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The Religion Report: Sex and the Holy City


In the wake of a Vatican official’s recent claim that condoms do not protect against HIV transmission, we talk with Frances Kissling – President of Catholics for a Free Choice – and Sydney auxiliary bishop Anthony Fisher, about the implications of Vatican policy for health care in developing Catholic nations.

Program Transcript

Stephen Crittenden: Welcome to the program. I hope you managed to see the devastating BBC Panorama documentary Sex and the Holy City, which screened on Foreign Correspondent last night on ABC television.


Reporter: Imagine a land in which ideal love is a reality, and ideal sex. Simultaneous climax between a loving couple. And in this land, all couples are married. No barriers to perfect self-giving, no barriers to childbirth, no condoms, IUDs or pills. Abortion’s illegal, too. This land does not exist, but these ideals do, in the work and thought of Karol Wojtyla, now Pope John Paul II. This if a film about what happens when those ideals clash with reality.

It is the story of two schoolgirls in Latin America, raped by their father and given no choice but to have his children. It is the story of Catholic nuns in Africa, telling people with AIDS not to use condoms because they have holes in them. And in Asia, it’s the story of a mother of nine who daren’t use contraception; the Catholic Church says it’s wrong. All lives affected by the beliefs of John Paul II – who this week in the Holy City of Rome celebrates twenty five years as leader of the world’s billion Catholics.

Stephen Crittenden: The opening lines of last night’s Panorama documentary “Sex and the Holy City”, which focused on how the Vatican’s rulings on contraception, abortion and condoms are affecting real lives all around the developing world – perhaps especially in Africa, where there is now such an AIDS emergency, and where the Catholic Church controls perhaps a third of the limited health care infrastructure.

According to United Nations statistics from 2001 – that are already well out of date – the number of people worldwide who’ve died of AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic is around twenty two million. You can add around three million deaths a year since then, so by now the figure is probably closer to twenty eight million; eleven million have been women.

To make a comparison, in the 1340s in Europe, it’s estimated that around twenty million people died at the height of the Black Death. Here are some more statistics: it’s been estimated that around 50% of women infected with HIV in Africa contracted the virus from their husband or only boyfriend. In some parts of Southern Africa, including Botswana and Swaziland, 30% of pregnant women are HIV-positive, and around two million women are newly affected each year.

When the BBC first screened “Sex and the Holy City” a few weeks ago, it made international headlines. In fact the World Health Organisation hit the roof because of these comments by the head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, Cardinal Trujillo, who told Panorama that it’s the Vatican’s policy that the HIV virus is 450 times smaller than sperm, so it can easily pass through the latex of a condom.

Reporter: Is it the position of the Vatican that the virus, the HIV virus, can pass through the condom?

Cardinal Trujillo: Yes, yes, because this is something that the scientific community accepts, and doctors know what we are saying. You cannot talk about safe sex. One should speak of the human value, about the family, and about fidelity.

Reporter: But I have spoken to the World Health Organisation, and they say it is simply not true that the HIV virus can pass through latex, from which condoms are made.

Cardinal Trujillo: Well, they are wrong about that. No dialogue is possible at that level, scientifically speaking, because this is an easily recognisable fact.

Stephen Crittenden: Those comments made international headlines, as I say, with charges that the Vatican is peddling lies and superstition about science in order to shore up its sexual ideology. The World Health Organisation says Cardinal Trujillo’s statement is simply wrong.

To discuss the fallout from “Sex and the Holy City”, we’ll be joined later by Sydney Auxiliary Bishop Anthony Fisher who until recently was Professor of Bioethics and Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute of Marriage and the Family in Melbourne.

But first, joining us from New York, a real firebrand: Frances Kissling is the President of a lay Catholic organisation Catholics for a Free Choice. They lobby for reform of Catholic teaching in the area of sexual and reproductive ethics, and in recent years they’ve been running a powerful international campaign to encourage the Catholic bishops of the world to overturn the church’s ban on condoms in the face of the AIDS emergency. Frances Kissling joins us from New York. Frances, can we begin with the Cardinal Trujillo comments, and the way the World Health Organisation came out so swiftly and so decisively; is that kind of reaction really something new?

Frances Kissling: Yes, I think that everyone was very shocked by the baldness of the Vatican claim, and in the mind of WHO it really had to be countered. Generally speaking, international agencies like the UN are very cautious in responding to the Vatican. They adopt an attitude of respect towards the Vatican, and have traditionally let things the Vatican has said about AIDS slide. But this was just so outrageous that they couldn’t let it pass.

Stephen Crittenden: Frances, how dangerous is it, really, on the ground in places like Africa, though? I’ve often heard it argued that Catholic health workers in the front line ignore the Vatican rulings on contraception and so on, just like people in the First World do.

Frances Kissling: Well, it is difficult to measure it in quantitative terms, and it is certainly true that many Catholic workers in the developing world do ignore the Vatican’s directives in this arena. But not all of them do, and they don’t do it consistently. So the problem is that in order for condom education and condom use to be effective, it has to be consistent, and it has to be always. And so when it’s not a formal part of an educational program, and when condoms themselves are not made available in these programs, that’s when you really begin to see the potential for it being dangerous. Also, we do have to realise that the Vatican claims that it is the primary caregiver for over 25% of the world’s people who have HIV/AIDS. That’s over ten million people, and just simply in gross number terms, if those people are not consistently getting advice about condoms, and consistently getting condom supplies, then naturally some of them are going to pass HIV/AIDS on, which they did not need to do.

Stephen Crittenden: That’s interesting. I mean, even if one is of the view that the church is doing enormous harm because of its position on condoms and abortion, isn’t it also true in a continent like Africa, where there’s next to no health infrastructure, that that negative impact is far outweighed by the good the Church does in health terms?

Frances Kissling: I don’t think that you can actually make that kind of comparison when you are talking about saving lives. When we are talking about the fact that the transmission of this disease is still a death sentence, and particularly in developing countries, where medicines are not as available as they are for people in the north when they get this disease. It really is, it’s quite tragic. The other thing that I think is very important to understand is that as treatment becomes better, which certainly is one of the things that is happening, and as more and more people who are infected with HIV/AIDS virus live longer, the problem of transmission becomes much more serious, because people are around for a much longer time to transmit the disease.

Stephen Crittenden: This year in Malawi, where tension and violence often exist between Christians and Muslims, we saw Christian and Muslim leaders teaming up to try and convince the government to close down its HIV and condom awareness campaigns, but your organisation has been drawing attention to the way that over many years conservative Islamic governments from places like Libya and Yemen and Iran, the Vatican has been lobbying with them at major conferences, like the Women’s Conference in Beijing, and the Population Conference in Cairo. I think they’re things that even most Catholics are unaware of. So can you tell us about that?

Frances Kissling: Yes, I think it’s really been quite shocking, and when Catholics learn about the links between the Vatican and often some of the most repressive countries where Islam is a majority religion, Catholics are quite shocked these are the allies that the Vatican has chosen. In part, it’s been due to the fact that interestingly enough the Catholic Latin American countries have increasingly declared their independence from the Vatican, and adopted national policies in favour of condom availability – and also in favour of reproductive health measures such as contraception, and even in some cases some access to safe and legal abortions. And the Vatican has just found the only place that it can find allies on these issues is in conservative – often, as I say, repressive – Islamic states, and has made very serious outreach to those governments. There are numerous conferences constantly being held at the Vatican, in which representatives of these governments and of conservative Islamic groups are invited to sit down at the table with the Vatican and to draw up joint strategies. And many Catholics, when they hear about this, they are quite ashamed of who our church chooses to consider its best friends.

Stephen Crittenden: Doesn’t the Vatican have every right to lobby at the UN, and to lobby in the various institutions of the European Union and so on, though?

Frances Kissling: Yes, I think we constantly as Catholics for a Free Choice tried to make it clear that we have no opposition to the Vatican presenting its views in any public policy arena. What we object to is, first of all, when the Vatican gets and seeks special privileges in those bodies that are accorded to no other religion, and when it is treated in those bodies as if it were a state rather than a religion –

Stephen Crittenden: Well you’ve campaigned, haven’t you, that the Vatican should lose its special status at the UN?

Frances Kissling: Yes, that’s right, because we believe that it would be more appropriate, and that the playing field would be more level, if it were treated like other religious bodies – which also make their voice known, but do so as non-governmental organisations.

Stephen Crittenden: What about those other religious groups that are present there in New York when the UN’s meeting and so on, what’s their view? I’m sure there’s a variety of views, but how are they reacting to this kind of hardline Vatican approach, particularly on HIV and condoms in Africa, or abortion in South America, and so on?

Frances Kissling: Well in relation to the Vatican, misinformation about condoms – that is, that condoms are permeable, and that the virus can go through them – in private there has been quite an outrage on the part of religious institutions which do not share those views. The largest religious group working on this question is called Christian Aid and is located in the UK and they have come out adamantly against the Vatican statement, as has WHO and UNFPA and other agencies. But there is a reluctance on the part of religions to criticise each other. Religious institutions are indeed part of a club, and while there certainly may be some resentment of the special status that the Vatican has had, other religious groups have been largely silent.

Stephen Crittenden: Nonetheless, I wonder whether this is precisely the area where an organisation like yours needs to be lobbying now?

Frances Kissling: That’s definitely what we believe. We think that when it comes right down to it, this question of the importance of prevention of the transmission of the AIDS virus, and making people aware of the Vatican’s position in this arena, and encouraging people of faith, particularly Catholics, to use condoms, is key. And we have had for several years an international campaign with advertising to make that well-known, and we are now extending that.

Stephen Crittenden: This is the global campaign to end the bishops’ ban on condoms. I’ve seen some of that material; it’s very bright and arresting. “Catholic people care, do our bishops care?” “Because the bishops ban condoms, innocent people die”. How successful has that campaign been? I guess it’s about two years old now?

Frances Kissling: It’s about two years old, and we have had billboards and advertisements in Uganda, in Kenya, South Africa, in Chile, the Philippines, Mexico – and of course in the United States and Canada and Europe. And the ads have engendered a lot of media interest. It’s resulted in a lot of TV appearances for us, and radio appearances, in which we’ve spread this message. We took the campaign to the Barcelona International AIDS conference last year, and our booth was swamped with people from Catholic agencies asking us for copies of the posters that the ads were on, and postcards and letting us know how hard their own job was. We’re now extending that campaign, particularly with a new series of advertisements that speak directly to Catholics and say “good Catholics use condoms. Good Catholics are responsible to combat this message from the Vatican”.

Stephen Crittenden: Frances, do you think the theology already exists that would enable to the church hierarchy to move on?

Frances Kissling: The theology is definitely there, on all of the subjects related to human sexuality and reproductive health. There is enough of a historic and theological background to permit a much more progressive position, and certainly on condoms and AIDS, any number of church theologians have really put forward theories of proportionality – and of course the theory of the lesser evil, that it is definitely a lesser evil to prevent the transmission of a deadly disease by advising the use of condoms, than it is to permit the transmission of that disease by banning them.

Stephen Crittenden: Good to talk to you. Thank you very much for your time.

Frances Kissling: Thank you very much.

Stephen Crittenden: Frances Kissling from Catholics for a Free Choice, and she was speaking to us from New York.

Perhaps the Pope’s most powerful opponent for many years was Nafiz Sadik, former Head of the United Nations Population Fund. She had a face-to-face meeting with the Pope in 1994, to discuss women’s rights and church teaching.

Nafiz Sadik: I was telling him that the Church could do more to educate men, because I said the Church could really play a very positive role – because many women became pregnant not because they wanted to, but because their spouses imposed themselves on them. He said “but don’t you think that the irresponsible behaviour of men is caused by women?”

Reporter: “Don’t you think the irresponsible behaviour of men is caused by women?”

Nafiz Sadik: By women, yes.

Reporter: Those were his words?

Nafiz Sadik: Those were his words, yes.

Reporter: You came out of this one-to-one meeting with the Pope believing that the Pope’s understanding of the plight of women in poor countries was what?

Nafiz Sadik: Was very inadequate. I mean, he really didn’t understand the situation of girls and women, in spite of the fact that he has travelled to so many countries.

Stephen Crittenden: Nafiz Sadik, the special adviser to Kofi Annan, and former Head of the United Nations Fund for Population Affairs speaking on the Panoramadocumentary screened on ABC television last night.

Now let’s turn to one of Australia’s newest Catholic bishops: Anthony Fisher, who was recently made an auxiliary bishop in Sydney. At 43, he’s also the youngest of the Australian bishops. Throughout his career, Bishop Fisher has been very closely associated with Cardinal George Pell, and until recently he was Professor of Bioethics and Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family, which was established in Melbourne back in the days when George Pell was Archbishop of Melbourne.

Well, Bishop Fisher, what was your reaction to those extraordinary comments about condoms by Cardinal Trujillo?

Anthony Fisher: I think that Trujillo and A’nzeki [Raphael Ndingi Mwana A’nzeki, Archbishop of Nairobi] who’s also been quoted in the program were both trying to put the view that chastity is not only the moral course, but also the safest course for preventing sexually transmitted diseases, and that any other program probably creates a false sense of security. If there are scientific inaccuracies in any Catholic preaching or teaching, then we should – and no doubt we will – correct them. But there’s no condom manufacturer, no health organisation, and no medical journal that I’ve seen, that’s willing to claim the kind of foolproofness for condoms that the program –

Stephen Crittenden: Yes, but we’re not talking – are we? – about condoms breaking, or condoms rupturing, or even condoms being 100% effective. But as we know here in Australia, condoms have been a major weapon in the fight against HIV, and they’ve significantly reduced the spread of the disease here – as presumably they would in Africa, if they were more available.

Anthony Fisher: Well, I think the jury’s still out on why condoms fail. It’s been assumed that it’s breakage or spillage, it could be imperfect manufacture in some cases, or poor storage.

Stephen Crittenden: But with respect, Cardinal Trujillo wasn’t talking about condoms failing, was he? I mean, he was deliberately spreading an untruth that the HIV virus is so small that it passes through latex – and he was going further, and saying that this is something the scientific community accepts.

Anthony Fisher: What we got on the program was a tiny snip from his interview, and I’m very confident that he said a lot more about a whole lot of risks associated with condoms. And the bit they picked was, with respect, their porousness, and that is one of the possible reasons for the condom failure rate.

Stephen Crittenden: Are you saying that you agree that the HIV virus passes through latex? That latex doesn’t work as a barrier?

Anthony Fisher: No, I don’t pretend to be a scientist, and to know how big or small the holes in latex are, and big or small the virus is. But what I do know is that the studies point in several directions about several possible causes of the failure rate. And one of the reasons, it’s speculated, is that the virus is so tiny compared to sperm, which was the primary use for which they were –

Stephen Crittenden: The World Health Organisation’s come out in recent days since the Panorama documentary was first screened in Britain, and said that that’s just all completely wrong. You don’t accept that?

Anthony Fisher: Well, as I said, if there’s a scientific inaccuracy in anything that any Catholic official has taught, then we should, and no doubt will, correct it. But it has to be recognised, I think, that the World Health Organisation – or at least some of its officials – have been very ideologically committed to the promotion of condoms.

Stephen Crittenden: That’s because they work.

Anthony Fisher: Just as some would accuse the Catholic Church of being determinedly opposed to them, so it’s quite clear that some officials have that as their single-minded plank in their program against HIV.

Stephen Crittenden: Given the vast reach of Catholic health care in the developing world – all those institutions backed by the Pontifical Council for the Family, and so on – is it possible that there may come a time when the death and devastation from AIDS in Africa is so vast, with millions of orphans and whole populations virtually wiped out, when far from being an ideological victory for the Church, this could turn into a terrible ideological defeat? You know, that in ten years time, the Church could even be accused of a crime against humanity, that the Pope’s reputation could be blackened forever, and that bishops whose careers were built on promoting these ideas, might find themselves hounded out of office in developed countries?

Anthony Fisher: There’s a number of things I’d say about that, Stephen. One is that these problems go right across Africa and Asia, and most of those cultures are not in fact Catholic cultures, or places where Catholic values or ideologies are widespread or very influential in the way that health care is done, or that sexual values are taught. In those places where the Church is most successful, I think those are the places where it’s most successful at getting across its message against promiscuity and in favour of chastity. And in those situations, you’re going to have the lowest rates of HIV/AIDS – and even the World Health Organisation recognises that.

Stephen Crittenden: Frances Kissling just said a moment ago that the Church already has the moral theology that would enable the hierarchy to move on on this issue. She mentions the idea of the lesser of two evils, of proportionality; as I understand it, they’re the kinds of ideas used by Bishop Kevin Dowling in South Africa. Can you explain how those arguments run?

Anthony Fisher: It’s really a kind of Christian version of utilitarianism. That’s the notion that you look at the good and bad effects of an action, and you decide what to do on the basis of what has the best effects and the fewest bad effects.

Stephen Crittenden: In other words, people shouldn’t have sex outside marriage, but if they’re going to ignore that, and they’re going to have sex outside marriage, then they should at least use protection in order to prevent the risk of disease being spread?

Anthony Fisher: Yes. Put in very simple contemporary language, it would be taking a harm minimisation approach.

Stephen Crittenden: What do you think about that?

Anthony Fisher: I think that there are big problems with that, and the biggest one is: it assumes that people are going to behave irresponsibly, and therefore the best we can do is try and minimise the harm they do to themselves or each other. And I think that the Church always has to take a more optimistic view of human nature, and keep encouraging people to be responsible, rather than acquiescing in promiscuity or irresponsibility and then saying “well, given that we’re all going to be behaving like animals, how can we limit the harm that we do to ourselves and each other?”

Stephen Crittenden: It may not have anything to do with behaving like animals. What’s the official position of the Australian bishops on this issue of the lesser of two evils? Because I’ve been told off the record that they were advised by group of leading Australian moral theologians way back in the 1980s, that that was an argument that they could – and, in the face of the AIDS virus, should – actually adopt. But they chose to ignore that advice.

Anthony Fisher: Well, I’m too recently a bishop, Stephen, to know what advice was given to them in the 1980s. But it’s quite clear to me that in the meantime, a lot of that kind of moral theology has been subject to a lot of critique by other theologians, and by the teaching authorities in the Catholic Church, and I think that fewer and fewer theologians would take that approach.

Stephen Crittenden: The lesser of two evils approach.

Anthony Fisher: The lesser of two evils approach. I think it’s very much an approach of the 1970s that is in decline.

Stephen Crittenden: So you’d be fairly confident, would you, that amongst Australian Catholic theologians in universities around the place, the lesser of two evils approach is something that they would regard these days as being out of date?

Anthony Fisher: I think it’s in decline. I think you’ll find older theologians, perhaps, that are perhaps still using that way of talking. It’s similarly in the secular philosophical world, utilitarianism’s on the decline; there’s very few philosophers still promoting it now.

Stephen Crittenden: Finally, could I turn to what for me was the most startling moment in the BBC Panorama documentary, where the former Director of the United Nations Population Fund, Nafiz Sadik, describes a conversation she had with the Pope personally, in which she says he said “don’t you think the irresponsible behaviour of men is caused by women?” Now, that’s exactly the kind of thing the Taliban say; do you really believe the Pope would have said such a thing?

Anthony Fisher: To be honest, Stephen, I was shocked as you were, and I don’t believe that he said such a thing; I think it’s so different to all his writing. Now we’ve got fifty years of his writing about sexuality and marriage and family, and it’s never along those sorts of lines at all. He’s been very strong on respect for women, and respect for their rights, and for consent, and that men and women are equally responsible for their sexual activities. Whether there was some failure of communications –

Stephen Crittenden: Well, the interviewer came back and asked a second time, “is that really what he said?”

Anthony Fisher: Yes, and I recognise that that’s what she thinks she heard. But I just think it’s so out of character that I think she misunderstood him.

Stephen Crittenden: On the other hand, the Vatican has been involved in the last decade or so – Frances Kissling talked about that in an interview a few moments ago, the “shameful” (she called it) way in which the Vatican has been consorting with repressive Islamic regimes to obstruct progress on women’s rights. And I’m not just talking about easier access to abortion, but basic sex education, and even the very idea that women have reproductive rights. I mean, we’re talking about millions of women who have no autonomy, whose lives are literally controlled by men.

Anthony Fisher: I think it’s very clear that if there are situations where women are being abused, then we need to change the situations, not acquiesce in them. And if men are being exploitative, then we don’t appease them in those attitudes, we have to change them. And I think the sorts of programs that often UN officials have pushed – such as condom and abortion promotion – don’t stop young girls being raped, they just give the rapist a sense of security.

Stephen Crittenden: Yes, but in that Cairo conference back in the early 90s, the Vatican was really opposed to even the adoption of the language of reproductive rights, the idea that women have rights.

Anthony Fisher: I think that the Vatican was very aware that very often this language in UN documents is code for abortion on demand. And many of the very groups – such as Frances Kissling’s group – who are active in trying to get that language, say quite openly that that is what is achieved by getting that language into treaty.

Stephen Crittenden: Well, she’s very clearly arguing for abortion on demand, and we saw in the Panorama documentary the instance of that little 8-year-old girl in Nicaragua. Are you saying that in that situation, an 8-year-old child who’s been raped and is pregnant should risk being killed?

Anthony Fisher: What I’m saying, in that situation, is that we’ve got to do everything we can to stop a situation like that happening, and mainstreaming condoms and abortion is not going to stop 8-year-old girls from getting pregnant. Quite the opposite; it’s going to suggest that sexual activity, even early on, is an ordinary part of life. We’ve got to do everything we can to protect girls from that sort of behaviour, and if that means taking them from their families when there’s risk of sexual abuse, well then that’s the kind of intervention. I don’t think handing out condoms or having abortion clinics is going to protect an 8-year-old girl from being raped.

Stephen Crittenden: Sydney auxiliary bishop Anthony Fisher, and let’s hope for the sake of Africa that the church doesn’t take as long to fix that scientific mistake as it did for Galileo.

That’s all this week. Thanks to John Diamond and David Rutledge.

Guests on this program:

Frances Kissling
President, Catholics for a Free Choice

Anthony Fisher OP
Catholic bishop

This article courtesy of Agence France Presse.

Catholics for Choice