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This is a very Western-centric analysis and completely overlooks the different behaviors in Africa--Church members there seem, compared to America and Europe, to adhere more closely to papal proclamations on birth control and procreation. Which turns out to be a very bad choice given the opposite level of their obedience to Catholic rules on adultery and as a result has caused a great deal of suffering and misery when the husbands bring home AIDs and other STDs from sexual encounters elsewhere.


The Church may have extricated itself from Latin American politics, but it has played a very active political role in the United States. Of course, there were the attacks on Kerry (from high up in the Church leadership), but moreover the Church has chosen to make abortion the only question Catholics can consider in casting their votes - they are to disregard economic equality, the environment, health care, and other moral issues. Catholics are urged to promote a culture of life by voting for enthusiastic supporters of the death penalty.

Maybe I'm a tad bitter, but it's hard for me to congratulate the Church for returning to its high-minded detachment from politics just in time to abandon a left-wing movement in Latin America, then plunging back in on behalf of the right-wing movement in the United States. You can argue that the combination of religious activism with economic populism is especially dangerous, but this doesn't mean that the Church should (effectively) sabotage the Democratic party in the United States.

Of course, embracing capitalism might increase overall happiness, but it's worth remembering that not everyone embraces wealth maximization as an ethical guideline. Even if wealth maximization is your thing, it's not clear that a higher rate of wealth redistribution wouldn't actually increase wealth. I never seem to hear that from the Church these days, though.


First a technical point. You say

Yet even in recent years, a quarter of teenage women who engage in intercourse for the first time use no contraception. This is a larger fraction of all teenagers than the total fraction of teenagers in 1950 who engaged in pre-marital intercourse.

This is inconsistant with your earlier claim that now 80% of teenagers engage in pre-marital intercourse versus 25% in the 1950's. One fourth of 80% (i.e. one fourth of those who engage in intercourse) is 20%. So your statement and you data are in flat out contradiction.

Secondly, I think it is absurd to give the pope a pass on his clearly harmful beliefs just because they are mainstream religious beliefs. The pope was intelligent and well-informed enough to know that preaching against condom use would increase AIDS transmission in africa and thus cause death (not to mention the harms his preaching against homosexuals has caused). Now the pope did this on purpose because he believed in his moral obligation to oppose pre-marital sex.

Yet this in now way excuses this choice. We have no problem holding McVeigh responsible for his bombing or the Nazi's responsible for their crimes despite the very real possibility they believed they were doing the right thing. Now I am not in any way suggesting the pope's actions were in any way equally culpable but these cases do demonstrate the general principle that individuals are responsible not only for doing what they think is good but also for having a reasonable idea of what is good.

Quite simply thinking pre-marital sex is bad because some big man in the sky told you (or worse told ancient peoples) that it was wrong is not a reasonable moral belief. Thus the pope's moral beliefs provide no defense for knowingly offering teachings which would lead to death and disease. Now the pope may have done plenty of other nice things in relation to communism but the fact that many other people share his beliefs about pre-marital sex does not shield him from moral culpability.


Regarding James points: 1) I don't think the Church and John Paul II were detached from left-wing Latin-American politics--I think such politics were actively opposed. This was one of JPII's triumphs. 2) I highly doubt governmentally-enforced wealth redistribution will lead to increased overall wealth.

On the other hand, regardless of the arguments he used, there are many doctrines that the Pope supported which were quite unfortunate, particularly when it comes to sex. (I can see abortion, even contraceptives, still being controversial, but masturbation?)

ken willis

Seems to me the Pope preached the one thing that always works. I can't imagine any Pope advocating condoms as an AIDS prevention when there is something else that is simple, easy and guaranteed to work 100% of the time. Its not right to hold the Pope responsible for more AIDS deaths considering that if his advice were followed AIDS would probably not even exist, at least not as we know it.


Larry -

1) True, I'm not knowledgeable about the Church's involvement in Latin American politics. I was basing my point on what little I know of Archbishop Romero's life and death. Perhaps the Church actively supported right-wing politics. If so, all the worse: how can it be a triumph to support dictatorial thugs, murderers of your own bishop, merely because they support one particular economic arrangement over another?

2) Redistribution is a public good, in the sense that you can't exclude other people from enjoying the thought that children who might have gone hungry are well-fed. In a free market, then, we can expect to see sub-optimal wealth redistribution. See Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom.

Ken - The Church must craft an ethical policy for the Africa it has, not the Africa you might want or wish to have at a later time. Many Africans contract HIV not through promiscuity but by having unprotected sex with their spouses. True, we might want an Africa where promiscuity is less prevalent. We might even wish for an Africa untouched by HIV. Wishing, unfortunately, doesn't make it so. To tell Africans not to use condoms, even when married to an HIV-positive person, is grossly irresponsible. To tell them that condoms are ineffective against HIV, as priests have done, is inexcusable.

Daniel Chapman

Actually, the church doesn't have to "craft an ethical policy for the Africa it has." It isn't a government bureaucracy, and believe it or not, some people actually believe that there's more than ethical pragmatism involved in church teachings.

Ken is exactly right in pointing out that if people listened to the Pope on sexual promiscuity, they wouldn't need condoms. Where did the spouse in your example get HIV? Bitten by a monkey?


Uganda is the proof. It represents the most dramatic reduction in HIV infection rates in all of Africa. It did that without any money from U.S Taxpayers (listen up President Bush) and by simply spreading the moral and ethical messages of the Church. I am a secular non-elite, but I respect what works.


The criticism of the Church regarding AIDS is misplaced. While the prohibition of condoms is without a solid theological basis, the prohibition of non-marital sex is not. That is a bedrock of Catholic (and all Christian) teachings. Allowing condom use in wedlock would do little to promote condom use out of wedlock. If someone is going to break the Church's teachings regarding non-marital sex, why would they care if they break the rule against condoms? Individuals don't use condoms because they don't enjoy sex with them or they are caught unprepared and in the "heat of the moment." Often they do not possess knowledge about the risks, or irrationally believe they are invunerable to the risks. That is as true in Africa as it is in America (though to different degrees).

I am somewhat disturbed by the lumping of abortion with contraception. I suppose it's possible some disfavor abortion because they view it reduces the cost of pre-marital sex (and therefore increases the amount of pre-marital sex). But I think the vast majority of individuals (religious and not) disapprove of abortion because they view it as the taking of human life. I must emphasize that I am not saying that abortion is unrelated to sexual decision making. I am saying it is wrong to conflate moral opposition to abortion with moral opposition to contraception.


I like how my church rails against birth control, pre marital sex homosexuality while,
child molesting priests and the bishops who protect them are out of bounds.
The church's stand on human sexuality will change or the church will continue to lose members in first-world countries as it has done in recent history.


Seems to me the Pope preached the one thing that always works. I can't imagine any Pope advocating condoms as an AIDS prevention when there is something else that is simple, easy and guaranteed to work 100% of the time. Its not right to hold the Pope responsible for more AIDS deaths considering that if his advice were followed AIDS would probably not even exist, at least not as we know it.

I am responding to this particular comment but my response is meant for the several comments which seemed to argue something along the lines: but catholicism prohibits contraception/extra-marital sex/whatever so the pope had to do what he did. As before several of my moral examples will involve nazis, but this is only because they provide a very clear case of an institutionalized moral principle which is nevertheless quite wrong and in no way is meant to suggest the pope's actions are morally similar to the horrific actions of the nazis (I think the pope's actions are bad but not that bad).

First of all I want to make it clear that the response 'but the pope told people to be abstinent and that works 100% of the time' is clearly insufficent. I've heard claims that he specifically said that it wasn't okay to use condoms in a marriage where one party had HIV but I don't have any source on this and it may be hearsay. The real point is that the pope was perfectly aware that people are weak and give in to temptation and thus new that people would not be fully abstinent. I have no problem with him preaching that people should be abstinent but knowing they were not going to be perfect he caused deaths by opposing condom use and distribution for those who were not going to be abstinent.

I mean suppose I went to africa and started giving lectures saying 'HIV doesn't cause AIDS, you can't get sick from having sex with strangers. But you all should be perfectly celibate.' Sure, if people followed my advice they would be perfectly safe from HIV but since I know many people will not be celibate I am still clearly morally culpable for getting many of these people sick. Similarly the pope is culpable for the HIV infections he caused despite the fact that he counseled abstinence. In short saying 'be abstinent' is not something you can slap on top of flawed teachings on HIV and avoid moral responsibility. Knowing that people are not going to be abstinent one has a moral duty to help avoid these infections.

Alright this brings us to the objection 'I can't imagine any Pope advocating condoms as an AIDS prevention when there is something else that is simple, easy and guaranteed to work 100% of the time.' Well first of all the pope could suggest, as the very effective ABC program in uganda does, that people should be abstinent but if they aren't going to be they should use condoms. Thus your defense of the pope boils down to the fact that catholics have a strong prohibition on condoms or would find such a statement morally bothersome.

My response would be this is exactly why the pope is not a great man. Because you can't imagine him advocating condoms this shows that popes are allowing their religous beliefs to interfere with alleviating suffering. In short the defense 'but the pope is catholic' is no defense at all. The pope is morally responsible BECAUSE he is catholic and is following flawed teachings on sexual morality. In short the pope is responsible for choosing to accept and propogate a flawed notion of sexual mores and the fact that he is merely one more player in a long tradition does not excuse him.

To show the flaw in this argument consider the following defense of a nazi leader. By killing jews this person is just doing what they believe is correct and have been taught is good. In fact one can't imagine someone being a nazi leader without them believing jews should be persecuted. However, I think we all agree the fact that this individual is merely doing what he thinks and has been told is right and could not have occupied his position without that belief in no way excuses him from moral responsibility.

While nowhere near as extreme the situation with the pope is logically similar. Sure it might be impossible to become pope without believing these things about sexual mores, just as it would be impossible to become a nazi leader without believing these things about jews, but the individuals involved nevertheless have a choice. The pope could have choosen and should have choosen not to be traditionally catholic (like many american catholics in the church I grew up in did). The pope is thus fully and totally responsible for the effects of these beliefs.

In short them being traditionally catholic is not a defense of the popes actions but is an indeitment(sp?) of the pope.


I don't care about your caveats, LogicNazi, comparing the belief that pre-marital sex is immoral to genocide is idiotic. It isn't useful, not even in the most abstract.


It's a highly spurious argument to posit that someone will engage in pre-marital sex AGAINST Catholic teachings but refuse to use a condom while engaging in that sex BECAUSE of Catholic teachings.

It seems LogiNazi and others expect the Catholic Church to be a sort of Planned Parenthood for the Third World. And if they're not, well, then they're just Nazis (though lesser Nazis).


Let's say I operate a train on a commuter rail line. I fail to stop at one of my stations, and as a result I have passengers who need to get back to that station. Now I drop them off in the middle of a very unsafe neighborhood, at night, and tell them to walk there. They say, "But it's horribly unsafe!" I respond, "You don't understand - I'm opposed to mugging, rape, etc. So you don't need to worry. If everyone adhered to my moral precepts, you'd be completely safe."

True, they would be safe in such a world. The only problem is that they don't live in that world, and I have refused to allow the facts of life to impinge on my moral certitude.

Now this may come as a shock to Palooka et al., but you can get HIV from your spouse even if you yourself never commit adultery. If all spouses behaved according to the precepts of the Catholic Church, HIV wouldn't spread nearly as fast. When someone breaks those precepts, though, it's not just the "guilty" who suffer; it's also the faithful spouses who reject condoms as immoral and ineffective, on the advice of the Church. So no, maybe her husband wasn't "bitten by a monkey," but a faithful wife in Africa might still want a way to protect herself and her future children from the dire results of her husband's imperfect Catholicism.


I like how my church rails against birth control, pre marital sex homosexuality while


I don't know why anybody would ever have sex with someone they KNEW or even suspected to be HIV positive (huband or not). Blaming the Catholic Church for such a scenario is riduculous.

The train analogy is inapposite because that relies on the good behavior of third parties. Preaching abstinence only requires the good behavior of the individual (absent rape, and I don't think the Catholic Church thinks it's a greater sin to rape someone with a condom than without).

Michael Martin

"So it is possible to understand the basis of the sexual revolution using an 'economic' approach, but the approach must recognize that norms and habits are also important. These norms and habits usually adjust eventually to new forms of behavior, and the new norms greatly accelerate this behavior after they do adjust."

I'm a little confused by this. What does Prof. Becker mean? Shouldn't any careful "economic" approach to sexual behavior take account of norms and habits? Wouldn't these be reflected implicitly in the preference function of the hypothetical rational actor? Are you saying that there are some norms and behaviors that cannot be treated within that rubric? Or are you saying simply that it's too difficult or complex (at least right now) for us to treat certain norms or behaviors within that rubric?

Michael Martin

I think there may be a very interesting difference in moral philosophy coming out here.

Posner, giant hedgehog that he is, has taken the logically self-consistent position of the moral relativist in discussing sexual behavior and its relationship with moral norms. Becker seems to be hesitating. I'm not sure if he's saying that he agrees with Posner, but that the relationship between behavior and norms is more complicated than Posner is giving credit (because of "a lot of emotional attachment and baggage"), or if he's saying that there are moral norms that will not change with behavior, even over the long haul, even in the face of terrible costs or unmatched benefits.

I hope that it's the latter. I don't understand economics very well, but I remember hearing that economists remain basically agnostic as to how preferences are formed. That seems to leave the door wide open for some part of the preference function to reflect -- at least initially or independent from social effects -- absolute moral principles.

Paul Deignan

There is no effective way to do this, while continuing normal sexual activity, without extensive reliance on effective contraception.

Ha ha ha.

No. Unless you consider work/college/existence of other children to be contraception.

I knew viagra would cause our more senior citizens to start thinking loopy thoughts.


The Church is interested in putting forth it's morality (which it believes is permanently and divinely correct) in any country, regardless of the politics. It may disapprove of how the politics are administered, but it's still more important that religion be followed correctly.

Therefore, the church is more disturbed by those whose politics directly contradict or argue against Church beliefs. 70 years ago, this meant communism wasn't only a threat, but a greater one than fascism. Today, it means that while right-wing dictatorships may be unpleasant, they are not the threat to religion that the heresy of Liberation Theology (mixing church doctrine with Marxism) represents.

Paul Deignan


The source of your disagreement with Catholic theology stems from the fact that you don't understand the premise of this religion.

Theology is not utilitarianism. You should try to understand something before you judge it. I think if you were to dive deeper into the consideration of the subject, you would find a more thorough consistency than what utilitarianism can offer.

Note to Posner: explain free will and how your actions are consistent with the denial of free will.


I think other people have made useful and good responses to some of the issues. So my remarks on these will be brief. In particular some people believe it is absurd to believe that preaching against condoms by an organization which teaches no extramarital sex at all could possibly cause more STDs.

First of all while not directly on topic a recent study (http://www.cnn.com/2005/HEALTH/03/18/virginitystudy.stds.ap/) which shows that abstinence only education increases sexually risky behavior certainly shows this type of result is possible. Certainly the catholics church's teachings encourage the administration of abstinence only sex education and if the study is right this increases risk.

Secondly, purchasing a condom or being prepared for safe sex is often a deciscion made in public and with foresight. If the church tells everyone it is immoral to distribute condoms most likely there will be less condoms availible AND people will feel guilty about requesting them or carrying them around with them. On the other hand sex often occurs on the spur of the moment when not thinking clearly and if condoms are not present they are not likely to be aquired. This gives a perfectly plausible mechanism to explain the results of the above study (and why the catholic church's teachines are harmful). When the issue is considered at leisure individuals are much more likely to follow moral dictates and thus avoid aquiring condoms or other safe sex instruments. However, since sex often occurs during a moment of weakness this does not necessarily mean they won't have sex.

Finally to the person who said the following:

I don't care about your caveats, LogicNazi, comparing the belief that pre-marital sex is immoral to genocide is idiotic. It isn't useful, not even in the most abstract.

Perhaps I was not clear enough. I in no way compared the actions of genocide and beliefs in pre-marital sex. Rather I considered the general principle that is often used to defend the pope's preachings about pre-marital sex, namely that the pope is just supporting what he believes. I then pointed out that this same principle could be used to excuse the nazi's for their crimes hence it is clearly an invalid principle.

In no way shape or form is there a claim that the pope's actions are tantamount to or even share simalarities with genocidal actions. Rather a defense of the pope's actions is shown to be inadequate because it would lead to absurd results when we consider horrible crimes commited by people who believe they are doing right. It is the same form of argument that is used when debating questions about simple moral questions by asking questions about theoretical situations with extreme consequences (terrorists making you choose to kill 5 people or 5000) and the like.

So I hope this clears up any misconception. If you simply don't think we can ever use the example of nazi genocide to make moral points I would simply have to disagree. In fact it would be utterly horrible if we did not use our experience with the holocaust to refine our moral principles. Admitedly choosing this as an example perhaps encourages an emotional response in some people. However, I think there is a certain temptation to ascribe to the abstract principle that anyone who is trying to do what they believe is the good is morally okay. Thus I needed to bring in a concrete example where we are clearly unwilling to say the perpratrators of a crime were morally okay because they thought what they were doing is right.

Perhaps a more politic person would have restricted attention to the McVeigh example but I've never been very good at being politic.


The question of inhibiting supply of condoms is an interesting one, and I have seen no data on it. I doubt the Church made it an issue to restrict contraceptive access during the John Paul II's Pontificate. There are certainly cases of the Church doing so before, so maybe they did. Show me.

My point (which nobody really seems to challenge) is that if somebody is going to engage in the "sin" of having pre-marital sex, then I doubt if they would let the additional "sin" of using a condom prevent them from using one.

If, however, the Church acted to inhibit supply of contraptives (or even ban their use, as they have done in times past), then I have to say that would have a real effect. Also, if the Church's teachings resulted in considerable societal disapproval, then that would also have a material effect. I am highly skeptical of both of these possibilities.

I have always been skeptical of the basis of the Church's position on condom use. They allow the rythym and withdrawal methods, so it can't because they think sex should only occur for procreation. I've always took the cynical view, and believed they advocated the policy because it's bound to create more Catholics. Maybe it's a slippery slope thing. Anybody know the stated reason behind the policy?


Reading through the commentary here I find one point completely left out of the discussion, though it's not an economic one so perhaps that's reasonable; it does change the argument from pragmatism back to morality though.

This pope and the Catholic Church in general chose to take a stand against a specific evil, use of condoms, rather than stand against a more nebulous one, pain and suffering. But the latter seems much more important to me and taking action to remedy it much closer to the core beliefs of the Church.

How can a leader say that followers should not use some tool which has the demonstrated ability to lessen suffering and pain when not using it subjects them to these terrible indignities caused by the 'sinful' choices of others? The reward of 'life everlasting' may result from such pain but still such preaching seems to be in direct contrast with the words of Jesus as handed down in the Bible.


"a recent study shows that abstinence only education increases sexually risky behavior certainly shows this type of result is possible."

I am distrustful of media outlets' interpretation of scholarship on polarizing topics. (Examine tortured logic from article linked: "Among virgins, boys who have pledged abstinence were four times more likely to have had anal sex than..." A prude like me has a hard time keeping up with the ever-evolving definition of "virginity.") However, if the statement were to be changed to "abstinence-only education increases the RISKINESS of sexual behavior that does take place among youth in such communities," I would probably agree.

Anecdotally, I once traveled to the small town of Panguitch, hidden away in the mountain fastness of Southern Utah. To my surprise, this city of fifteen hundred, with its Latter-day Saint sexual ethics and stay-at-home-mom culture, has a day care. According to locals, the Panguitch high school is positively silly with unwed teenage mothers: young gals' (and guys') LDS upbringing and abstinence-oriented school education seem to have inadequately forearmed them for avoiding some of the generally unwanted physical consequences of sexual activity.

Though offensively dismissive about chastity ideals that come from "a big man in the sky," Logic nazi is probably right about the limitations of moral, abstinence-only instruction and moral teaching in preparing religious youth for promiscuous lifestyles.

The statement that the Pope and others bear blame for not being active advocates of protected sex is perfectly acceptable so long as we also accept the materialistic view that physical discomfort (and death) is the worst thing in the world; that religions are primarily useful in helping people avoid the consequent ills of whatever lifestyle it pleases them to lead; that freedom from disease is the main prerequisite of a happy life.

For the less cynical and materialistic, the synthesis of moral teaching with pragmatic disease prevention is a very difficult question. Religious leaders certainly do not want people to die of AIDS. The longer a person lives, the more opportunities they will have to become better people, serve others, enjoy life, repent. From this point of view, condoms could be viewed as a wonderful innovation.

But for all the best intentions, unintended consequences can abound. Would churches best serve humanity by distributing condoms to youth in Africa, America, and elsewhere. What effect would that have? Would it influence sexual activity one way or the other? Would it promote or retard a romantic landscape full of empty hearts, broken homes, alienation and hostility? Would it save lives only to lose souls? This is the dilemma religious leaders face. Not able to vouch for every religion, I believe the teachings of spiritual leaders in this respect, in general, are far more pragmatic and principled than some of you cynics seem to believe.

(As far as references to Hitler, I note with some amusement that with his username Logicnazi godwins himself in every post he makes...)

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