Towards a new morality
Condoms and church teachingAusten Ivereigh
- 27 November 2010
In late 2004, an Essex-based group calling itself the Catholic Action Group (CAG) threatened a nationwide campaign against Cafod, accusing it of “promoting condoms”.
In fact, Cafod advocated abstinence and fidelity as the means of preventing the spread of the virus that causes Aids, and did not distribute condoms. It did, however, give information about their use as prophylactics to prevent the spread of HIV infection among high-risk groups. In this, it was reflecting common pastoral practice among Catholic organisations on the front line of Aids, a practice which, in his Light of the World interview, Pope Benedict XVI this week finally made clear is endorsed by Rome.
Six years ago, disagreement among the bishops of England and Wales over how to respond – leading to a beefed-up Cafod statement in January 2005 which silenced the CAG – was repeated across the world. When, in the same month, the general secretary of the Spanish bishops’ conference said condoms “have their place in a comprehensive and global prevention of Aids”, the bishops’ conference slapped him down, claiming that Catholic doctrine holds that “the use of condoms is immoral sexual conduct”.
In South Africa in 2002, a similar fate befell efforts by Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg who argued that the Church’s efforts among the poorest Africans was undermined by the perceived “condoms ban”. Nervous of Rome and “ultra” groups, the bishops rejected Dowling’s call without considering his arguments.
As far back as 1987, a US bishops’ paper, “The Many Faces of Aids”, noted the common view among moral theologians that “if it is obvious that a person will not act without bringing harm to others” then prophylactics could be urged, because the intention of their use was not contraceptive. Some invoked moral principles – of toleration, lesser evil, double-effect or even self-defence. Yet none was in fact necessary, as a highly influential 2004 Tablet article by Fr Martin Rhonheimer, an Opus Dei moral philosopher close to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), pointed out. There is no magisterial teaching against condoms, but against contraception; what the Church taught as “intrinsically evil” was a specific kind of choice and corresponding behaviour to frustrate procreation, so the moral norm taught by Humanae Vitae did not apply to those acts to prevent infection. As for sexually active homosexuals and prostitutes, there can be no church teaching. “It would be simply nonsensical to establish moral norms for intrinsically immoral types of behaviour,” he wrote. Fr Rhonheimer, who has taken flak for saying what the Pope has now endorsed, told me he was delighted and relieved this week.
In the couple of years following the article, as cardinals across the world began publicly to echo the moral theologians, Rome remained silent – in part because of divisions in the Curia at the end of Pope John Paul II’s reign. Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo of the Vatican’s Council for the Family tried to insist that condoms were “ineffective” against Aids because their porosity failed to block the virus. In 2004, he produced a widely derided paper seeking to back those claims, which annoyed Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, then head of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Health Care Workers, who had expressed the view that women married to infected husbands could insist on condoms in self-defence.
In 2005, at the urging of the then CDF head, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – who told Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor that “we can’t have cardinals disagreeing about this” – Barragán invited moral theologians to submit papers to his council on “the use of condoms by those with Aids”, especially within marriage. But when, in April 2006, he told a newspaper that “my council is studying this attentively with scientists and theologians expressly charged with preparing a document on the subject, which will be made public soon”, the CDF was alarmed that he was raising expectations of a doctrinal change.
Barragán quickly backtracked. His was a pastoral dicastery, he explained to reporters, which was not competent to issue a document; the study was merely “promoting a dialogue at the level of the Holy See”, and had been passed to the CDF – where it has remained.
On World Aids Day in 2006, Pope Benedict said that the “traditional teaching of the Church” of fidelity, chastity and abstinence had proved to be “the only sure way of preventing the spread of HIV and Aids”. The experience from Africa supports him. By implicitly encouraging casual sex, condoms campaigns – backed by rich international organisations – have only caused the virus to spread further, while behaviour-change programmes have reduced infection rates.
When Pope Benedict said in March 2009 on his way to Cameroon that condoms were ineffective and could make things worse, the world’s leading expert on Aids, Edward Green of Harvard, said the evidence supported him. Condom proliferation, he explained, leads to “risk compensatory behaviour” – namely, “when people think they’re made safe by using condoms at least some of the time, they actually engage in riskier sex.”
But Green also explained what health workers in Africa, Catholic or otherwise, had long known, which is that, consistently used, condoms are effective in reducing transmission among high-risk subgroups. Was the Church telling women selling their bodies in order to feed their children that they should not protect themselves and others from death? The answer was no. But with Rome silent, and “ultra” groups insisting it was, the idea prevailed that the Church “banned condoms” and “condemned millions to death” – a misperception which explains the astonished reaction to the Pope’s remarks in Light of the World.
In 2008, I asked a high-ranking CDF official what had happened to Barragán’s report, and whether the Congregation was finally going to clarify the issue. “Everyone knows” the clarification was needed, he said, but there was “just no way” to communicate it without it being misinterpreted. The CDF, I learned this week, was also opposed to endorsing lesser-evil or double-effect principles because they could be misapplied by people with insufficient ethical formation. But nor are they needed. If condoms are not “intrinsically evil” then there is no need to come up with a moral justification for their use as prophylactics.
Hence Pope Benedict’s remarks, which break the ice in a few choice paragraphs. Rather than enumerate complex moral principles and their application, he is defending the pastoral approach as practised by Catholics on the Aids front line. He is showing that Catholics care about people living in wretched situations of immorality, and that drawing them away from that path is achieved by gradual steps.
On Tuesday, the Vatican’s spokesman made clear this applies to a couple where one partner is HIV-positive. The breakthrough is the Pope’s mention of a condom as a positive first step – impossible were it “intrinsically evil”. It is a rejection of the misuse of church teaching by self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy. There is no doubt what he meant, and he has articulated the mind of the Church. Agencies on the front line can breathe more easily now.