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What Would Onan Do?

Jean-François Millet. Woman Grazing her Cow.
(Jean-François Millet. Woman Grazing her Cow. Source)

Where the old education initiates, the new merely conditions. The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly: the new deals with them more as the poultry keeper deals with young birds, making them thus and thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing.
[C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man]

In his column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof contends "the Vatican's ban on condoms has cost many hundreds of thousands of lives from AIDS." His point of view is entirely predictable -- largely redundant, in fact, once we know his employer. The Catholics he quotes, on the other hand, should know better.

"If I were pope, I would start a condom factory right in the Vatican," one Brazilian priest told me. "What's the point of sending food and medicine when we let people get infected with AIDS and die?" [...]

"What would Jesus do?" said Didier Francisco Pelaez, a seminarian in São Paulo. "He would save lives. If condoms will save lives, then he would encourage their use." [...]

I wish the cardinals could meet a 17-year-old Catholic girl in São Paulo named Thais Bispo dos Santos. She is H.I.V.-positive, goes to Mass each Sunday, wants to have an intimate relationship and marry, and feels betrayed by the leaders of the church she loves.

She feels betrayed.

"Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." So, do we imagine Jesus whispering to his disciples, "When I speak to you about losing your life and taking up your cross, that doesn't mean cutting back on sexual gratification. Play it safe!"?

When you teach a child any moral truth -- e.g., that it's wrong to lie -- you are ennobling him. You're treating him as a being with free will, and thus as a responsible moral agent, and so are inviting him to become part of a world in which he forms (and deforms) his character through his morally significant choices.

There are other possibilities. You can treat a child as rancher treats a calf, simply taking its appetites as a given. If you don't fence it, you want it to run; if you don't neuter it, you want it to breed. You don't blame the beast for its instincts, and you grasp as an obvious truth that acting on instinct X is not a consideration distinct from having instinct X. For a beast.

So how does the Church deal with the sad case of Thais Bispo dos Santos? Do we treat her as an animal that will go into heat and mate (having the instinct, it can't not act on it)? Or do we treat her as a responsible, rational, potentially noble human person? Do we acknowledge her unusually difficult circumstances and ask how to help her best face them, so as to save her soul? Or to we view her as a disease vector with a given tropism -- her sexual libido -- and ask, "What would Onan do?"

Copyright © 2005 Catholic Culture.

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