Nowhere has the public health impact of Humanae Vitae been felt more acutely than in efforts to combat HIV&AIDS. Despite scientific evidence that condoms are critical in HIV&AIDS-prevention, the Vatican has refused to relax the ban on contraceptives and has spread disinformation about the effectiveness of condoms, which undercuts efforts to promote condom use.
Despite scientific evidence that condoms are critical in HIV/AIDS-prevention, the Vatican has refused to relax the ban on contraceptives and has spread disinformation about the effectiveness of condoms.
The Catholic hierarchy teaches that abstinence is the only way to avoid AIDS and aggressively promotes this position. When Pope John Paul II visited Tanzania in 1990 at the height of the AIDS epidemic, he told Catholics that using condoms was a sin.[i] In 2003, Cardinal Alfonse Lopez Trujillo, head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on the Family, caused consternation from public health officials around the world when he stated on BBC television that condoms were ineffective in preventing AIDS because the HIV virus could “easily pass” through them.[ii] In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI told African bishops: “The traditional teaching of the church has proven to be the only failsafe way to prevent the spread of HIV&AIDS.”[iii]
Nevertheless, for decades, some cardinals and bishops have conceded that using condoms to prevent the transmission of HIV, particularly within marriage and the context of responsible sexuality, is a better option than spreading a deadly virus. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops was one of the first to say in 1987 that sexuality education programs “could include accurate information about prophylactic devices … as potential means of preventing AIDS.” Two years later, however, the bishops changed this position and said that condoms were both “technically unreliable” and “morally unacceptable.”[iv]
In January of 1989, Bishop Jacques Gaillot of Évreux became the first to openly advocate condom use to prevent AIDS when he said that failing to tell people at risk of contracting AIDS to use condoms was a violation of the biblical commandment “thou shalt not kill.” In 1993, the German bishops’ conference called on the Vatican to “respect responsible decision making by couples,” particularly when AIDS was involved.[v] In 2000, Monsignor Jacques Suaudeau of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family summarized the thinking of many in the Catholic hierarchy when he wrote in L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, that “the use of prophylactics” in some circumstances is “a lesser evil but it cannot be proposed as a model of humanization and development.”[vi]
South African Bishop Kevin Dowling suggested in 2001 that when people who were HIV-positive could not follow church teaching “for whatever reason,” they should be “challenged to take responsibility for their actions and their effect on others.” He stated, “They should use a condom in order to prevent the transmission of potential death to another.” Despite his efforts to get the bishops’ conference in South Africa to officially endorse condom use, at least for HIV discordant couples, the South African bishops called condoms, “an immoral and misguided weapon in our battle against HIV&AIDS.”[vii]
In 2010, Pope Benedict wrote that while condoms were not “a real or moral solution,” they could be “a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.” The Vatican subsequently clarified that Benedict was not changing church teaching but did believe that for people who were infected with HIV, such as prostitutes, using condoms could be “the first step in taking into consideration the risk to the life of the person with whom they were having relations.”[viii]
Despite this somewhat changed rhetoric, Catholic bishops continue to lobby that such programs as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) contain “conscience clauses” that exempt faith-based providers from having to provide condoms or counsel about their use. For instance, Catholic Relief Services received a $1.5 million contract from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria for a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STIs) testing, treating and counseling program, which did not mention condoms as a way to prevent STIs or AIDS. Participants instead received counseling from a group called Youth for Christ that focused on abstinence and fidelity to prevent STIs.[ix]
The ban on condoms is especially damaging because the Catholic church is an especially prominent provider of HIV&AIDS care in Africa. Approximately 25 percent of HIV&AIDS care throughout the world is provided by Catholic-affiliated organizations.[x] And under President Donald Trump, it is expected that faith-based organizations will get an even greater share of US global health funding for abstinence-only HIV-prevention programs. Catholic-affiliated facilities do not distribute condoms or provide counseling about the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS, even to patients who are HIV-positive and at risk of infecting a partner. In 2017, the Kenyan bishops announced an anticontraceptive initiative that would oppose the free distribution of condoms, which the bishops falsely claim cannot halt the spread of AIDS.[xi]
Any hopes that Pope Francis would lift the ban on condoms for humanitarian reasons were dashed when he visited Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic in 2015. Pope Francis deflected a question about approving condoms with a favored tactic of the African bishops— claiming that the real problem was not the spread of HIV but rather the number of people who “die because they do not have water, food or housing.”[xii] That same year, 45 African bishops denounced “the billions of dollars allotted to the production and distribution of condoms and contraceptives and the establishment of sex-education programs” as a violation of “moral norms.”[xiii]
While the hierarchy remains unwilling to unequivocally support condoms for HIV&AIDS prevention even in the most dire environments, Catholics the world over do support the common-sense provision of condoms and condom counseling. A survey of Catholics in Kenya, Ireland, Mexico, the Philippines and the United States found that more than six in 10 Catholics say Catholic hospitals that receive government funding should be required to provide condoms to prevent AIDS and HIV.[xiv] More than 70 percent of Catholics in the United States say the church should change its position on condoms.[xv]
[i] Jonathan Clayton, “John Paul’s 1990 speech ‘sentenced millions to die,” The Times, March 18 2009. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/john-pauls-1990-speech-sentenced-millions-to-die-m5pkf6z663r
[ii] Steve Bradshaw, “Vatican: Condoms Don’t Stop AIDS,” The Guardian, October 9, 2003.
[iii] BBC, “Pope Rejects Condoms for Africa,” BBC, June 10, 2005.
[iv] “The Catholic Bishops and Condoms,” Catholics for Choice, http://www.catholicsforchoice.org/issues_publications/the-catholic-bishops-and-condoms-statements-and-actions-supporting-condom-use-as-part-of-an-hiv-prevention-strategy/.
[viii] Rachel Donadio and Laurie Goodstein, “After Condom Remarks, Vatican Confirms Shift,” New York Times, November 23, 2010.
[ix] Report on the Involvement of Faith-Based Organizations in the Global Fund. Geneva: Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, 2008.
[x] R.J. Vitillo. “Faith-based Responses to the Global HIV Pandemic.” Journal of Medical Perspectives 7(77): 1–9, 2009. https://www.caritas.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/FaithBasedResponsestoHIV.pdf
[xi] Mactilda Mbenywe, “Church to Establish Anti-Contraceptive Movement,” The Standard, (Kenya) December 27, 2017, https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2001264213/church-to-establish-anti-contraceptive-movement.
[xii] “Pope Francis Indicates Little Concern over Condom Use in Fight Against AIDS,” The Guardian, November 30, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/30/pope-francis-condoms-aids-hiv-africa.
[xiii] Mark Judge, “African Bishops Denounce ‘Colonial Spirit’ of Contraception, Abortion Agenda,” CNS News, September15, 2015.
[xiv] “Catholic Attitudes on Condoms in the Prevention of HIV and AIDS,” Washington, DC: Belden Russonello & Stewart, November 2007.
[xv] “2018 Survey of Catholics in the United States,” Belden and Russonello, March 2018, conducted February 13-18, 2018.