Catholics and Condoms
At first glance, they look like many of the safe-sex ads that appear on bus shelters and billboards around San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood — two men, bare-chested, pose intimately with each other. But read the message under the image and you might be surprised:
“We believe in God.
We believe that sex is sacred.
We believe in caring for each other.
We believe in using condoms.”
Perhaps even more surprising is the organization responsible for developing and placing these ads. It’s Catholics for a Free Choice, a group composed mainly of Catholics who believe in a woman’s right to choose, sexual dignity for all and — in opposition to the church’s official stance — condom use as one way to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Gay.com talked to Catholics for a Free Choice’s president and CEO, Frances Kissling, a 63-year-old firebrand and a constant thorn in the side of church leaders, about her organization, the condoms4life campaign and her reasons for remaining in the church.
What’s your background?
I’m Catholic; I was raised in a working-class Catholic family in New York; I went to Catholic schools. I entered the convent for a very brief time when I was 19 and left after 19 months. I’m 63 now. I go to church, and I receive the sacraments. But I consider myself a thoughtful, thinking Catholic who holds a different ethic.
Why remain in the church?
There’s much about Catholic culture, tradition and values that I do agree with, and I feel at an emotional level that this is the community I belong to. In my work here at Catholics for a Free Choice I have recognized the enormous importance of people like me sticking with the church and claiming a Catholic identity that is more compassionate, generous, modern and tolerant. Plus I’m really just stubborn — I don’t want to turn this church over to idiots.
Can you talk about your organization, Catholics for a Free Choice?
Catholics for a Free Choice was started in 1973 essentially as an abortion-rights organization. But as time passed we started to get involved in other issues, because we began to understand this was a question about authority within the church, and more importantly a question about sexuality. Over time, we’ve developed positions on a whole range of issues, including those related to gay rights, gay sexuality, gay marriage and so on.
Tell us about your Condoms4Life campaign.
We started the campaign about four years ago as a reaction to the Catholic Church’s increasingly vocal objections to the use of condoms to prevent AIDS. We felt that it was important to say that by refusing to accept condoms, our church was contributing to the death of thousands of people.
We also felt that there was an enormously anti-sex message imbedded in [the church’s stance], and that we think everybody deserves the possibility of a sexual life. The question we need to be asking ourselves is: How can people who are at risk of HIV/AIDS have a healthy sexual life? Those were the motivations that moved us to design the campaign. We felt the campaign should be very public, modern, honest and provocative in the way it approached these issues.
The advertising has had two stages: The first stage was a frontal assault on the bishops themselves, in which we really went after them, in which we said, “Because you banned condoms, people die. It’s time for you to change this position.” The posters and billboards appeared around the world — in South Africa, in Kenya, in Mexico, Chile, Brussels, Canada, in the Philippines and in the U.S.
They were very effective, and they made the church very, very angry, and it had to respond, which really alerted people to what the church was up to in its anti-condom work.
What do you say about the misinformation that the church is spreading about condom use? That latex condoms aren’t reliable because sperm is small enough to pass through microscopic holes in the latex?
Well, of course, that’s utter nonsense, and they’ve been told this is utter nonsense — they’ve been told by [the World Health Organization] that it’s nonsense, and they’ve been told by the U.N. that it’s nonsense, and they still continue to spread this lie.
I can understand when they say, for example, “We are opposed to the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS on moral grounds. I could say that at least they’re telling the truth. They have a moral objection, and then people can decide whether they share that moral view, but to say, “We are opposed to condoms because they contribute to the spread of AIDS” is a lie, and I think that when religious leaders lie, we have to call them liars.
You don’t believe this is just ignorance?
No, they know what they’re saying. They know. They have been told and they choose to spread this nonsense.
Have you met with church leaders about the controversy about condom use?
They won’t meet with us. They don’t meet with anybody. Everything we do we send to the Catholic bishops, both here in the U.S. and internationally. We get a couple of responses from time to time, and some of them are positive, but very quiet.
Tell us about your latest campaign.
About a year and a half ago, we decided we wanted to have a different impact — we didn’t want to be out there just criticizing the church, we wanted to give a positive message about responsibility to sexually active Catholics and Catholics who were thinking about being sexually active. We liked having both gay and straight couples, and using attractive young people, and sending a message that we think is very thoughtful and aspirational. We’ve run them, in particular, near college campuses, gay bars and clubs — places where young people go.
We’ve made broad use of the poster of the gay couple, and we’ve just been inundated with people who tell us they just love it — just ordinary people going on to the Web site, gay groups, just everybody. People tell us it just meant a lot to see such a positive picture of a gay couple along with the message.
What’s your organization’s position on gay sexuality and gay rights?
We have a general stance on sexuality, and that is the way in which people should evaluate the ethics of their sexual relationships and their sexual behavior is by using the standard of justice, meaning you look at whether the relationship is one in which the people involved have the best interest of the other at heart, are committed to goodness for each other, are respectful of each other, and one in which equality is a major factor of the relationship, and in which there is a sense or ethic of responsibility.
Gay sex and straight sex, premarital sex — all of this can fall under the rubric of justice, and that’s the way we should look at sex. There are lifelong heterosexual monogamous marriages in which justice is not present.
How does justice fit into the greater teaching of the Catholic Church?
Well, I think it is totally consistent with the general teaching of the church, I mean those of us who look at the church look at it as a justice-seeking organization, many of us look at Jesus Christ’s message as one of social justice and equality, and one in which we are a church of broad principles, not a church of nitpicky rules.
What is the future of the church as far as its views on sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular?
Sometimes it seems as though it’s going backward. In the 1950s, there was a small re-examination of sexuality, at least for married couples, in which the church suddenly included as one of the goods of sexuality the fact that it brought couples closer together and gave them pleasure in addition to being procreative. Unfortunately, that strain of thinking has not been developed. What we’ve seen is a decline in any kind of tolerance or decency within the church on the question of people’s sexual lives in the papacy of John Paul II, the absolute opposition to contraception, the enormous orthodoxy on abortion and the real homophobia of Ratzinger [now Benedict XVI]/John Paul II, real homophobia.
So what are gay Catholics to do?
Live your lives! That’s what we all are to do, what we have to be more and more willing to do. I think we as ordinary Catholic people who have not taken vows of celibacy need to have the courage to speak out and put forward models of ethics in sexual behavior that are going to be well-received by the Catholic community, and we need to be as visible as we can in our sexual lives. There’s nothing more that we can do.
This article appears courtesy of PlanetOut and Gay.com.