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Question 22: Should a parent say: “If you can’t be good, be careful”?

I am the father of two teenagers, the elder of whom, a boy, will be going away to college in the fall. I have tried to convey to them the Church’s rules about the proper use of sexuality, emphasizing that sexual relations are for married couples and that intercourse always should be a real act of love.

Now my problem. In view of the AIDS epidemic, not to mention the high infection rates of other sexually transmitted diseases, what should I say about the use of condoms? May I say, “Try to stay out of bed, but if you can’t, protect yourself”? I’m very reluctant to tell my son that. But I know that if I do not and he contracts AIDS, I will wish I had urged him to take precautions. Then too, if a vaccine were available for AIDS, I am sure I would want him to have it. But for the time being, condoms are the only protection. So, it seems a matter of hygiene to recommend their use.

I realize that the problem has other dimensions—whether even mentioning using condoms implicitly encourages extramarital relations, how effective condoms are, and so on. But I am interested only in the moral question: whether, in today’s circumstances, a father may encourage the use of condoms to impede the spread of AIDS, a deadly disease, and other diseases that are nasty enough.


The question is whether parents should advise their children about how to mitigate the bad effects of their possible, future, sexual misbehavior. The questioner should not give such advice. It would suggest to his son that he is unable to avoid sexual immorality—a view incompatible with Catholic faith. Parents not only should communicate the Church’s teachings about sexuality, but should explain them, so that these truths about human and Christian fulfillment will be persuasive reasons for living chastely. Since it always is gravely wrong to take unnecessary risks to health, the truth about condoms’ limited effectiveness provides the basis for another argument against promoting so-called safe sex.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Without misbehaving in any way, a man or a woman could be infected with HIV. Blood screening is not absolutely perfect, and contact with infected blood could occur in an accident. Men as well as women sometimes are raped, and a careless infected surgeon or dentist might transmit the disease to a patient. With these risks and the deadliness of the disease in view, most conscientious parents surely would have their children vaccinated against HIV if a safe and effective vaccine were available at a reasonable price. Recommending condoms to one’s children is an entirely different matter, however, because doing so is pointless unless one assumes they are going to engage in illicit sexual behavior.

You ask: “May I say, ‘Try to stay out of bed, but if you can’t, protect yourself’?” No. In the first place, your son hardly needs that advice; he surely has heard it many times. More important, “try to” and “if you can’t” imply that sexual immorality is unavoidable—a view incompatible with the Church’s defined doctrine that every Christian can avoid mortal sin (see DS 1568/828). But a young person who experiences temptation is all too likely to embrace that erroneous view, for, if it were correct, there would be no guilt in giving in to the temptation.

That evasion of guilt, no doubt, along with the lack of experience of God’s grace given in answer to sincere and trusting prayer explain why many nonbelievers claim that no normal person can be chaste. But, in fact, some healthy young people entirely avoid sexual intimacy until marriage. Even if they are a minority, they falsify the general thesis that “everyone does it.” And falsifying that general position by contrary examples is not simply a logical trick. Even one counterexample shows that the general thesis is erroneous and that the theory of which it is a part requires fundamental changes.

Moreover, among the important things parents need to communicate to their children—in addition to the truth of faith that with God’s grace every Christian can avoid evil and become holy—are that the parents are confident this is true of their children and expect it of them. Your son is not an animal driven by sexual instinct; though subject to temptation as all of us are, he is a person, rational and free. If you think of him and deal with him as if he were not, you will deprive him of the respect you owe him. That will undermine his self-respect and your relationship with him.

Someone might object: “But shouldn’t a mother tell her daughter: ‘Stay out of bed, but if you ever do get pregnant, don’t get an abortion’?” That advice would not be so bad. It does not imply that sin is inevitable, and it warns against committing a greater sin to deal with the result of a lesser sin, rather than recommending that one sin be committed to try to forestall a feared bad consequence of another. Even so, making the point in that way would communicate a lack of maternal confidence and low expectations of the daughter. The point should be made in a different way, for instance: “Very likely some of your acquaintances will get pregnant and be tempted to get an abortion, and you might not want to get involved in their problem. But a girl is more likely to do the wrong thing if people who know better shy away. So, do listen, sympathize, and encourage anyone who gets pregnant to talk with her parents. If they are like us, they will surely help her, so that she will love her baby and not kill him or her.”

You also realize that the problem has other dimensions—“whether even mentioning using condoms implicitly encourages extramarital relations, how effective condoms are, and so on”—but you wish to set them aside. However, I would not be responding adequately to your question if I did so, since that would abstract from relevant facts with important moral implications.

Merely mentioning the use of condoms need not encourage extramarital relations. For, as I shall explain in a moment, parents and teachers can mention condoms in order to make it clear that they offer only an illusion of security. However, even implicitly suggesting their use would convey a clear message to your son: “I do not have faith in you, and I do not really expect you to be chaste.” Moreover, it might well convey an even more corrupting message: “Chastity may be ideal, but it’s not obligatory for red-blooded men like you and me. Welcome to the club, son, where the norm is fornication for the single man and adultery for the married man.” Even the less harmful of those messages, especially coming from you as a father, certainly will undermine all the efforts you have rightly made to convey the Church’s teachings about sexuality to your children.

Those teachings not only should be conveyed but explained, so that your children will understand them, not as arbitrary and outdated rules meant to spoil their enjoyment and make them feel guilty, but as ever-relevant truths that direct them toward real happiness and away from the burden of real guilt, which is the harm people do to their innermost selves when they follow the lure of their feelings and violate the truth.

The first part of that explanation should be that our bodies are our very selves, not mere things we have and use, and that our genital organs are a divine gift empowering us to enter into the one-flesh communion of faithful marriage and to fulfill that communion by having and raising our own children. Moreover, because the divine Word became flesh and has joined us to himself in faith by means of baptism and in bodily communion by means of the sacrament of the Eucharist, our bodies are sacred: temples of the Holy Spirit called to resurrection and everlasting life in heavenly communion. So, to abuse one’s sexuality not only is to degrade oneself but to be unfaithful to Jesus and to make oneself unfit for heaven (see 1 Cor 6.9–20).

Next, you should explain why sexual activity apart from marriage is wrong (see LCL, 648–68). Genuine love is communion of persons, a union in which each gives himself or herself to the other, while both become more perfectly themselves, fulfilled as distinct persons. On the one hand, sexual activity apart from marriage very often has nothing whatever to do with genuine love; it is no more than the use of one’s own body and that of another person as mere instruments to provide an enjoyable experience. That experience, like a chemical “high,” contributes nothing to, but rather displaces, the activities that really fulfill individuals and build up their communion. On the other hand, sometimes a man and a woman who engage in sexual activity apart from marriage wish to share in a one-flesh communion, but their lack of permanent commitment and unreadiness for parenthood make authentic one-flesh communion impossible, so that their intimate experience is only an illusion; they feel as though they are experiencing marital communion but do not really achieve it.

At the same time, young couples who engage in sex without marrying miss out on chaste friendship, which they could have had if they had restrained themselves and cultivated it. Such friendships are an excellent preparation for marriage, in which the spouses must cooperate generously, often selflessly sacrificing immediate satisfaction for each other’s good and their children’s well-being. Moreover, chastity before marriage allows a newly wed couple to enjoy together all the novelty and wonder of sexual intimacy, and in this way to experience their unique bonding in committed communion. This experience cannot be anticipated by premarital experiments in intimacy; rather, these impede it and perhaps even render it impossible.

You also should make it clear to your son that you fully realize you cannot force him to follow your advice and have no desire to do so. You fully recognize that he must make his own choices, and you realize from your own experience how hard it can be for a young man to be chaste. Still, you believe that, with the help of God’s grace, everyone who really wants to be chaste can resist temptation and make consistently good choices, and that the necessary grace always is available to those who seek it through prayer and the devout reception of the sacraments.

Since young people often are influenced by peer pressure, try to ensure that your son goes to a school whose moral environment is, if not salubrious, at least not aggressively corrupting. Point out to your children that self-respect is worth far more than acceptance by the crowd. Of course, not everyone, in even the most decadent schools, engages in premarital sex. Individuals of like character usually can identify one another easily, and you should encourage your son to make friends with people of both sexes who are trying to conform in every respect to the way of the Lord Jesus. Forming a few genuine and close friendships with those who share one’s profound beliefs and values overcomes loneliness and provides many other benefits. In no way, moreover, does it preclude friendly association with other members of the college community, whose beliefs and values differ, in mutually enriching dialogue and the pursuit of common interests in cultural activities, sports, and so on.73

The preceding considerations constitute an adequate case against advising your son along the lines you are considering. However, since it always is gravely wrong to take unnecessary risks to health, both one’s own and others’, the facts about currently available condoms point to a secondary moral argument against promoting so-called safe sex.

Used as contraceptives, condoms often fail.74 Even used perfectly, that is, precisely according to directions and without any exceptions whatsoever, condoms still fail; two women per hundred will experience an unintended pregnancy during the first year of use.75 The reason for this irreducible failure rate is that condoms sometimes break, tear, leak, or slip off entirely.

Besides, in considering the implications for so-called safe sex of condoms’ failure rate as contraceptives, one must bear in mind that women naturally are fertile only part of the time, so that most of the time a condom’s failure cannot lead to pregnancy. By contrast, anyone engaging in intimate contact is susceptible on every occasion to any sexually transmitted disease his or her partner has.76 Furthermore, even if people coolly plan to use condoms regularly, hot passion will lead most of them to take a chance now and then—when a condom is not at hand, or when using it seems inconvenient, or when a sexual partner resists this hindrance to intimacy.

True enough, on any single occasion, if a condom is carefully and correctly used, it will reduce somewhat the probability of transmitting various diseases. Perhaps the widespread use of condoms would slow the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. I say perhaps because the widespread practice of sexual abstinence outside marriage would be even more effective, and increased use of condoms is counterproductive insofar as, making abstinence seem less necessary, it leads to more frequent illicit intercourse. Still, the net effect might be to reduce the rate at which venereal diseases spread, which is why many public health officials and others less concerned about individual well-being than about social problems promote “safe sex” or “safer sex” (more accurately called “maybe-not-quite-so-risky sex”).

In the long run, however, even regular condom use will not indefinitely protect an individual from contracting a disease. Due to condoms’ failure rate, depending on them to prevent the transmission of diseases makes it virtually certain that sooner or later those infected will transmit their infections to their noninfected sex partners. The odds may be better than those facing people who play Russian roulette, but the principle is the same: Even with favorable odds, a gambler who repeatedly risks everything eventually loses everything.

You say: “I know that if I do not [tell my son to protect himself] and he contracts AIDS, I will wish I had urged him to take precautions.” If you give your son sound moral advice and he engages in intercourse despite it, he might contract a disease, whether or not he uses condoms.77 But the preceding explanation makes it clear that in neither case will you have any reason to wish you had advised him to use them. However, if you warn your son to protect himself and, following your advice, he uses condoms and contracts a venereal disease, you will have good reason to wish you had urged him to be chaste and warned him not to be misled by the illusory protection of condoms.

If I were you, I would indeed tell my children about condoms. But I would begin by telling them about umbrellas. I would say: “Umbrellas often keep you from getting soaked when you must go out in a heavy rain. But they don’t keep the rain off you entirely, and sometimes the wind blows them around, despite your best efforts to hold them steady, or they tear or turn inside out, and you do get soaked. If your life depended on not getting rained on, I wouldn’t tell you: ‘Don’t go out in the rain without your umbrella!’ No, I’d just tell you: ‘Never go out in the rain!’ Now, when people engage in sexual intercourse and try to protect themselves by using a condom, their lives may well depend on its working perfectly. But condoms are like umbrellas. They sometimes break, tear, leak, or slip off entirely. So, nobody should imagine that condoms make risky sex safe. Any sex outside chaste marriage can give you a miserable disease and might even kill you.”

73. Mary Beth Bonacci, Real Love (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), provides sound, clear, and appealing answers to many of the questions asked by young adults. Many parents would find her book helpful; they might use it either as a resource for themselves, a basis for discussion with their children, or a gift for their children to read and share with friends.

74. Susan Harlap, Kathryn Kost, and Jacqueline Darroch Forrest, Preventing Pregnancy, Protecting Health: A New Look at Birth Control Choices in the United States (New York: The Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1991), 120, estimate that with average use of condoms, sixteen women per hundred will experience an unintended pregnancy during the first year of use.

75. Ibid.

76. See Susan C. Weller, “A Meta-Analysis of Condom Effectiveness in Reducing Sexually Transmitted HIV,” Social Science and Medicine, 36 (1993): 1635–44; she concludes (1642): “The public at large may not understand the difference between ‘condoms may reduce risk of’ and ‘condoms will prevent’ HIV infection. It is a disservice to encourage the belief that condoms will prevent sexual transmission of HIV. Condoms will not eliminate risk of sexual transmission and, in fact, may only lower the risk somewhat.”

77. I say “a disease” rather than “AIDS,” because heterosexual intercourse seldom transmits HIV infection; see Michael B. Flanagan, “A Study of AIDS,” Linacre Quarterly, 63:1 (Feb. 1996): 61–74.