘moral solution’, much less as ‘OK’.

But there is also another issue here. What is it about the Pope’s comments – apparently so simple – that was so difficult for the press to comprehend, leading to false headlines such as ‘Pope Approves the Use of Condoms’ and ‘Condoms OK for Prostitutes: Pope’? The answer may lie at a deeper level than many commentators have perceived.

We are used to hearing about the lighter side of determinism, to coin a phrase. This can be seen in the tendency to excuse immoral behaviour as the result of environmental and social factors, as if human decisions might be likened to cause-and-effect phenomena in the natural world. If a young man was bullied at school, who can blame him for going berserk with a sub-machine gun years later in a crowded shopping mall? So the ‘reasoning’ goes. Faced with the fact of human freedom and the – admittedly unpleasant – reality that some people use this freedom to do wicked things, many prefer to attribute abuse of human freedom to anything except free choice.

There is, however, another – darker – side to determinism. We blogged here recently about the case of the hapless Mary Bale who popped a local pussy called Lola into a wheelie bin whilst out taking the air on a Coventry street. A cruel thing to do, no doubt, but did she deserve people on Facebook calling for her ‘to die of cancer slowly’ or to be ‘thrown in a pit and stoned to death’?

In the same way that – owing to a deterministic outlook – some are believed practically incapable of wrongdoing, others – burglars, people who put cats in bins, and MPs who fiddle expenses – are considered beyond redemption.

In an intellectual climate gripped by determinism the idea expressed by the Pope that someone is capable of doing evil while yet retaining a fundamental human goodness which can operate even in the very act of doing evil, is incomprehensible to many. In such a deterministic world-view there is no room for ‘moral development’. Humanity is divided into two irreconcilable camps – those who can do no wrong, even when they do, and the intrinsically evil who are not deserving of redemption.

The Pope did not approve the use of condoms any more than he approved of male prostitution. What he approved of – and this is something relevant to everyone – is the notion that, in this life, there are still chances for all, no matter how badly they may have been behaving, to change their lives, to make ‘a movement in a different way, a more human way’. This is a nuanced concept which will be – sadly – inadmissible in our public moral discourse for as long as it continues in the grip of determinism.

(Photo credit: CC: © Agência Brasil. No endorsement implied.)