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Catholics, Conscience and Condoms: A Catholic Response to Alleviating the AIDS Pandemic

By Anthony T Padovano

Autumn 2001

This article originally appeared as a presentation for the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on HIV/AIDS, 25 – 27 June 2001.

Catholics overwhelmingly support the use of condoms to prevent AIDS infection. Depending on the specific study, the percentages reach virtual unanimity. Yet Catholic official teaching remains divided. There are three questions at the heart of this issue.

How do we promote mature sexuality?

All religious communities endorse mature sexuality. It is at the core of the Global Ethic promulgated by the Parliament of World Religions. Sexual development and maturity are the means by which life is transmitted and nurtured. Indeed self-respect and human rights are intimately connected with the way sexuality is defined, expressed and made responsible. Religious leaders around the world agree that sexual maturity cannot be achieved only by making sex safe, by preventing disease, by improving the technology of contraception. Maturity requires attitudes of respect, responsibility and rights, which transcend the concrete conditions of sexual behavior. Indeed, it might be argued that unless these prior attitudes are in place, even safe sex may be an assault on the dignity of others.

Catholic church leaders tend to support the distribution of prophylactics when there is an educational program that underlines church teaching on responsible sexuality. Thus, Monsignor Jacques Suaudeau of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family writes inL’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, that “the use of prophylactics” in some circumstances, “is actually a lesser evil but it cannot be proposed as a model of humanization and development” (April 19, 2000).

The French Bishops Council declared in 1996 that the use of condoms “can be understood in the case of people for whom sexual activity is an ingrained part of their life style and for whom [that activity] represents a serious risk; but it has to be firmly added that such a method does not promote mature sexuality.” The German Bishops Conference issued a document in 1993 which affirmed that “human conscience constitutes the decisive authority in personal ethics.” They add that “consideration must be given to the high number of abortions among single mothers and the spread of suffering even if the underlying behavior cannot be condoned in many cases.”

Ranking church leaders, in individual statements, support the use of contraceptives in the context of responsible sexuality and prevention of AIDS. The Cardinal Archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger, declared in 1989 that love and chastity were essential values in sexual maturity but that if a person is “HIV positive” and “cannot live in chastity” that such a person “should use the means that have been proposed” to prevent infection of others.

Bishop Eugenio Rixen of Goias, Brazil, adds that the principle of the lesser of two evils makes the “use of condoms less serious, morally speaking, than getting infected or infecting other people with the AIDS virus” (June, 2000).

Most people would be astonished to hear that ninety percent of the theologians on the papal birth control commission, at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, maintained that artificial birth control is not intrinsically evil and that official teaching against contraception could be changed.

How do we save lives?

The Catholic tradition is more resilient than many realize when issues of human life and dignity are compelling. For most of its history, the Church condemned cremation severely as a violation of the dignity of the human body and an attack on the central Catholic doctrine of the resurrection of the body. It felt so strongly on this issue that a Catholic funeral service was forbidden to all who would choose cremation. Even in those centuries, however, cremation was not only allowed but also considered a moral duty in times of Plague when infection and the lives of others were at issue.

Catholic doctrine forbidding usury or the taking of interest on money continued through its history. Usury is condemned in the Bible and it was affirmed by centuries of Catholic teaching. Yet, when it was clear that the new economic order of the modern period depended on usury for the financial health of the human family, the imputation of interest on money loaned was not only deemed permissible for the world at large but became the norm for the Vatican banking system itself.

Catholic teaching on a just war theory prevailed without significant challenge from the time of Augustine in the fifth century until the twentieth century. Just war theory maintains that there are legitimate and even moral reasons for engaging in war provided that war is a last resort, that proportionate and not excessive means are used and that non-combatants are protected. The advent of nuclear weapons has changed Catholic thinking in this area. Nuclear war is seen as unjust because proportionality and the indiscriminate killing of innocent people, even of the planet, have changed the moral equation. The protection of life, perhaps of all life, has led Catholic leaders to conclude that the very possession of nuclear weapons is morally questionable. The United States Catholic Bishops wrote in their 1983 pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace,” that there must be a “completely fresh appraisal of war” and that it was irresponsible “simply to repeat what we have said before.” Nuclear war was deemed immoral; the possession of nuclear weapons was considered tentatively moral only as an interim measure to minimize the threat of a nuclear holocaust and as a step “on the way toward progressive disarmament.”

The consistent thinking of the Catholic church has affirmed the lesser of two evils. This approach reasons that the ambiguity of choices sometimes makes it necessary to prefer one evil in order to prevent a greater evil. Thus, a pregnant woman may choose the removal of a cancerous uterus even if it entails the death of the fetus because the intention is the preservation of her life. It accepts the “evil” of the termination of prenatal life as a lesser evil, not intended directly.

A terminally ill patient may choose to forego all surgery and life support systems and permit death long before its biological inevitability as the lesser of evils. The “evil” of choosing one’s own death is seen as the lesser of evils when the alternative is prolonged, painful, and pointless continuation of life, achieved only through extraordinary methods.

The AIDS crisis claims more human lives than Plague or nuclear weapons took in their history. The crisis has the potential to destabilize world financial systems, with consequent malnourishment and the death of millions not infected with AIDS. The economic crisis is as severe as the usury crisis of former centuries. Yet contraception is not condemned in the Bible; usury was explicitly forbidden there. If a biblical prohibition can be set aside when conditions change substantially, a non-biblical prohibition can even more readily be reversed when the consequences of human lives and the lesser evil are weighed in the balance.

The Catholic church cannot and will not promote a “culture of death” if the lives of tens of millions of people can be saved through the moral choices open to the Catholic tradition. We have reached a point with contraception and AIDS where the intent is no longer the prevention of pregnancy but the prevention of death. Contraception in the context we are considering is not aimed at controlling population but at avoiding a holocaust.

How do we live in a world that is less than ideal?

The Catholic church is convinced that an action that is intrinsically evil, corrupt to its very roots, cannot be utilized as a moral means even in a lesser of two evils approach. Thus, one may not kill innocent civilians to win a war even over an evil system such as Nazism. One may not control population growth with infanticide or forced abortion. One may not order the rape of women in order to demoralize the enemy and hasten the end of a war. Contraception, therefore, can only be universally prohibited if it is deemed intrinsically evil.

The encyclical letter of Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (1968), prohibited all means of artificial contraception. The pope, however, made it clear that this teaching was not infallible. He could not have done this unless there was doubt about the intrinsic evil of contraception. Indeed, the papal commission on birth control could not have been summoned, previous to the encyclical, unless there was doubt about the intrinsic evil of contraception.

The vast majority of Catholics and of priests see no intrinsic evil in contraception. Indeed, immediately after the publication ofHumanae Vitae, the official Catholic pastoral letters of national bishops conferences in Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States made it clear that these were instances when the conscience of a Catholic prevails against the papal prohibition. It was argued that a responsible use of sexuality might require that a couple, even though respecting the pope’s teaching, might conclude that the need to limit births and the need to preserve the sexual life of a marriage might prompt a couple, in conscience to choose contraception as the lesser of the evils.

Catholic theologians went further and considered instances where contraception was not the lesser of two evils but a value in its own right, provided that it fostered sexual maturity and responsibility.

The instances and examples we have cited happened long before there was an AIDS crisis, even before AIDS existed. In the light of the magnitude of death before us, in the context of entire nations of orphan children and indeed of cultures whose young people are substantially absent, a new approach is imperative. Catholicism can find in its resources and in its commitment to life the resiliency to allow and recommend condom use to prevent a sexual plague more catastrophic than the bubonic death which almost destroyed European civilization.

The world does not always allow us to live in it in an ideal environment and according to our preferred wishes. It does demand of us, however, that we do live in the world and that we do so responsibly and generously. To stop AIDS is a life decision, a responsible choice, a generous action. When all efforts to promote mature sexuality are in place, we must also factor in the reality that all people are not mature. The realism of the Catholic tradition knows this and provides for this in other instances. Condoms to prevent AIDS can be a step on the way of teaching sexual maturity and responsibility. In the light of this, there is sufficient evidence that Catholics at large and leaders in increasing numbers affirm life over death and the protection of the innocent from the plague of AIDS.

Anthony T. Padovano is a Catholic theologian and a member of Catholic Voices, an international forum on population and development.