The truth about condomsMartin Rhonheimer
- 10 July 2004
Church leaders have caused a furore by suggesting that even the HIV-infected should avoid condoms. But this is not church teaching, says a leading moral philosopher
Most people are convinced that an HIV-infected person who has sex should use a condom to protect his partner from infection. Whatever one may think about a promiscuous lifestyle, about homosexual acts or prostitution, that person acts at least with a sense of responsibility in trying to avoid transmitting his infection to others.
It is commonly believed that the Catholic Church does not support such a view. As a BBC Panorama programme recently suggested, the Church is thought to teach that sexually active homosexuals and prostitutes should refrain from condoms because condoms are ?intrinsically evil? (The Tablet, 26 June). Many Catholics also believe this. One of them is Hugh Henry, education officer of the Linacre Centre in London, who told Austen Ivereigh in last week?s Tablet that the use of a condom, even exclusively to prevent infection of one?s sexual partner, ?fails to honour the fertile structure that marital acts must have, cannot constitute mutual and complete personal self-giving and thus violates the Sixth Commandment?.
But this is not a teaching of the Catholic Church. There is no official magisterial teaching either about condoms, or about anti-ovulatory pills or diaphragms. Condoms cannot be intrinsically evil, only human acts; condoms are not human acts, but things. What the Catholic Church has clearly taught to be ?intrinsically evil? is a specific kind of human act, defined by Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, and later included in No. 2370 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as an ?action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible?.
Contraception, as a specific kind of human act, includes two elements: the will to engage in sexual acts and the intention of rendering procreation impossible. A contraceptive act therefore embodies a contraceptive choice. As I put it in an article in the Linacre Quarterly in 1989, ?a contraceptive choice is the choice of an act that prevents freely consented performances of sexual intercourse, which are foreseen to have procreative consequences, from having these consequences, and which is a choice made just for this reason.?
This is why contraception, regarded as a human act qualified as ?intrinsically evil? or disordered, is not determined by what is happening on the physical level; it makes no difference whether one prevents sexual intercourse from being fertile by taking the Pill or by interrupting it in an onanistic way. The above definition also disregards the differentiation between ?doing? and ?refraining from doing?, because coitus interruptus is a kind of ? at least partial ? refraining.
The definition of the contraceptive act does not therefore apply to using contraceptives to prevent possible procreative consequences of foreseen rape; in that circumstance the raped person does not choose to engage in sexual intercourse or to prevent a possible consequence of her own sexual behaviour but is simply defending herself from an aggression on her own body and its undesirable consequences. A woman athlete taking part in the Olympic Games who takes an anti-ovulatory pill to prevent menstruation is not doing ?contraception? either, because there is no simultaneous intention of engaging in sexual intercourse.
The teaching of the Church is not about condoms or similar physical or chemical devices, but about marital love and the essentially marital meaning of human sexuality. It affirms that, if married people have a serious reason not to have children, they should modify their sexual behaviour by ? at least periodic ? abstinence from sexual acts. To avoid destroying both the unitive and the procreative meaning of sexual acts and therefore the fullness of mutual self-giving, they must not prevent the sexual act from being fertile while carrying on having sex.
But what of promiscuous people, sexually active homosexuals, and prostitutes? What the Catholic Church teaches them is simply that they should not be promiscuous, but faithful to one single sexual partner; that prostitution is a behaviour which gravely violates human dignity, mainly the dignity of the woman, and therefore should not be engaged in; and that homosexuals, as all other people, are children of God and loved by him as everybody else is, but that they should live in continence like any other unmarried person.
But if they ignore this teaching, and are at risk from HIV, should they use condoms to prevent infection? The moral norm condemning contraception as intrinsically evil does not apply to these cases. Nor can there be church teaching about this; it would be simply nonsensical to establish moral norms for intrinsically immoral types of behaviour. Should the Church teach that a rapist must never use a condom because otherwise he would additionally to the sin of rape fail to respect ?mutual and complete personal self-giving and thus violate the Sixth Commandment?? Of course not.
What do I, as a Catholic priest, tell Aids-infected promiscuous people or homosex-uals who are using condoms? I will try to help them to live an upright and well-ordered sexual life. But I will not tell them not to use condoms. I simply will not talk to them about this and assume that if they choose to have sex they will at least keep a sense of responsibility. With such an attitude I fully respect the Catholic Church?s teaching on contraception.
This is not a plea for ?exceptions? to the norm prohibiting contraception. The norm about contraception applies without exception; the contraceptive choice is intrinsically evil. But it obviously applies only to contraceptive acts, as defined by Humanae Vitae, which embody a contraceptive choice. Not every act in which a device is used which from a purely physical point of view is ?contraceptive?, is from a moral point of view a contraceptive act falling under the norm taught by Humanae Vitae.
Equally, a married man who is HIV-infected and uses the condom to protect his wife from infection is not acting to render procreation impossible, but to prevent infection. If conception is prevented, this will be an ? unintentional ? side-effect and will not therefore shape the moral meaning of the act as a contraceptive act. There may be other reasons to warn against the use of a condom in such a case, or to advise total continence, but these will not be because of the Church?s teaching on contraception but for pastoral or simply prudential reasons ? the risk, for example, of the condom not working. Of course, this last argument does not apply to promiscuous people, because even if condoms do not always work, their use will help to reduce the evil consequences of morally evil behaviour.
Stopping the worldwide Aids epidemic is not a question about the morality of using condoms, but about how to effectively prevent people from causing the disastrous consequences of their immoral sexual behaviour. Pope John Paul II has repeatedly urged that the promotion of the use of condoms is not a solution to this problem because he holds that it does not resolve the moral problem of promiscuity. Whether, generally, campaigns promoting condoms encourage risky behaviour and make the Aids pandemic worse is a question of statistical evidence which is not yet easily available. That it reduces transmission rates, in the short term, among highly infective groups like prostitutes and homosexuals is impossible to deny. Whether it may decrease infection rates among ?sexually liberated? promiscuous populations or, on the contrary, encourage risky behaviour, depends on many factors.
In African countries condom-based anti-Aids campaigns are generally ineffective, partly because for an African man his manliness is expressed by making as many children as possible. For him, condoms convert sex into a meaningless activity. Which is why ? and this is strong evidence in favour of the Pope?s argument ? among the few effective programmes in Africa has been the Ugandan one. Although it does not exclude condoms, it encourages a positive change in sexual behaviour (fidelity and abstinence), unlike condom campaigns, which contribute to obscuring or even destroying the meaning of human love.
Campaigns to promote abstinence and fidelity are certainly and ultimately the only effective long-term remedy to combat Aids. So there is no reason for the Church to consider the campaigns promoting condoms as helpful for the future of human society. But nor can the Church possibly teach that people engaged in immoral lifestyles should avoid them.