In the News 2009

Could Choosing Condoms Mean Choosing Life?


Not every Catholic leader in Africa– or elsewhere — agrees with Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on condoms on Tuesday.

Benedict, on his flight to Cameroon, told media on the papal plane the long-standing official Vatican view on the HIV/AIDS epidemic ravaging many parts of Africa:

You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem.

Catholics for Choice (clearly not a group that toes the Vatican line on reproductive rights) keeps a compendium of comments by major church leaders that put a different spin on this. They make the case that in some instances — particularly for a married couple with one partner uninfected — using a condom is a form of self-defense.

Their list starts with several African bishops but it is Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, retired Archbishop of Milan and once named on many short lists to succeed John Paul II, who caused a stir at the Vatican in 2006 when he told the Italian magazine L’espresso:

Certainly the use of prophylactics can, in some situations, constitute a lesser evil. There is the particular situation of spouses, one of whom is affected by AIDS. It is the obligation of this spouse to protect the other partner and they must be able to protect themselves.

Note, however, that Catholics for Choice doesn’t pick up the part of the interview included in the coverage by the Catholic News Service, where Martini “questioned whether religious leaders should promote anti-AIDS condom campaigns, because he said they risk promoting sexual irresponsibility.”

Even so, Martini’s remarks may have prompted a special study on condom use and pastoral views by the Pontifical Council for Health. The council report went to the Committee for the Doctrine of the Faith (once headed by Cardinal Ratzinger before he became pope).

Many expected some kind of official new or restated view on condoms to be part of the January papal statement on bioethics, according to Vatican-watcher John Allen. But there was no mention.

Benedict’s week in Africa does not include stopping in South Africa. But one of his bishops there, Kevin Dowling of Rustenburg, South Africa, would have some ideas for him. Dowling told U.S. News & World Report last year that after 16 years of observing AIDS ravage families, he would tell the pope:

… I believe in the ideals of abstaining from sex before marriage and remaining faithful to your partner within a stable marriage relationship. My problem is that in the desperate situations where I work, the promotion of these ideals does not meet the need. We, instead, need a more realistic approach, to be consistently pro-life from conception to death.

… I believe Jesus’s injunction to the Pharisees applies to me. He said that they are the ones who put impossible burdens on the shoulders of their people but will they lift a finger to help them carry them? Not they. I want to be the one who lifts a finger.

The Catholic Church always counsels people to choose life. Its teaching on human sexuality is that a married couple should be joyfully open to the prospect of children. But, if one partner is infected with HIV/AIDS, can choosing a condom be a form of choosing life?

This article original appeared in USA Today.

Catholics for Choice