The pope and condoms

| By John M. Haas | December 2, 2010 | 1 Comment

Recent headlines claimed our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, in a recent interview, said that the use of a condom during sexual intercourse could be morally justified to prevent the spread of AIDS. The implication, of course, would be that this was a change in the church’s teaching on the immorality of contraception. In point of fact, this was not what the pope said and no change in church teaching was being proposed.

I offer for your consideration an excellent column by Dr. John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, which succinctly addresses the issues.

— Archbishop Nienstedt

By John M. Haas, Ph.D., S.T.L.

In this 2009 photo, a nun supports a patient at a hospice for AIDS patients and other seriously ill people run by the Missionaries of Charity in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. CNS photo / Paul Jeffrey

It is difficult teaching moral truth in a day of instant communication and media manipulation. The publication of a series of interviews with Pope Benedict XVI by the journalist Peter Seewald, “Light of the World,” is a case in point.

In reading an advance copy of the book, one knew the mass media would immediately focus on one thing and one thing alone: the pope’s remarks on condom use and the struggle to prevent the spread of AIDS.

Indeed, the first headline that I encountered after excerpts of the book were released was: “Pope OK’s Condoms.”

Setting the record straight

Briefly, this is what the pope actually said: Condoms are neither the effective way nor the moral way to stop the spread of AIDS (the church “does not regard it as a real or moral solution”). He also said, “We cannot solve the problem by distributing condoms.”

He states that the AIDS epidemic has resulted in large measure from the irresponsible and selfish use of sexuality. Then he expresses hope for the conversion of a sinner by suggesting that the use of a condom MIGHT be an expression of his concern for the “other.” This might be seen therefore as a first step toward loving and respecting the “other” so that he would eventually embrace a life of either fidelity or abstinence, the only approaches which have truly proven to be successful.

There has been debate for years over the moral legitimacy of the use of condoms by discordant couples, that is, couples in which one member is HIV positive or has AIDS.

There are two fundamental moral problems that stoke this debate.

First of all, taking into account the high failure rate of condoms, would it be morally licit for a spouse to put his wife’s health and even life at risk for the sake of sexual intercourse? It is difficult to see how this could be justified. The marital act is to be love-giving and open to life. In the case of a spouse with AIDS, intercourse even with a condom could well be a potentially death-dealing act.

The second fundamental moral problem has to do with the contraceptive character of condoms. It is true that the use of a condom in a single case might diminish the risk of the transmission of the AIDS virus but it could also have a contraceptive effect. The church’s unchanging and unwavering position on the immorality of contraception is well known.

But there were some moral theologians who tried to argue that the condom was not being used to contracept but rather to lower the risk of spreading AIDS. The contraceptive effect was merely foreseen but not intended. With such an understanding, it was argued, the use of the condom would not actually be an act of contraception but of disease prevention.

The matter continues to be debated among theologians but the more common opinion among moralists faithful to the magisterium is that the use of the condom would be wrong because it could endanger the life of the spouse and could be an act of contraception.

The pope’s example

It is interesting that the pope entirely sidesteps this particularly vexing debate by the example he uses to consider condom use. He reflects on the decision of a (presumably homosexual) male prostitute to use a condom. In such a case, there can be no question of the contraceptive effect of the condom. Consequently, his example does not relate to the debate over the use of condoms by discordant couples.

But interestingly the pope does not really reflect on the question of the effectiveness of condom use in reducing the transmission of AIDS. He rather wants to reflect on the moral state of the person who would use it with the hope that that person would begin to assume moral responsibility for his sexual activity.

There is no question that the church considers acts of prostitution and homosexuality to be gravely immoral and disordered. However, the church in her love of souls always looks for some indication that the sinner might “come to his senses.”

In the case at hand, the pope says the use of a condom in a particular case MIGHT be “a first step in the direction of . . . a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed. . . .”

Obviously this first POSSIBLE step in the direction of “moralization” cannot make an act of prostitution or homosexuality or contraception good. But it does indicate that the moral conscience might still be alive and might eventually bring one to conversion and new life.

A careful reading of the text could not possibly lead one to conclude that the pope has approved condom use. He says quite explicitly: “It is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection.” Indeed, it can aggravate it.

Researcher’s findings

Professor Edward C. Green of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at Harvard University would seem to agree with the pope. He wrote in a recent book, “Affirming Love, Avoiding AIDS: What Africa Can Teach the West” (Matthew Hanley and Jokin de Irala, The National Catholic Bioethics Center, 2010):

“In fact, [condom use] might actually contribute to higher levels of infection because of the phenomenon of risk compensation, whereby people take greater sexual risks because they feel safer than they really ought to because they are using condoms at least some of the time.”

The interview with Pope Benedict indicates no change in church teaching but is a renewed call for chastity and abstinence as the most effective means of fighting the spread of AIDS.

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Category: Columns, Featured

  • Laura Kuntz

    I am not surprised that this article, chosen for publishing by the Archbishop, emphasizes that the pope's comments mean nothing has changed in Catholic doctrine. But, there is little focus on what the pope's comments might mean, why they might be important, what might be behind his comments. Essentially, while this article makes some good points, it minimizes and almost dismisses the pope's comments. Perhaps the pope meant for his comments on condoms to mean very little. But, I suspect that that is not the case. Given the pope's experience and intelligence, and the sensitivity of this topic, I suspect that he chose his words very carefully, and expected them to create discussion. I honor the pope for being willing to enter into and lead/create discussion. This is very different than the stance of "no, no, there is no change."